A Knight in Shining Armor: Chapter 33


Dougless didn’t cry. What she was feeling was too deep, too profound for her to cry. She was sitting on the floor in the little church in Ashburton, and she knew that behind her was Nicholas’s marble tomb. She couldn’t bear to look at it, couldn’t bear to see the warm flesh of Nicholas translated into cold marble.

She sat where she was for a while and looked at the church. It looked so old and so plain. There was no color on the beams or on the walls, and the stone floors looked bare with no rushes on them. In the first pews were some needlepointed pillows, and now they looked crude. She was used to seeing Lady Margaret’s women’s exquisite needlework.

When the door of the church opened and the vicar came in, Dougless sat where she was.

“Are you all right?” the vicar asked.

At first Dougless couldn’t understand him. His accent and his pronunciation were foreign sounding. “How long have I been here?” she asked.

The vicar frowned. This young woman was so very strange. She walked in front of speeding vehicles, she insisted she was with a man when she was alone, and now she had just walked into the church and was asking how long she had been here. “A few minutes, no more,” he answered.

Dougless gave a weak smile. A few minutes. A lifetime in the sixteenth century and she had been away only a few minutes. When she tried to stand, her legs were weak and the vicar helped her rise.

“Perhaps you should see a doctor,” the vicar said.

A psychiatrist perhaps, Dougless almost answered. If she told her story to a psychiatrist, would he write a book and make what happened to Dougless into a Movie-of-the-Week? “No, I’m fine, really,” she whispered. “I just need to get back to my hotel and—” And what? What was there for her to do now that Nicholas was gone? She took a step forward.

“Don’t forget your bag.”

Dougless turned to see her old tote bag on the floor by the tomb. The contents of that bag had helped her throughout her time in the Elizabethan age. Looking at it, she felt a closeness to the bag. It had been where she had been. She went to it and on impulse unzipped the top of it. She didn’t have to inspect the contents to know that everything was there. The bottle of aspirin was full; none of the pills she had given away were missing. Her toothpaste tube was full, not flat. No cold tablets were missing, no pages gone from her notebook. Everything was as it had been.

She lifted the tote bag, slung the strap onto her shoulder, then turned away. But abruptly, she halted; then she turned and glanced back at the base of the tomb. Something was different. She wasn’t at first sure what it was, but something had changed.

Careful not to look at the sculpture of Nicholas, she stared at the base.

“Is something wrong?” the vicar asked.

Dougless read the inscription twice before she realized what was different. “The date,” she whispered.

“The date? Ah, yes, the tomb is quite old.”

Nicholas’s death date was 1599. Not 1564. Bending, she touched the numbers, trying to make sure she was seeing correctly. Thirty-five years. He had lived thirty-five years past when he was supposed to have been executed.

It was only after she had touched the date that she looked up at the tomb. The sculpture was of Nicholas, but it was very different now. It was not a portrait of a young man, dead in his prime, but of an older man, a man who had been able to live out his life. She looked down the length of him, saw that his clothes were different. He wore the longer knee breeches of 1599, instead of the short slops of thirty years earlier.

She caressed his cold cheek, traced the lines the sculptor had put at the corners of his eyes. “We did it,” she whispered. “Nicholas, my love, we did it.”

“I beg your pardon,” the vicar said.

When Dougless looked at him, she gave him a dazzling smile. “We changed history,” she said; then, still smiling, she walked outside into the sunshine.

She stood in the graveyard for a moment, feeling disoriented. The gravestones were so old, yet an hour before stones with these dates had been new. Dougless gasped in horror at the first sight of a car. And as she gasped, she felt her lungs expand; no steel corset confined her ribcage. For a moment she had a deep sense of everything being wrong. She felt naked and drab in her plain clothes. She looked down at her boring skirt and blouse with distaste. And her back felt as though it had nothing to support it now that her corset was gone, and her leather boots pinched her feet.

Another car went by, and the speed of it made Dougless feel dizzy. She walked to the gate, opened it, then stepped onto the sidewalk. How odd to have concrete under her feet. As she walked, she looked with awe at the buildings about her. There were huge expanses of glass; the shop signs had writing on them. Who can read them? she thought, remembering that where she had been few people could read, so signs were painted with pictures of what was sold in the shops.

