16. Improper

London, England
June, 1667

The crowds of Londoners were at their thickest at dusk—commoners coming from market, tradesmen coming home from their work, and of course all those who catered to them: boys hawking pies, tinkers, minstrels, whores. William averted his eyes from all of this as he made his way down the crowded streets.

Perhaps staying indoors for the rest of what would assuredly be a short life would not be a terrible idea.

Three hours earlier he’d been at the gaol in Southwark, being hissed at by the woman from Ratcliffe street. Questioning of her neighbors and of William’s barber confirmed the suspicious activities—a pregnant woman with whom the widow had argued had lost her quick baby, a man who stepped accidentally onto the widow’s yard developed boils. After three nights of wakefulness, she had confessed her beliefs and relinquished her familiar, a tawny, yellow-eyed cat, which had at once been put to death.

Convincing the judge to remand her to prison had been a simple matter, and a small smile spread across William’s face as he thought on it. It would be his first trial in months, and he would bring down the woman and her coven.

Impending death would not keep him from his work.

William experienced an odd surge of energy to his step these last few days. Perhaps the taking of his blood was working, or perhaps it was simply that to do this, to return to God’s work, brought him healing beyond what a mortal barber-surgeon might offer. It had been a great deal of time since his raids had been common, despite his son’s irreverent accusations. Hunting the possessed and the servants of evil had gone down with Cromwell; long past were days when men like Matthew Hopkins had ruled the night and purified the city.

Hopkins called himself the Witchfinder General. He, too, had been the son of a minister. And though William thought the moniker was a bit prideful on Hopkins’s part, a part of him wished his own son had anywhere near that zeal.

But he did not. And so William worked alone.

The girl from Ratcliffe street lived in the next parish over, the reason he had never seen her in his church. But Londoners were nothing if not gossips, and gaining information about another family was simple, especially for a man of the cloth. With nothing more than the last name and her description, he had traced her to her address several neighborhoods to the west. Her mother had been made a widow by the plague; the man of the household was survived by two sons, one older and one younger than the girl.

Whether the girl had been truthful about her betrothal would have to be seen.

“Aye, Reverend!” a voice called, cutting through the clattering of wheels and hooves, the shoes scuffling against the street, and the shouts of those peddling their wares and services. “What brings you this evening?”

William tipped his hat in the direction of Daniel Newcomb, a man of his own parish. He was a young husband, a butcher by trade.

“A search,” he said. “I come to rout evil where it may lie.”

“To rout evil?” The man arched an eyebrow. “I might not ask in what form.”

“Women who consort in the night,” William answered firmly, and the other man nodded.

“Understood,” he said. “I am on my way home this evening. Johanna awaits with her takings from today’s market.”

Johanna was Daniel’s wife. William had watched her lately as she grew with their third child.

“Johanna will deliver soon, will she not?”

“We expect soon enough.” Daniel beamed. “Perhaps a daughter to balance our sons and to help care for our home. She kicks less than her brothers.”

William offered a small smile. “Excellent, then. I shall keep your family in my prayers. We’ll baptize the child when she arrives.”

“Thank you, Reverend.” The smile was returned. “I should bid you on your way.”

William nodded. “Good evening, Daniel.”

The other man took a few steps, and then turned, remembering something. “If it is also your son you seek, I saw him not so long ago near the neighborhood market.”

His son?

“Your pardon?”

Daniel gestured in the vicinity of where William planned to go. “That direction. He was with his woman and their chaperone.”

His woman?

Trying not to let the utter surprise of these words show on his face, William nodded. “Thank you for alerting me. I will see if I might find him.”

The man smiled. “Good evening, Reverend.”

“Good evening to you, also.”

Now William’s pace quickened. Could what the Newcomb man said be true? If his son courted a woman, it would explain much about his behavior of late; his strange peacefulness, the way he seemed never to remain at the vicarage after finishing his chores. And his sudden desire to attend the seminary…at once, it made sense.

“I would wish to raise my family outside of London,” the younger Cullen had said.

His family.

Was it possible the boy was already in the process of forming it?

William’s stomach twisted with an odd twinge of…guilt? Anticipation? He wasn’t certain. If his son were indeed courting a woman, it was cause for celebration. He would be cared for, even in William’s absence. And if the prospect of marriage had brought the boy around to the consideration of seminary, to the work of God…William couldn’t help but beam. If there was a better sign that his child was one of the Chosen, he wasn’t sure what that sign might be.

