Caroline by Kate Dickinson Sweetser

Story type: Literature

Since the time of Cinderella the First there have been many similar instances in real life of the persecution of youth by family injustice and cruelty, and no case more strikingly similar than that of Miss Caroline Brandenburg Gann, whose youthful career was one of monotonous hardship and injustice until the arrival of her fairy prince.

The story is a short one to relate, but to live through the days and months of sixteen unhappy years seemed an eternal process to the young heart beating high with hopes which must constantly be stifled, and give place to bitter disappointment.

But to go back for a moment to the time when Louis XVIII. was restored a second time to the throne of his father, and all the English who had money or leisure rushed over to the Continent. At that time there lived in a certain boarding-house at Brussels a lady who was called Mrs. Crabb; and her daughter, a genteel young widow, who bore the name of Mrs. Wellesley McCarty. Previous to this Mrs. McCarty, who was then Miss Crabb, had run off one day with a young Ensign, who possessed not a shilling, and who speedily died, leaving his widow without property, but with a remarkably fine pair of twins, named Rosalind Clancy and Isabella Finigan Wellesley McCarty.

The young widow being left penniless, her mother, who had disowned the runaway couple, was obliged to become reconciled to her daughter and to share her small income of one hundred and twenty pounds a year with her. Upon this at the boarding-house in Brussels the two managed to live. The twins were put out, after the foreign fashion, to nurse, and a village in the neighbourhood, and the widow and her mother maintained a very good appearance despite their small income; and it was not long before the Widow McCarty married a young Englishman, James Gann, Esq.–of the great oil-house of Gann, Blubbery, and Gann,–who was boarding in the same house with Mrs. Crabb and her daughter. These ladies, who had their full share of common sense, took care to keep the twins in the background until such time as the Widow McCarty had become Mrs. Gann. Then on the day after the wedding, in the presence of many friends who had come to offer their congratulations, a stout nurse, bearing the two chubby little ones, made her appearance; and these rosy urchins, springing forward, shouted affectionately, ” Maman! Maman !” to the great astonishment and bewilderment of James Gann, who well-nigh fainted at this sudden paternity so put upon him. However, being a good-humoured, soft-hearted man, he kissed his lady hurriedly, and vowed that he would take care of the poor little things, whom he would also have kissed, but the darlings refused his caress with many roars.

Soon after their marriage Mr. and Mrs. James Gann returned to England and occupied a house in Thames Street, City, until the death of Gann, Sr., when his son, becoming head of the firm, mounted higher on the social ladder and went to live in the neighbourhood of Putney, where a neat box, a couple of spare bedrooms, a good cellar, and a smart gig made a real gentleman of him. About this period, a daughter was born to him, called Caroline Blandenburg Gann, so named after a large mansion near Hammersmith, and an injured queen who lived there at the time of the little girl’s birth.

At this time Mrs. James Gann sent the twins, Rosalind Clancy and Isabella Finigan Wellesley McCarty, to a boarding-school for young ladies, and grumbled much at the amount of the bills which her husband was obliged to pay for them; for, although James discharged them with perfect good-humour, his lady began to entertain a mean opinion indeed of her pretty young children. They could expect no fortune, she said, from Mr. Gann, and she wondered that he should think of bringing them up expensively, when he had a darling child of his own for whom to save all the money that he could lay by.

Grandmamma, too, doted on the little Caroline Brandenburg, and vowed that she would leave her three thousand pounds to this dear infant; for in this way does the world show its respect for that most respectable thing, prosperity, and little Caroline was the daughter of prosperous James Gann.

Little Caroline, then, had her maid, her airy nursery, her little carriage to drive in, the promise of her grandmamma’s money, and her mamma’s undivided affection. Gann, too, loved her sincerely in his careless good-humoured way; but he determined, notwithstanding, that his step-daughters should have something handsome at his death, but–but for a great But.

Gann and Blubbery were in the oil line; their profits arose from contracts for lighting a great number of streets in London; and about this period gas came into use. The firm of Gann and Blubbery had been so badly managed, I am sorry to say, and so great had been the extravagance of both partners and their ladies, that they only paid their creditors fourteen-pence halfpenny in the pound.