How clean everything was, she thought. No mud, no chamber pot emptyings, no kitchen slops, no pigs foraging. The people in the street were odd-looking too. They all wore the same drab clothes as she did. And they all seemed to be equal, no beggars dressed in filthy rags, no ladies with pearls on their skirts.

Dougless slowly walked down the street, staring wide-eyed, as though she’d never seen the twentieth century before. The smell of food made her turn and enter a pub. For a moment she stood in the doorway and looked about. Obviously, the place was supposed to be a facsimile of an Elizabethan tavern, but it missed by a long way. It was too clean, too quiet, too . . . lonely, she thought. The people sitting at the tables were isolated from one another. Not at all like the gregarious, nosy Elizabethans.

At the back of the pub was a chalkboard with the menu on it. Dougless ordered six courses, taking no notice of the waitress’s raised eyebrows; then she went to a table to sit down and sip her beer. The thick glass mug felt odd and the beer tasted as though it were half water.

On the bar was a rack of guidebooks to the historic houses of Great Britain. Dougless handed the barman a ten-pound note, then took the book back to her booth and began to read it. Bellwood was open to the public, just as it had been before. She looked for Nicholas’s other houses and found that they were no longer listed as being ruins. All eleven of the houses Nicholas had once owned were still standing. And three of them were owned by the Stafford family.

Dougless blinked hard as she reread the passage. The guidebook said that the Stafford family was one of the oldest and wealthiest in England, that in the seventeenth century they had married into the royal family, and that the present duke was a cousin to the queen.

“Duke,” Dougless whispered. “Nicholas, your descendants are dukes.”

When the food came, Dougless was a bit startled at the way it was served, without ceremony, all the dishes being put on the table at once.

As she ate, she kept reading the guidebook. Except for Bellwood, all Nicholas’s houses were private residences and not open to the public. She turned to Thornwyck Castle. It too was a private residence, but a small section of it was open to the public on Thursdays. “The current duke feels that the beauty of Thornwyck, designed by his ancestor, the brilliant scholar Nicholas Stafford, must be shared with the world,” she read.

“‘Brilliant scholar,’” she whispered. Not the ladies’ man he had once been called. Not a rogue, not a wastrel, but a “brilliant scholar.”

She closed the guidebook and looked up. The waitress was hovering over her with an odd expression on her face.

“Something wrong with your fork?” she asked.

“Fork?” Dougless couldn’t think what the woman was talking about. The waitress continued to stare at Dougless until she looked down at her empty plate. There beside it lay an unused fork. Dougless had eaten her meal with a spoon and a knife. “It’s all right. I just—” She couldn’t think of what to say, so she gave the woman a weak smile and looked at the bill. The amount—enough to buy a hundred medieval dinners—made her blanch, but she paid it.

And before she left, she asked the waitress what day of the week it was—something she couldn’t remember—and was pleased to find out that it was Wednesday.

Outside again, she didn’t allow herself to stand still. If she stayed in one place too long, she knew that she’d start to think; she’d think about Nicholas, about losing him, and about never seeing him again.

She practically ran to the train station to catch the first train to Bellwood. She had to see what had changed. On the train ride she made herself read the guidebook, anything to fill her mind.

By now she knew the way to Bellwood from the train station very well. According to twentieth-century time, she had visited the house only the day before—the day when she’d heard of Nicholas’s execution. The guide hadn’t been very pleasant. After all, she remembered Dougless as having opened and closed the alarmed door and disturbing her tour.

Dougless bought her ticket and guidebook for the tour, and when she got in line, the same guide was at the head.

In the house, Dougless, who had once thought it was so beautiful, now saw it as bare and drab and lifeless. There were no plates of gold and silver on the hearths, no exquisite needlework on the tables, no cushions on the chairs. But most of all there were no richly dressed people moving about, no people laughing, and no music anywhere.

They were at Nicholas’s room before Dougless could recover from her distaste for the barren house. She stood to one side, looked up at Nicholas’s portrait, and listened to the guide. The story was different now—very, very different.

The guide could not use enough superlatives when describing Nicholas.

“He was a true Renaissance man,” the guide told them, “the epitome of what his era hoped to achieve. He designed beautiful houses that were a hundred years ahead of his time. He made great advances in the field of medicine, even writing a book on disease prevention that, had it been adhered to, would have saved thousands of lives.”