A wife. Children. Many children, the way William and Sarah had planned. And his son would not suffer alone for so many years before coming to find his wife, as William had. No, he would marry now, become a father right away. A warmth spread from what seemed William’s very center. It was possible that he might hold his son’s son before his eyes closed on this world.

He could swear that he felt his body cease its tremors just at the thought.

You’ll marry, William, he thought, and your wedded bliss will heal us both.

So caught up in thought, William found his legs carried him the rest of the way through the less-familiar neighborhood, to the street to which he’d been directed. Like much of London, the street here was narrow, with alleyways twisting off it like the legs of a spider, the houses so close together they blocked out the orange glow of the sinking sun. The house where the girl supposedly lived was unremarkable, a narrow two-story which jutted out over the crowded street. William had to push his way past several who came the other way in order to reach its door.

There was no knocker, and the sound of his fist rapping on the door was damped by the passing crowd.

He knocked again.

It took a long moment for the door to swing open, revealing a woman who might have been near William’s age. The widow, no doubt. Her hair greyed at the temples, but otherwise was a strangely familiar shade of chestnut.

“May I help you?” she asked.

“Good evening, Missus Bradshawe. My name is Reverend William Cullen; I am the rector of St. Helen’s Aldgate.”

Her eyebrows raised. “You are Carlisle’s father.”

He nearly stepped back in surprise. “My son is William Carlisle, yes,” he answered tentatively.

The woman frowned. “You do not look like him.”

“He favors his mother.” An understatement. The boy exuded Sarah’s countenance in every plane of his body.

For a long moment, the woman did not respond, simply studying William with a hard gaze. He shifted his weight nervously. Usually, when he came to make an accusation, he was accompanied by the judge, and sometimes some of his parishioners, as well. But fervor had fallen steadily during the rule of Cromwell; it was as though the people of London no longer cared if evil lived among them. Even Hopkins had long since been disgraced.

And so that left William standing alone on the doorstep, being made uncomfortable by this woman and her uncanny knowledge of his son’s appearance.

He cleared his throat. “How is it that you know my son?”

If it were possible, the woman’s face dropped into an even deeper frown. “What is it that brings you here, Reverend Cullen? Surely it is not Carlisle, as you seem to be unaware that I had made his acquaintance.”

He tipped his hat. “My apologies. I seek your daughter.” And perhaps he ought to question the widow herself—it was becoming perfectly apparent where the daughter had inherited her forthright cheek.

“For what reason?”

“Are you aware that your daughter visits a widow on Ratcliffe Street?”

A look of surprise passed over the woman’s face, but it was subdued quickly.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I encountered your daughter visiting a widow on Ratcliffe some nights ago. Unchaparoned.”

A shrug. “Her brother was likely nearby. He frequents many pubs around the city.”

“I am certain she was alone, Madam.”

Mrs. Bradshawe cocked an eyebrow.

“And why, then, did you believe her to be there?”

“She visited another woman. A woman who has been taken to the prisons in Southwark, Mrs. Bradshawe. On charges of witchcraft.”

This, at last, drew a response. She took a staggering step backwards, and one hand flew to her heart. The color drained suddenly from her face.

“Witchcraft.”

It was a whisper.

“Yes.”

“You believe my Beth to be involved in witchcraft.”

William hesitated a short moment. If he couldn’t apprehend a woman right away, it was best to alarm her family as little as possible. He’d lost pursuits over the years as women fled to the country, to Scotland, even to France, out of his reach and never to be heard from again.

“I merely wish to question her about her acquaintance,” he said gently. “Of course it is necessary to rout the world of evil. To be certain to remove this woman from Ratcliffe Street, we must gather testimony from all with whom she consorts.” He didn’t bother to mention that the testimony from the neighbors, to say nothing of his own eyewitness testimony from the night at the barber-surgeon’s, would suffice handily.

“And what should I do?”

“Bring her to me,” William answered. “St. Helen’s Aldgate; the vicarage shares the churchyard. I will return tomorrow if you are unable to bring her by.”

The woman gulped and nodded.

“Good evening, Missus Bradshawe,” William said, tipping his hat to her. Then he thought once more. “And my goodwife?”