When Mrs. Crabb heard of this dreadful accident she at once proclaimed James Gann to be a swindler, a villain, a disreputable, vulgar man, and made over her money to the Misses Rosalind Clancy and Isabella Finigan McCarty, leaving poor little Caroline without a cent of legacy. Half of one thousand five hundred pounds allotted to each twin was to be paid at marriage, the other half on the death of Mrs. James Gann, who was to enjoy the interest thereof. Thus did the fortunes of little Caroline alter in a single night! Thus did Cinderella enter upon the period of her loneliness!

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After James Gann’s failure his family lived in various uncomfortable ways, until at length Mrs. Gann opened a lodging-house in a certain back street in the town of Margate, on the door of which house might be read in gleaming brass the name of MR. GANN. It was the work of a single smutty servant-maid to clean this brass plate every morning, and to attend to the wants of Mr. Gann, his family, and lodgers. In this same house Mr. Gann had his office, though if truth be told he had nothing to do from morning until night. He was very much changed, poor fellow! He was now a fat, bald-headed man of fifty whose tastes were no longer aristocratic, and who loved public-house jokes and company.

As for Mrs. Gann, she had changed, too, under the pressure of misfortune. Her chief occupation was bragging of her former acquaintances, taking medicine, and mending and altering her gowns. She had a huge taste for cheap finery, loved raffles, tea-parties, and walks on the pier, where she flaunted herself and daughters as gay as butterflies. She stood upon her rank, did not fail to tell her lodgers that she was “a gentlewoman,” and was mighty sharp with Becky, the maid, and Carrie, her youngest child.

For the tide of affection had turned now, and the Misses Wellesley McCarty were the darlings of their mother’s heart, as Caroline had been in the early days of Putney prosperity. Mrs. Gann respected and loved her elder daughters, the stately heiresses of L1500, and scorned poor Caroline, who was likewise scorned, like Cinderella, by her brace of haughty, thoughtless sisters. These young women were tall, well-grown, black-browed girls, fond of fun, and having great health and spirits. They had pink cheeks, white shoulders, and many glossy curls about their shining foreheads. Such charms cannot fail of having their effect, and it was very lucky for Caroline that she did not possess them, or she might have been as vain, frivolous, and vulgar as these young ladies were. As it was, Caroline was pale and thin, with fair hair and neat grey eyes; nobody thought her a beauty in her moping cotton gown, and while her sisters enjoyed their pleasures and tea-parties abroad, it was Carrie’s usual fate to remain at home and help the servant in the many duties which were required in Mrs. Gann’s establishment. She dressed her mamma and her sisters, brought her papa his tea in bed, kept the lodgers’ bills, bore their scoldings, and sometimes gave a hand in the kitchen if any extra cookery was required. At two she made a little toilette for dinner, and was employed on numberless household darnings and mendings in the long evenings while her sisters giggled over the jingling piano. Mamma lay on the sofa, and Gann was at the club. A weary lot, in sooth, was yours,–poor little Caroline. Since the days of your infancy, not one hour of sunshine, no friendship, no cheery playfellows, no mother’s love! Only James Gann, of all the household, had a good-natured look for her, and a coarse word of kindness, but Caroline did not complain, nor shed any tears. Her misery was dumb and patient; she felt that she was ill-treated, and had no companion; but was not on that account envious, only humble and depressed, not desiring so much to resist as to bear injustice, and hardly venturing to think for herself. This tyranny and humility served her in place of education and formed her manners, which were wonderfully gentle and calm. It was strange to see such a person growing up in such a family, and the neighbours spoke of her with much scornful compassion. “A poor half-witted, thing,” they said, “who could not say bo! to a goose.” And I think it is one good test of gentility to be thus looked down on by vulgar people.

I have said that Miss Caroline had no friend in the world except her father, but one friend she most certainly had, and that was honest Becky, the smutty maid, whose name has been mentioned before. A great comfort it was for Caroline to descend to the calm kitchen from the stormy back-parlour, and there vent some of her little woes to the compassionate servant of all work.