“What did the book say?” Dougless asked.

The guide gave her a hard look, obviously remembering the door-opening incident. “Basically, Lord Nicholas talked of cleanliness and said that doctors and midwives must wash their hands before touching a patient. Now, if you’ll follow me, we shall see—”

Dougless left the tour after that, went out the entrance, and walked to the village library.

She spent the afternoon reading the history books. Every scrap of information was different now. She saw the names of people she had known and come to love. They were just names in history books to other readers, but to her they were flesh and blood people.

After three husbands, Lady Margaret never married again, and lived into her seventies.

Kit had married little Lucy, and one book said Lucy had come to be a great benefactress who encouraged musicians and artists. Kit had run the Stafford estates well until he died of a stomach ailment at age forty-two. Since he and Lucy had had no children, the earldom and estates went to Nicholas.

As she read about Nicholas, she touched the printed words, as though they could make him seem closer. When she read that Nicholas had never married, quick tears came to her eyes, but she blinked them away.

Nicholas had lived to the grand old age of sixty-two, and during his life he had done many great things. The books went into detail about the beauty and creativity of the buildings he had designed. “His use of glass was far ahead of its time,” one author wrote.

One book told of Nicholas’s ideas about medicine, how he had crusaded for cleanliness. “Had his advice been taken,” the author said, “modern medicine would have had its start hundreds of years earlier.”

“Far ahead of his time,” the books said again and again.

She leaned back in her chair. No Arabella-on-the-table. No diary being found that told of what a womanizer Nicholas was. No betrayal. No conspiracy between his wife and his friend. And, most important, no execution.

She left when the library closed, walked to the station, and took a train back to Ashburton. She still had a room at the hotel and her clothes were there.

Once in her hotel room, she had difficulty adjusting to the modernness of it, especially the bathroom. She took a shower, but couldn’t bear the hot water or the hard, sharp forcefulness of the showerhead. She turned the knobs until the water was a lukewarm drizzle and felt more at home.

The flushing of the toilet seemed like a waste of water to her, and she kept staring at the big mirror in wonder.

After a room service supper, she put on her flimsy nightgown and felt like a lewd woman. And when she went to bed, she felt lonely without Honoria beside her.

Surprisingly, she went to sleep immediately, and if she dreamed, she did not remember doing so.

In the morning she had difficulty with the hotel when she asked for beef and beer for breakfast, but the English, better than any other people on earth, understood eccentrics.

She reached Thornwyck Castle by ten A.M., just as the gates were opening. She bought a ticket and started on the tour. The guide talked at length about the Stafford family, some of whose members still owned the house, and especially about their brilliant ancestor, Nicholas Stafford.

“He never married,” the guide said with twinkling eyes, “but he had a son named James. When Nicholas’s older brother died and left no children, Nicholas inherited, and when Nicholas died, the Stafford estates went to James.”

Dougless smiled, remembering the sweet little boy she had played with.

The guide continued. “James made a brilliant marriage and tripled the family fortunes. It was through James that the Stafford family really made its money.”

And he would have died if Dougless had not intervened.

The guide went on to the next generation of the family and the next room, but Dougless slipped away. When she’d seen Thornwyck before, it had been half in ruins, but Nicholas had shown her the corbel with Kit’s face high on the wall of what would have been the second floor. Unfortunately, the second floor was not open to the public.

But Dougless had been through too much to allow anything to stop her. She opened a door that said NO ADMITTANCE, and found herself in a small sitting room furnished in English chintz. Feeling like a spy, but also knowing that she had to do what she did, she went to the doorway and peered out. The hall was clear, so she tiptoed down it, thinking that carpet on the floor made sneaking much easier than noisy rushes.

She found a staircase and went up to the second floor. Twice she had to hide when she heard footsteps, but no one saw her. In Nicholas’s time there would have been so many servants running about that it would have been impossible for an intruder to get to the second floor unnoticed, but those days were long gone.

Once on the second floor, she had trouble orienting herself as she tried to remember just where the corbel would be. She searched three rooms before she entered a bedroom and saw it, high up above a beautiful walnut dresser.

She plastered herself between the dresser and the wall as a maid walked out of the adjoining bath. Dougless held her breath as the maid straightened the bedspread, then left the room.