“Reverend?”

“You should pray for your daughter. I will also.”

A slow nod. “I will do that. Thank you.”

“Good evening to you.”

“Good evening.”

Then William turned and slid back out into the crowded streets. One less possessed soul. One less evil creature lurking in the neighborhoods of the city. One barrier removed in making this world a righteous world, one that would be welcoming to William’s child, his new wife, and whatever children they might have.

He smiled, and murmured a small prayer. “Lord, guide me on the path of thy choosing; strengthen me in my fight to bring righteousness to this realm.”

As though his prayer had been answered at once, he felt a sudden spring in his own step . He reached the main street, and turned himself back toward Aldgate, toward the church and his home.

Toward his son.

~||x||~

The dirt caught between Carlisle’s toes as he curled and uncurled them, but it felt good. The day was hot and humid, and the cool mud gave him some respite from the relentless heat.

Half the day had been spent in the carpentry workshop; Mister Tyne took in a large order for a staircase rail in one of the grander estates near Fleet Street, and Carlisle spent the better part of two days turning spindles at the lathe. But now he was free, and as was common for most of his evenings now, he was with Elizabeth.

A tiny cattle pasture jutted into Elizabeth’s neighborhood only a few streets from her home, and it provided just enough green space for Georgie to play, and for Carlisle and Elizabeth to enjoy each other’s company while her brother raced himself dizzy. The grass was soft and lush—the spring had been generous to London—and it felt wondrously comfortable beneath them.

“I do not believe I have seen thy feet before, Mister Cullen,” Elizabeth murmured. She, too, had doffed her shoes and sat in her hose beside him. He could see the graceful arch of her foot and the shapeliness of her legs. It was a sight far more enticing than any depicted in the bawdy poetry that Thomas had shown him over the years.

He laughed. “I suppose that is true enough. Do they meet thy expectations?”

Elizabeth leaned forward so that her hair fell over her shoulder as she pretended to scrutinize his legs.

“They have quite a bit more hair than I would have expected.”

Carlisle glanced at her, only to find her face held an entirely serious expression. But then it broke into a wide smile and she gave him a playful shove. They both began to laugh.

“I apologize that my feet do not meet with thy approval,” Carlisle answered a moment later, still laughing. “Shall I shave them?”

Elizabeth made a show of bending over his feet, leaning in to inspect them. “Perhaps not all of the hair,” she muttered just loudly enough for him to hear. “But right here.” She laid a hand on his right instep. “This part thou could cut a bit? It is nearly curly. Thine hair is not curly, why is the hair on thy feet?”

He shook his head, still laughing. Elizabeth did not lift her hand, however, instead caressing his foot for a moment. It felt wonderful.

Touching was still rare enough to be thrilling. As he had yet to reveal his courtship to his father, Carlisle had been unable to enjoy such rituals as bundling with Elizabeth, and all their moments of physical contact were stolen and brief.

He inched his right foot over to Elizabeth’s leg and tickled her ankle with his toes. She giggled, giving him a playful shove.

“Stop it, Carlisle,” she said, laughing. “That’s more than enough of your silliness.”

“I do nothing,” he replied, giving her a look of complete innocence and earning himself another shove.

Across the pasture, Georgie ran in circles, arms outstretched as he scared away a flock of songbirds. They seemed to be playing a game; the birds landed, Georgie would send them scattering about, and then the birds would simply land once more. Each time the birds took off in a flurry of feathers around him, Georgie let out a shrieking giggle, and then waited for them to land again before repeating the act.

“He does look as though he’s having fun,” Elizabeth said quietly, leaning in to Carlisle’s side and causing an odd chill of excitement to shoot down his spine.

“I remember those days,” Carlisle said quietly, not taking his eyes off Georgie. “Except that they were Katie’s hens I would send fluttering away. She disliked that so much—I remember being scolded every day.” He smiled. “Often through her paddle.”

Elizabeth laughed. “I have difficulty imagining you being so improper.”

“Impropriety furnishes the home of childhood,” he answered.

He gazed back out at Georgie, who’d temporarily given up chasing the birds and now lay on his back in the grass, staring up at the darkening evening sky.

Elizabeth followed his gaze. “That is true enough,” she said.