When Mrs. Gann went out with her daughters Becky would take her work and come and keep Miss Caroline company; and, if the truth must be told, the greatest enjoyment the pair used to have was in these afternoons, when they read together out of the precious, greasy, marble-covered volumes that Mrs. Gann was in the habit of fetching from the library. Many and many a tale had the pair so gone through. I can see them over “Manfrone; or the One-handed Monk,” the room dark, the street silent, the hour ten, the tall, red, lurid candlewick waggling down, the flame flickering pale upon Miss Caroline’s pale face as she read out, and lighting up honest Becky’s goggling eyes, who sat silent, her work in her lap; she had not done a stitch of it for an hour. As the trapdoor slowly opens, and the scowling Alonzo, bending over the sleeping Imoinda, draws his pistol, cocks it, looks well if the priming be right, places it then to the sleeper’s ear, and– thunder under-under –down fall the snuffers! Becky has had them in her hand for ten minutes, afraid to use them. Up starts Caroline and flings the book back into mamma’s basket. It is only that lady returned with her daughters from a tea-party, where they have been enjoying themselves.

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For the sentimental, too, as well as the terrible, Miss Caroline and the cook had a strong predilection, and had wept their poor eyes out over “Thaddeus of Warsaw” and the “Scottish Chiefs.” Fortified by the examples drawn from those instructive volumes, Becky was firmly convinced that her young mistress would meet with a great lord some day or other, or be carried off, like Cinderella, by a brilliant prince, to the mortification of her elder sisters, whom Becky hated.

When, therefore, a new lodger came, lonely, mysterious, melancholy, elegant, with the romantic name of George Brandon–when he actually wrote a letter directed to a lord, and Miss Caroline and Becky together examined the superscription, Becky’s eyes were lighted up with a preternatural look of wondering wisdom; whereas, after an instant, Caroline dropped hers, and blushed and said, “Nonsense, Becky!”

“Is it nonsense?” said Becky, grinning, and snapping her fingers with a triumphant air; “the cards come true; I knew they would. Didn’t you have a king and queen of hearts three deals running? What did you dream about last Tuesday, tell me that?”

But Miss Caroline never did tell, for just then her sisters came bouncing down the stairs, and examined the lodger’s letter. Caroline, however, went away musing much upon these points; and she began to think Mr. Brandon more wonderful and beautiful every day, whereas he was remarkable for nothing except very black eyes, a sallow face, and a habit of smoking cigars in bed till noon. His name of George Brandon was only an assumed one. He was really the son of a half-pay Colonel, of good family, who had been sent to Eton to acquire an education. From Eton he went to Oxford, took honours there, but ran up bills amounting to two thousand pounds. Then there came fury on the part of his stern old “governor”; and final payment of the debt, but while this settlement was pending Master George had contracted many more debts and was glad to fly to the Continent as tutor to young Lord Cinqbars, and afterwards went into retirement at Margate until his father’s wrath should be appeased. For that reason we find him a member of the Gann establishment, flirting when occasion seemed to demand it with mother and daughters, and taking occasional notice of little Caroline, who frequently broiled his cutlets.

Mrs. Gann’s other lodger was a fantastic youth, Andrea Fitch, to whom his art, and his beard and whiskers, were the darlings of his heart. He was a youth of poetic temperament, whose long pale hair fell over a high polished brow, which looked wonderfully thoughtful; and yet no man was more guiltless of thinking. He was always putting himself into attitudes, and his stock-in-trade were various theatrical properties, which when arranged in his apartments on the second floor made a tremendous show.

The Misses Wellesley McCarty voted this Mr. Fitch an elegant young fellow, and before long the intimacy between the young people was considerable, for Mr. Fitch insisted upon drawing the portraits of the whole family.

“I suppose you will do my Carrie next?” said Mr. Gann, one day, expressing his approbation of a portrait just finished, wherein the Misses McCarty were represented embracing one another.

“Law, sir,” exclaimed Miss Linda, “Carrie, with her red hair!–“

“Mr. Fitch might as well paint Becky, our maid!” cried Miss Bella.

“Carrie is quite impossible, Gann,” said Mrs. Gann; “she hasn’t a gown fit to be seen in. She’s not been at church for thirteen Sundays in consequence.”

“And more shame for you, ma’am,” said Mr. Gann, who liked his child; “Carrie shall have a gown, and the best of gowns;” and jingling three and twenty shillings in his pocket, Mr. Gann determined to spend them all in the purchase of a robe for Carrie. But, alas, the gown never came; half the money was spent that very evening at the tavern.