Alone again, Dougless went to work. She pulled a heavy chair beside the dresser, climbed on it, then, after three tries, managed to climb on top of the dresser. She had just put her hand on the old stone corbel when the door opened. Dougless flattened herself against the wall.

The maid came in again, this time with an armload of towels that blocked her from seeing Dougless. She didn’t breathe until the woman left.

When the door closed, Dougless turned and touched Kit’s stone face. The stonework looked to be solid and she wished she’d had the foresight to bring a screwdriver or small crowbar. She pulled and tugged at the face and was almost ready to give up when the stone moved in her hand.

She broke her nails and skinned her knuckles, but she was at last able to pull the face away. A long piece of stone protruded from the back of the face and fit neatly into the corbel.

Standing on tiptoe, Dougless looked behind the head. Inside a hollowed-out place was a small cloth-wrapped package. Quickly, she took the package, slipped it into her pocket, then shoved the corbel back into place and climbed down. She didn’t take the time to put the chair back as she hurried from the room.

She made it, without being seen, back to the tour just as the group was in the last room.

“And here we have the lace display,” the guide was saying. “Most of the lace is Victorian, but we do have a very special piece of lace from the sixteenth century.”

Dougless gave the guide all of her attention.

“It seems that although Lord Nicholas Stafford of the sixteenth century never married, there was a mysterious woman in his past. On his deathbed he asked to be buried with this piece of lace, but there was some confusion and Lord Nicholas went to his grave without the lace. His son, James, said the lace was always to be kept in a place of honor in the family, since it had meant so much to his beloved father.”

Dougless had to wait for the other tourists to move before she could see into the case. There, under glass, yellowed now and worn-looking, was the lace cuff Honoria had been making for her. The name Dougless was worked into it.

“‘Dougless’?” a tourist said, laughing. “That’s a man’s name. Maybe ol’ Nick didn’t marry because he was a little”—he waved his hand—“you know.”

Dougless spoke before the guide could. “For your information, ‘Dougless’ was a woman’s name in the sixteenth century, and I can assure you that Lord Nicholas Stafford was not a little”—she glared at him— “‘you know.’” Storming past him, she left the house.

She walked into the gardens, and while other tourists exclaimed over their beauty, Dougless thought they looked messy and neglected. She went to a quiet corner, sat on a bench, then took the package from her pocket.

Slowly, she unwrapped it. Touching the waxed cloth bindings that had last been touched by Nicholas so long ago, made her fingers tremble.

The miniature portrait of Nicholas came to light, as rich and bright as the day it had been painted. “Nicholas,” she whispered as she put her fingertips on the painting. “Oh, Nicholas, have I truly lost you completely? Are you gone from me forever?”

She looked at the miniature, touched it, and when she turned it over, she saw something engraved on the back. Holding it up to the light, she read the inscription.

 

Time has no meaning

Love will endure

 

He had signed it with an N, a D over the top of it.

Leaning back against the old stone wall, she blinked away tears. “Nicholas, come back to me,” she whispered. “Please come back to me.”

She sat there for a long time before she rose. She’d missed lunch, so she went to the tea shop and sat down with a plate of scones and a pot of strong black tea. She’d bought a guidebook at Bellwood and one at Thornwyck, and as she ate and drank, she read.

With every word she read, she told herself that what had happened had been worth the pain of losing the man she loved. What did the love between two people matter when, by giving up their love, they had changed history? Kit had lived, Lady Margaret had lived, James had lived—and Nicholas had lived. And with their lives, the family honor had been saved, so that today a Stafford was a duke and part of the royal family.

Against all that, what did one piddling little love affair mean?

She left the tea shop and walked to the train station. She could go home now, she thought, home to America, home to her family. No more would she be an outsider, and never again would she have to pretend to be someone she was not.

On the train ride back to Ashburton, she told herself that she should be jubilant. She and Nicholas had accomplished so much. How many other people had had the good fortune to be able to change history? Yet Dougless had been given that opportunity. Through her efforts the Stafford family was doing well. There were beautiful buildings standing because she had encouraged Nicholas to use his talent for designing. There were . . .

Her thoughts trailed off. It was no use telling herself what she should feel, because what she did feel was miserable.

In Ashburton she slowly walked back to the hotel. She’d need to call the airlines and make reservations.