A hand shot out toward him before he had time to move away, and he suddenly found himself on the receiving end of a relentless tickling. He let out an undignified shriek, leaping to his feet and taking off at a run across the pasture. Elizabeth lit out after him only a second later. Together they ran across the pasture, scaring no small number of birds themselves, the grass and bare earth mashing beneath their feet. He was faster than she, and had the lead easily, but when he approached Georgie, he slowed, giving Elizabeth just enough time to reach out to him, throw her arms around his waist, and knock him off balance. They both tumbled into the grass, chests heaving with laughter.

“What was that about my impropriety, Miss Bradshawe?” Carlisle teased, causing a fresh round of laughter from them both.

Georgie appeared above them a second later, his small body casting an odd, long shadow over them both. He stood with his hands on his hips, his very best commanding look on his face.

“You act oddly,” he told them, his voice stern.

“We act oddly, brother?” Elizabeth grinned at him. “As I recall, we do not chase innocent birds into the sky.”

Carlisle grinned. “I shall show thee odd behavior.” In one motion, Carlisle threw his arms around Georgie’s knees, buckling them so that Georgie landed atop both of them, where he promptly fell under a four-handed tickling attack. It was only when Georgie’s laughter reached a pure, high-pitched shrieking that they relented, leaving him gasping for breath in their laps.

For a long moment, the three of them simply sat together, watching the shadows grow longer and the tiny herd of cattle ambling uncomfortably in the other end of the pasture.

“We ought to return to thy home,” Carlisle said at last.

“I wish I could stay out here,” came Georgie’s immediate reply.

Carlisle did also, though he was not nearly as free to whine his disappointment as the boy. Soon, his mind told him. Soon this will be the life you can lead.

And with greater freedom, also—he’d informed his father that he had no intention of serving the church at Aldgate, but that he would raise his family in the countryside, where his children would be healthier and he could enjoy the fresh air. It seemed the closer he came to marriage and to a family, the more London grated on him; the crime, the crowds, the filth. Every rat seemed a reason to get away; every time he was accosted by a tinker or a vagrant was one more link in his resolve to have his family grow up away from this.

“Carlisle?”

He shook his head, forcibly bringing himself back to the present. Elizabeth stared at him, a bemused smile on her face.

“Of what were you thinking?”

“Of us,” he answered. “Of our home, and our marriage.” Gazing down at Georgie, whose attention had been caught by the cows across the way, he added, “And our children.”

Elizabeth reached for his hand, squeezing it tightly. “Soon enough, Carlisle. Soon enough.” She laid her head on his shoulder, her hair tickling his neck and the sensitive spot at his ear.

“When will thou ask my brother?” she said a moment later.

“For thy hand?”

A nod.

His stomach twisted. Were he completely honest with himself, he had put this off. Christopher had joined them so rarely, and when he had, he had a tendency to disappear to the tavern and leave Elizabeth and Carlisle to wander alone. Whether this was indifference or trust, Carlisle wasn’t exactly certain.

But he had lain the groundwork, now, he thought. His father knew of his desire to go to seminary, and he would do so. Absent the plan to serve his father’s church, a life in the clergy seemed more appealing. He would make good wages; he could satisfy his love of carpentry by building in the church and in his parish; his family would be well looked-after, just as the Aldgate parish had looked after their widowed rector and his son.

Yes, he would give up the law. But, sitting here, in the waning daylight, with Elizabeth and Georgie, free to imagine this as not just an impermanent moment, but a lasting state of his life…it seemed fair.

Entirely fair.

His dreams were worth more than his pride, just as Thomas had said.

“Tonight,” he heard himself say, and the resolve in his own voice startled him.

“Tonight?”

“I will go to the coffee house, after dark. Christopher is almost unfailingly there. The crowd will help pressure him to say yes.”

“Fear you that he will say no?”

Carlisle grinned. “I merely feel it best to give it the best possible chance.”

“My brother will be grateful to be rid of me. He will beg thee to marry me as soon as thou can.” Elizabeth stood, tugging Carlisle, and by extension, Georgie to their feet. She took Carlisle’s hand in hers, laying her other hand firmly on Georgie’s shoulders.

Squeezing her hand, Carlisle added, “Your brother’s loss is certainly my gain.”

Elizabeth grinned at him, and pecked his cheek, causing him to blush red.