“Is that–that young lady your daughter?” asked Mr. Fitch, surprised, for he fancied Carrie was a humble companion of the family.

“Yes, she is, and a very good daughter, too, sir,” answered Mr. Gann. ” Fetch and Carrie I call her, or else Carry-van; she is so useful. Ain’t you, Carrie?”

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“I’m very glad if I am, Papa,” said the young lady, blushing violently.

“Hold your tongue, Miss!” said her mother; “you are, very expensive to us, that you are, and need not brag about the work you do, and if your sisters and me starve to keep you, and some other folks” (looking fiercely at Mr. Gann), “I presume you are bound to make some return.”

Poor Caroline was obliged to listen to this harangue on her own ill-conduct in silence. As it was the first lecture Mr. Fitch had heard on the subject, he naturally set down Caroline for a monster. Was she not idle, sulky, scornful, and a sloven? For these and many more of her daughter’s vices Mrs. Gann vouched, declaring that Caroline’s behaviour was hastening her own death; and she finished by a fainting fit. In the presence of all these charges, there stood Miss Caroline, dumb, stupid and careless; nay, when the fainting-fit came on, and Mrs. Gann fell back on the sofa, the unfeeling girl took the opportunity to retire, and never offered to rub her mamma’s hands, to give her the smelling bottle, or to restore her with a glass of water.

Mr. Fitch stood close at hand, for at the time he was painting Mrs. Gann’s portrait–and he was hastily making towards her with his tumbler, when Miss Linda cried out, “Stop! the water is full of paint!” and straightway burst out laughing. Mrs. Gann jumped up at this, cured suddenly, and left the room, looking somewhat foolish.

“You don’t know Ma,” said Miss Linda, still giggling; “she’s always fainting.”

“Poor dear lady!” said the artist; “I pity her from my inmost soul. Doesn’t the himmortal bard observe how sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child? And is it true, ma’am, that that young woman has been the ruin of her family?”

“Ruin of her fiddlestick!” replied Miss Bella. “Law, Mr. Fitch, you don’t know Ma yet; she is in one of her tantrums.”

“What, then, it isn’t true!” cried simple-minded Fitch. To which neither of the young ladies made any answer in words, nor could the little artist comprehend why they looked at each other and burst out laughing. But he retired pondering on what he had seen and heard, and being a very soft young fellow, most implicitly believed the accusations of poor dear Mrs. Gann for a time.

Presently, however, those opinions changed, and the change was brought about by watching closely the trend of domestic affairs in the Gann establishment. After a fortnight of close observation the artist, though by no means quick of comprehension, began to see that the nightly charges brought against poor Caroline could not be founded upon truth.

“Let’s see,” mused he to himself. “Tuesday the old lady said her daughter was bringing her grey hairs with sorrow to the grave, because the cook had not boiled the potatoes. Wednesday she said Caroline was an assassin, because she could not find her own thimble. Thursday she vowed Caroline had no religion, because that old pair of silk stockings were not darned; and this can’t be,” reasoned Fitch. “A gal ain’t a murderess, because her ma can’t find her thimble. A woman that goes to slap her grown-up daughter on the back, and before company too, for such a paltry thing as an old pair of stockings, can’t be surely speaking the truth.” And thus gradually his first impression against Caroline wore away, and pity took possession of his soul, pity for the meek little girl, who, though trampled upon, was now springing up to womanhood; and though pale, freckled, thin, meanly dressed, had a certain charm about her which some people preferred to the cheap splendours and rude red and white of the Misses McCarty, and which was calculated to touch the heart of anyone who watched her carefully.

On account of Mr. Brandon’s correspondence with the aristocracy that young gentleman was highly esteemed by the family with whom he lodged for a time. Then, however, he bragged so much, and assumed such airs of superiority, that he perfectly disgusted Mrs. Gann and the Misses McCarty, who did not at all like his way of telling them that he was their better. But James Gann looked up to Mr. Brandon with deepest wonder as a superior being. And poor little Caroline followed her father’s faith and in six weeks after Mr. Brandon’s arrival had grown to believe him the most perfect, polished, agreeable of mankind. Indeed, the poor girl had never seen a gentleman before, and towards such her gentle heart turned instinctively. Brandon never offended her by hard words; or insulted her by cruel scorn such as she met with from her mother and sisters; and so Caroline felt that he was their superior, and as such admired and respected him.