In the lobby, Robert and Gloria were waiting for her. At the moment she didn’t think she could handle a confrontation. She hardly looked at Robert. “I’ll get the bracelet,” she said, then turned away before he could speak.

Catching her arm, he halted her. “Dougless, could we talk?”

She stiffened, preparing herself for his abuse. “I told you I’d get the bracelet for you, and I apologize for keeping it.”

“Please,” he said, and his eyes were soft.

Dougless looked at Gloria. Gone from the girl’s face was the smug, I’m-going-to-get-you look. Wary, Dougless went to sit on a chair across from father and daughter. Lucy, and Robert Sydney, Dougless thought. How much Gloria looked like Kit’s bride-to-be and how much this Robert resembled a sixteenth-century Robert. Dougless thought of how she and Nicholas had changed the lives of both of those people. Robert Sydney had been given no reason to hate Nicholas because Arabella had not been impregnated on a table. And Dougless had helped Lucy gain some self-confidence.

Robert cleared his throat, then spoke. “Gloria and I have been talking, and we, well, we decided that maybe we weren’t quite fair to you.”

Dougless stared at him, her eyes wide. At one point in her life she had looked at Robert while wearing a blindfold. She saw only what she’d wanted to see; she had endowed him with characteristics that he didn’t have. Now, looking back at their life together, she saw that he’d never loved her. “What do you want from me?” she asked tiredly.

“We just wanted to apologize,” Robert said, “and we’d like for you to join us on the rest of the trip.”

“You can sit in front,” Gloria said.

Dougless looked from one to the other, puzzled, not by their words, for Robert would often apologize to get her to do what he wanted, but by the sincere looks on their faces. It was almost as though they really meant what they were saying. “No,” she said softly, “I’m going home tomorrow.”

Robert reached out and took her hand. “Home to my house, I hope.” His eyes were bright. “To the house that will be ours as soon as we’re married.”

“Married?” Dougless whispered.

“Please, Dougless, I’m asking you to marry me. I was a fool not to see how good we were together.”

Dougless gave a bit of a smile. Here was what she’d wanted so much: marriage to a respectable, stable man.

She took a deep breath and smiled more broadly, for suddenly she didn’t feel like selling herself so cheaply. She was no longer the baby of the family who wasn’t as good as her big sisters. She was a woman who had been transported to a foreign time, and not only had she survived, she had succeeded in accomplishing a monumental task. No longer did she need to prove herself to her too-perfect family by bringing home an achieving husband. No, Dougless was the achiever now.

She picked up Robert’s hand and put it back on his lap. “Thanks, but no thanks,” she said pleasantly.

“But I thought you wanted to get married.” He looked to be genuinely confused.

“And Daddy said I could be your maid of honor,” Gloria said.

“When I do get married, it will be to someone who wants to give to me,” Dougless said, then looked at Gloria. “And I will choose my own bridesmaids.”

Gloria turned red and looked down at her hands.

“You’ve changed, Dougless,” Robert said softly.

“I have, haven’t I?” she answered, wonder in her voice. “I really, truly have changed.” She stood up. “I’ll get your bracelet now.”

When she started toward the stairs, Robert followed her, Gloria remaining in the lobby. He didn’t speak to her until she unlocked her room and went inside. Following her inside, he shut the door behind him.

“Dougless, is it someone else?”

She took the diamond bracelet from where she’d hidden it in her suitcase and held it out to him. “There is no one,” she said, feeling the loss of Nicholas.

“Not even the man you said you were helping to research?”

“The research is done, and he’s . . . gone.”

“Permanently?”

“As permanently as time can manage.” She looked away a moment, then back at him. “I’m quite tired now, and I have a long flight tomorrow, so I’ll say good-bye. When I get back to the States, I’ll clear my things out of your house.”

“Dougless, please reconsider. We can’t end what we’ve had because of a little argument. We love each other.”

When she looked at him, she thought about how at one time in her life she’d thought she loved him. But now she knew their relationship had been one-sided, with Dougless doing all the pleading, all the trying-to-please. “What has changed you?” she asked. “How could you leave me stranded in a foreign country with no money just a few days ago and now be here asking me to marry you?”