“My gain also,” she answered, and together they began to walk toward her home.

~||x||~

It was several hours later, well after darkness had fallen, that Carlisle and Thomas made their way toward the coffee house. As he had such a short time before, Carlisle carried a letter in his breast pocket, one which seemed as though it might burn a hole—if not in the fabric, then perhaps in his skin itself.

Because this time, he asked for far more than mere permission to court.

“Thou acts like a frightened rabbit,” Thomas teased him, shoving him playfully, but with enough force that Carlisle nearly went spilling to the street.

He grit his teeth. “And I am certain thou were completely calm when thou asked for Anne?”

Thomas laughed. “I was a wreck, of course. But I had always assumed you to be more composed.”

Composed. Was that even possible in this situation?

To be sure, he had felt more composed as he and Elizabeth had walked so serenely back to her house after their evening in the paddock. But he couldn’t help but feel that something had gone awry since then.

“Her mother acted oddly, when we returned this evening,” he muttered, more to himself than anything, but Thomas answered nevertheless.

“Oddly?”

“Yes.”

Mrs. Bradshawe had treated him almost as her child from the day he’d first arrived with the initial letter for Christopher; from the moment she knew he had nursed at her sister’s breast, she seemed willing to accept him. She kissed him and hugged him easily, and greeted him joyously each time he turned up on her step.

But tonight, if anything, she had seemed wary of him. Her greeting had been stiff and strangely formal, and she’d seemed to gather Elizabeth and Georgie in as though she needed to protect them. They had been ushered quickly inside, and Elizabeth’s goodbye to Carlisle consisted of little more than a squeezed hand and a prolonged gaze.

“She took Elizabeth and Georgie into the house as though she feared me,” Carlisle answered.

“Is that so?” Thomas’s brow furrowed. “No one has any reason to fear thee.”

Carlisle rolled his eyes. “Why thank you. I am glad to know I am no formidable opponent.”

Thomas grinned. “I intended no offense, but now that you mention it…”

Carlisle shoved him, and they both laughed.

They walked several paces more before Thomas spoke.

“I wonder at what might have happened to cause her to behave in such a way?”

“I know not.” Well, he would ask. They would reach the coffee house, he would speak to Christopher, deliver the letter, and perhaps inquire as to the behavior of Mrs. Bradshawe. And if nothing else, he would see Elizabeth soon enough and could ask her himself.

The streets were nearly empty at this time of night, and almost completely dark, save for the handful of taverns and lodges which hung lamps from their door posts. The light spilled into the street at odd intervals, casting shadows in different directions. Muffled sound issued from the taverns; drunken singing, snippets of conversations, tankards heavy on wooden bars.

The coffee house, like the taverns, hung a lamp outside its door, and the light from the lamps inside leaked invitingly through the windows. When Carlisle paused a moment before the coffee house’s door, Thomas stopped short also. They peered through the windows, and could see Christopher sitting there with a group of his friends, his dark hair reaching down to his shoulders.

Thomas nudged Carlisle. “Have you the letter, Sexton?”

He patted his breast pocket. “I have.”

Thomas grinned. “Doest thou need a drink? Perhaps we ought to have stopped at the tavern first.”

Carlisle blushed, but his heart was racing. “I shall be fine,” he attempted to answer, but what came out was more of a squeak.

More laughter from Thomas, and then a firm clap on the shoulder. “Let us go in, then, Friend.”

The coffee house was alive with sound; voices in heated debate, rustling newspaper, the scraping of stools against the wooden floor. Coffee cups clinked against one another and the tables. There was laughter.

But as Thomas and Carlisle entered, the entire room fell silent. Newspapers dropped. Cups clattered to the table. Voices fell to whispers.

“What…” Thomas barely managed to whisper, before a single stool two tables over was shoved so firmly it screeched and fell to the ground with a loud thwack.

Christopher Bradshawe was shorter and skinnier than Carlisle, and in a fight with adequate warning, there wouldn’t be much of a competition. But this wasn’t a fight, and there wasn’t adequate warning, and Carlisle had only barely managed to get out the words “Mister Bradshawe” before he found himself crashing backwards into a table, a stabbing pain in his jaw.