Consequently one day when he condescended to dine with the family at three o’clock, there being another guest as well, one Mr. Swigby, Caroline felt it to be one of the greatest occasions of her life, and was fairly trembling with pleasure, when, dinner being half over, she stole gently into the room and took her ordinary place near her father. I do believe she would have been starved, but Gann was much too good-natured to allow any difference to be made between her and her sisters in the matter of food. An old rickety wooden stool was placed for her, instead of that elegant and comfortable Windsor chair which supported every other person at table; by the side of the plate stood a curious old battered tin mug bearing the inscription “Caroline.” These, in truth, were poor Caroline’s mug and stool, having been appropriated to her from childhood upwards; and here it was her custom meekly to sit and eat her daily meal.

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Caroline’s pale face was very red; for she had been in the kitchen helping Becky, and had been showing her respect for the great Mr. Brandon by cooking in her best manner a certain dish for which her papa had often praised her. She took her place, blushing violently when she saw him, and if Mr. Gann had not been making a violent clattering with his knife and fork, it is possible that he might have heard Miss Caroline’s heart thump, which it did violently. Her dress was somehow a little smarter than usual, and Becky, who brought in the hashed mutton, looked at her young lady complacently, as, loaded with plates, she quitted the room. Indeed, the poor girl deserved to be looked at: there was an air of gentleness and innocence about her which was very touching, and which the two young men did not fail to remark.

“You are very late, miss!” cried Mrs. Gann, who affected not to know what had caused her daughter’s delay. “You are always late!” and the elder girls stared and grinned at each other knowingly, as they always did when mamma made such attacks upon Caroline, who only kept her eyes down upon the table-cloth, and began to eat her dinner without saying a word.

“Come, come, my dear,” cried honest Gann, “if she is late, you know why! Our Carrie has been downstairs making the pudding for her old pappy; and a good pudding she makes, I can tell you!”

Miss Caroline blushed more deeply than ever; Mr. Fitch stared her full in the face; Mrs. Gann said “Nonsense!” and “Stuff!” very majestically; Mr. Brandon alone interposed in Caroline’s favour; and the words that he said were so kindly, so inspiring to Caroline that she cared not a straw whatever else might be said about her. “Mamma may say what she pleases to-day,” thought Caroline. “I am too happy to be made angry by her.”

But poor little mistaken Caroline did not know how soon her feelings were to be harassed again beyond endurance. The dinner had not advanced much further, when Miss Isabella, who had been examining Caroline curiously for some time, telegraphed across the table to Miss Linda, and nodded and winked, and pointed to her own neck, on which was a smart necklace of the lightest blue glass beads finishing in a neat tassel. Linda had a similar ornament of a vermilion colour, whereas Caroline wore a handsome new collar and a brooch, which looked all the smarter for the shabby frock over which they were placed. As soon as she saw her sister’s signals the poor little thing blushed deeply again; down went her eyes once more, and her face and neck lighted up to the colour of Miss Linda’s sham cornelian.

“What’s the gals giggling and oggling about?” asked Mr. Gann innocently.

“What is it, my darling love?” asked stately Mrs. Gann.

“Why, don’t you see, Ma?” said Linda. “Look at Miss Carrie! I’m blessed if she hasn’t got on Becky’s collar and brooch, that Sims the pilot gave her!”

The young ladies fell back in uproarious fits of laughter, and laughed all the time that their mamma was declaring her daughter’s conduct unworthy a gentlewoman, and bidding her leave the room and take off those disgraceful ornaments.

There was no need to tell her; the poor little thing gave one piteous look at her father, who was whistling, and seemed indeed to think the matter a good joke; and after she had managed to open the door down she went to the kitchen, and when she reached that humble place of refuge first pulled off Becky’s collar and brooch, and then flung herself into the arms of that honest maid, where she cried and cried till she brought on the first fit of hysterics that ever she had had.