Robert’s face turned a bit red, and he looked away sheepishly. “I really do apologize about that.” When he looked back at her, his face was filled with sincerity—and also a little confusion. “It was the oddest thing. You know, all your family’s money used to make me furious. I put myself through medical school while living on canned beans, yet you’d always had everything. You have a family who adores you and a history of wealth that goes back centuries. I hated the way you used to play at living on your teacher’s salary, because I knew you could get all the money you ever wanted if you’d just ask. When I left you at that church, I knew Gloria had your bag, and I was glad. I wanted you to see what it was like to have to survive without money, to have to rely on yourself as I’ve always had to.”

He took a breath and his face softened. “But then, yesterday, everything changed. Gloria and I were in a restaurant, and quite suddenly I wished you were with us. I . . . I wasn’t angry at you anymore. Does that make sense? All the anger I felt for your having been given everything just evaporated. Gone, as though it’d never been there.”

He went to her and put his hands on her shoulders. “I was a fool to let someone like you get away. If you’ll let me, I’ll spend the rest of my life making it up to you. We don’t have to get married if you don’t want to. We don’t have to live together. I’ll . . . I’ll court you if you’ll allow me. I’ll court you with flowers and candy and . . . and balloons. What do you say? Give me another chance?”

Dougless stared at him. He said that yesterday his anger had left him. All her days in the sixteenth century had passed in just a few minutes of twentieth-century time, and during her time with Nicholas, she had defused the anger of Robert’s and Gloria’s look-alikes. Could this Robert’s anger have been based on his bitterness over what had happened in the sixteenth century? When Robert had first seen Nicholas, he had looked at him with rage. Why? Because Nicholas had once impregnated his wife?

And Gloria seemed to be no longer angry with Dougless. Because Dougless had helped an earlier incarnation of Gloria? Because an earlier Gloria no longer believed the man she loved wanted Dougless?

Dougless gave her head a shake to clear it. Were I to die tomorrow, my soul would remember you, Nicholas had said. Did Robert and Gloria have the souls of people who had lived before?

“Will you give me another chance?” Robert repeated.

Smiling, Dougless kissed him on the cheek. “No,” she said, “although I thank you very much for the offer.”

When she pulled away from him, Dougless was glad to see he wasn’t angry. “Someone else?” he asked again, as though his ego could stand that rejection better than her choosing to have no one rather than him.

“Sort of.”

Robert looked at the bracelet in his hand. “If I’d bought an engagement ring instead of this . . . Well, who knows?” He looked back at her. “He’s a lucky S.O.B, whoever he is. I wish you all the luck in the world.” He left the room, shutting the door behind him.

Dougless stood in the empty room for a moment, then went to the telephone to call her parents. She wanted to hear the sound of their voices.

Elizabeth answered.

“Are Mother and Dad back yet?” Dougless asked.

“No, they’re still at the cabin. Dougless, I demand that you tell me what is going on. If you’re in one of your scrapes again, you’d better tell me so I can get you out of it. You aren’t the one in jail this time, are you?”

Dougless was amazed to find that the words of her perfect older sister didn’t anger her, nor did they make her feel guilty. “Elizabeth,” she said firmly, “I would appreciate it if you didn’t speak to me in that manner. I called to tell my family that I am coming home.”

“Oh,” Elizabeth said. “I didn’t mean anything; it’s just that usually you’re in one mess or another.”

Dougless did not speak.

“Okay, I apologize. Would you like me to meet you and Robert at the airport, or does he have his car?”

“Robert won’t be with me.”

“Oh,” Elizabeth said again, allowing time for Dougless to explain. When Dougless was silent, Elizabeth went on. “Dougless, we’ll all be very glad to see you.”

“And I’ll be glad to see you. Don’t meet me, I’ll rent a car, and, Elizabeth, I’ve missed you.”

There was a pause, then Elizabeth said, “Come home and I’ll cook a celebration dinner.”

Dougless groaned. “When did you say Mother was returning?”

“All right, so I’m not the world’s best cook. You cook, I’ll clean up the kitchen.”

“It’s a deal. I’ll be there day after tomorrow.”

“Dougless!” Elizabeth said. “I’ve missed you too.”

Dougless put down the telephone and smiled. It seemed that not only had history changed, but so had the present. She knew, felt inside herself, that never again was she going to be the butt of the family’s jokes, because no longer did she feel incompetent, as though she couldn’t handle her own life.

She called Heathrow, booked her flight, then began to pack.


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