The table was sturdy and held his weight; the cups, however, were quite a bit more delicate. Behind him came the tinkering of broken china and the clatter of tin as it fell to the floor. His back soaked at once with spilled coffee, and it burned through his shirt to his skin.

And then there were men, dozens of them, it seemed, leaning over him. Someone tried to grab him but no, there was Christopher, standing over the table. The fists flew again, making a thick slapping sound as they made contact with Carlisle’s face. At once, Carlisle could see the hands were covered in blood—his? He drew a hand across his own lips and it came away drenched in red.

So he swung, and was rewarded with the solid THWOCK of his fist meeting flesh.

The coffee house exploded into noise. Christopher’s body was warm as it rolled over Carlisle’s and onto the floor, his blood spilling from his lip down Carlisle’s knuckles. Men shouted, some for help, some to egg them on.

“You bastard,” Christopher hollered, as he grabbed Carlisle’s shoulders, knocking him off balance and into a second table. More clattering cups. The reek of more spilled coffee.

“What?” Carlisle answered, but it was drowned out by the jeers of the crowd. He threw Christopher off him, and the other man tumbled into yet another table.

Some of the men grabbed Christopher’s arms, wrenching him up from the table and flinging him back across the room with such force that both he and Carlisle lost their balance and went careening across the floor. Carlisle felt his shoulders mash into the wood.

Finally he got a good look at the other man. Both were breathing heavily, their chests heaving as they lay sprawled on the coffee house floor. Blood and slobber and phlegm dripped from Christopher’s face; Carlisle could feel a spreading wetness on his own.

“Christopher…” Carlisle began, but he was cut off at once.

“You bastard,” the other man cried, his voice high-pitched and strangled. “My sister…”

His sister? Elizabeth?

“What…”

But he was once again cut off by a blow. This time it was to the side of his jaw, and he felt something there give way. His ears began to ring.

“You bastard, you bastard, you bastard!” Christopher screamed, each iteration of the insult punctuated by another blow. From somewhere, Carlisle could hear someone shouting for them to stop, but it sounded distant…

He lifted his arms to his face.

“Please,” someone whined, and it took Carlisle a moment to realize this sound had come from him.

The blows kept coming.

“My”—to his jaw—”sister”—his right ear—”is”—his temple—”not”—the cheekbone—”a”—his jaw again, was that his tooth loosened?—”witch!”

A witch?

The thought barely had time to register before the fist landed again squarely in the middle of Carlisle’s face. Something made an odd scrunching noise, and it his whole head became engulfed in a fiery pain. Fresh blood gushed over his lips and jaw. When he tried to turn himself over, he found his arms didn’t seem to answer.

“She’s…not…a witch,” he heard himself say feebly.

Then the sounds of the coffee house blended into a dull, ringing roar in his ears as everything went black.

~||x||~

Editorial note: Thanks to twitina’s daughter, K, for sharing with me exactly how it feels and sounds to have someone break your nose.

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§ 8 Responses to 16. Improper"

  • Silvara7 says:

    Oh, no, no, no! Poor Carlisle… Poor, poor Elizabeth. I knew it could not end well with William being such a zealot, but… /sigh. I’m tearing out my hair here!

  • jfly says:

    You worked spectacular magic in humanizing the reverend.
    This story is an emotional bungee jump. One dives into the unknown and instantly looses all sense to giddy wonder then is jerked to a harsh reverse and flung around with a weightless dread-in-the-gut for a while. It’s addicitive.

    • giselle says:

      I keep thinking about this “emotional bungee jump” thing. I think one derives a lot of power from that kind of trajectory–I always refer to it as whipping the rug out from under my characters. They think they’re standing steady, but I know they’re not, and that it takes these experiences to get them there.

  • NixHaw says:

    I just started Stregoni Benefici about a week ago, after having it on my ‘to read’ list for ages. I am enjoying this story so much, and as a historian, I really appreciate the research you’ve put into this and I read all the chapter notes. Thank you for sharing this story with us!

    And on an unhappier note, I am not liking William Cullen at all!

    • giselle says:

      Yay! I’m delighted you decided to read it. :)

      And yes, William is not making himself very redeemable at the moment. But there’s still more to come.

  • Sisterglitch says:

    Very nicely choreographed fight scene! I am very particular about described action in stories. I have to be able to “see” it. You succeeded beautifully!
    I dread what I see coming…

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