This crying could not at first be heard in the parlour, where the company were roaring at the excellence of the joke, but presently the laughter died away, and the sound of weeping came from the kitchen below. This the young artist could not bear, but bounced up from his chair and rushed out of the room, exclaiming, “By Jove, it’s too bad!”

From the scene of merriment he rushed forth and out of the house into the dark, wet streets, fired with one impulse, inspired by one purpose:–to resist the tyranny of Mrs. Gann towards poor Caroline; to protect the gentle girl from the injustice of which she was the victim. All his sympathies from that moment were awakened in Caroline’s favour.

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As for Mr. Brandon, whom Caroline in the depths of her little silly heart had set down for the wondrous fairy prince who was to deliver her from her present miserable condition, he was a man to whom opposition acted ever as a spur. Up to this time he had given little or no thought to the young girl with the pale face and quiet manner, but now he was amused, and his interest was awakened by the indignation of Mr. Fitch. He was piqued also by the system of indifference to his charms indulged in by Caroline’s older sisters, and determined to revenge himself upon them for their hardness of heart by devotion to Caroline. As he wrote in a letter that very day: “I am determined through a third daughter, a family Cinderella, to make her sisters quiver with envy. I merely mean fun, for Cinderella is but a little child…. I wish I had paper enough to write you an account of a Gann dinner at which I have just assisted, and of a scene which there took place; and how Cinderella was dressed out, not by a fairy, but by a charitable kitchen maid, and was turned out of the room by her indignant mamma for appearing in the maid’s finery….”

This, and much more, Mr. Brandon, who at once turned his attention to being excessively kind and polite to our humble Cinderella. Caroline, being a most romantic little girl, and having read many novels, depicted Brandon in a fancy costume such as her favourite hero wore, or fancied herself as the heroine, watching her knight go forth to battle. Silly fancies, no doubt; but consider the poor girl’s age and education; the only instruction she had ever received was from these tender, kind-hearted, silly books; the only happiness which fate had allowed her was in this little silent world of fancy. It would be hard to grudge the poor thing her dreams; and many such did she have, and tell blushingly to honest Becky as they sat by the kitchen fire, while indignation was growing apace in the breasts of her mother and sisters at the sight of so much interest centred on so poor an object. And even so did the haughty sisters of Cinderella the First feel and act.

But Cinderella’s kitchen days were fast drawing to an end, even as she, a pale slip of a girl, was budding into womanhood.

One evening Mrs. Gann and the Misses McCarty had the honour of entertaining Mr. Swigby at tea, and that gentleman, in return for the courtesy shown him by Mrs. Gann, invited the young ladies and their mamma to drive with him the next day into the country; for which excursion he had hired a very smart barouche. The invitation was not declined, and Mr. Fitch, too, was asked, and accepted with the utmost delight. “Me and Swigby will go on the box,” said Gann. “You four ladies and Mr. Fitch shall go inside. Carrie must go between; but she ain’t very big.”

“Carrie, indeed, will stop at home!” said her mamma. At this poor Fitch’s jaw fell; he had agreed to accompany the party only for the pleasure of being in the company of little Caroline, nor could he escape now, having just accepted so eagerly.

“Oh, don’t let’s have that proud Brandon!” exclaimed the young ladies, in consequence of which that gentleman was not invited to join the excursion.

The day was bright and sunshiny. Poor Caroline, watching the barouche and its load drive off, felt that it would have been pleasant to have been a lady for once, and to have driven along in a carriage with prancing horses. The girl’s heart was heavy with disappointment and loneliness as she stood at the parlour window, watching the vehicle disappear from sight.

Oh, mighty Fate, that over us miserable mortals rulest supreme, with what small means are thy ends effected! With what scornful ease and mean instruments does it please thee to govern mankind! Mr. Fitch accompanied the Gann family on their drive to the country; Mr. Brandon remained behind.

Caroline, too, the Cinderella of this little tale, was left at home; and thereby were placed in the hand of Fate all necessary instruments of revenge to be used in the punishment of Mrs. Gann and the Misses McCarty for their ill-treatment of our little Cinderella.

The story of Caroline Brandenburg Gann’s youth is told. The fairy prince is at hand, and the short chapter of girlhood and misery is finished.

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