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The Golden Calf: A Novel, a novel by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 26. 'And, If I Die, No Soul Will Pity Me'

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At last their long watchings, their tender care, directed by one of the most famous men in London--who was summoned to Wimperfield at Mr. Fosbroke's suggestion within a week of Dr. Mallison's visit--and attended twice or thrice a day by the clever apothecary, were rewarded by the assurance that the time of immediate danger was over, and that now a slow and gradual recovery might fairly be anticipated. It was only then that Ida could bring herself to face Brian again, and even then she met him with an icy look, as if the life within her were frozen by grief and care, and those rigid lips of hers could never again melt into smiles.

Brian had been leading a fitful and wandering life during the boy's illness, watched and waited upon by Towler, the man from London, with whom he quarrelled twenty times a day, and who needed his long experience of the "ways" of alcoholic victims to enable him to endure the fitfulness and freakishness of his present charge.

Warned by Dr. Mallison that he must spend as much of his life in the open air as possible, Brian had taken to going in and out of the house fifty times a day, now wandering for five or ten minutes in the garden, anon rambling as far as the edge of the park, then running into the stable yard, and ordering a horse to be saddled instantly, but never mounting the horse. After seeing the animal led up and down the yard once or twice, he would always find some excuse for not riding; the fact being that he had no longer courage enough to get into the saddle. His riding days were over. Even the stable mastiff, an old favourite with Brian, gave him a painful shock when the great tawny brute leapt out of his kennel, straining at his chain, and baying deep-mouthed thunder by way of friendly greeting.

Towler had a hard time of it, following his charge here and there, waiting upon him, bearing his abuse; but Towler had a peculiar gift, a faculty for getting on with patients of this kind. He knew how to dodge, and follow, and circumvent them; how to take liberties with them, and scold them, without too deeply wounding their _amour-propre;_ how to humour and manage them; and although Mr. Wendover quarrelled with his attendant fifty times a day, he yet liked the man, and tolerated his presence; and had already come to lean upon him, and to be angry when Towler absented himself.

'Well,' said Brian, looking up as Ida entered his room on that happy morning on which she had been told that her brother was out of danger--'the boy is better, I hear?'

These things are quickly known in a household, when there has been general anxiety about the issue of an illness.

'Yes, he is better. By God's grace, he will live; but his life has trembled in the balance. Brian, it would have been your fault if he had died.'

'Would it? Yes, I suppose indirectly I should have been the cause. I was a fool to take him out that morning; but,' shrugging his shoulders, 'I wanted a ramble, and I wanted company. Who could tell there would be such a diabolical storm, or that we should lose our way? Thank God he is out of danger. Poor little beggar! Did you think I wanted to put him out of the way?' he asked, suddenly, looking at her with a keen flash of interrogation.

'To think that would be to think you a murderer,' she answered, coldly. 'I have thought that you had little affection for him or for me when you exposed him to that danger; and then I schooled myself to think better of you--to remember that, perhaps, on that day you were hardly responsible for your actions.'

'In fact, that I was a lunatic,' said Brian.

'I would rather think you mad than wicked.'

'Perhaps I am neither. Why have you put that man as a spy upon me?'

The discreet Towler had retired into the adjacent bedroom during this conversation.

'He is not a spy. Dr. Mallison said you ought to have a servant specially to wait upon you, that in your sleepless nights you might not be left alone.'

'No, they are a trial, those long nights. Towler is not a bad fellow, but he irritates me sometimes. Last night he let a black-muzzled gipsy brute hide behind my curtains, and then told me it was my "delusions." Delusions! when I saw the fellow as plain as I see you now.'

Ida was silent. She had hoped that the patient had passed this stage, and was on the road to recovery of health and reason. She interrogated Towler by-and-by, and he assured her that Mr. Wendover had taken no stimulants since he had been attending upon him.

'Are you sure he cannot get any without your knowledge?' Ida asked. 'Dr. Mallison told me that in this malady a patient is terribly artful--that he will contrive to evade the closest watchfulness, if it is any way possible to get drink.'

'Ah, that's true enough, ma'am,' sighed the man; 'there's no getting to the bottom of their artfulness: but I'm an old hand, and I know all the ins and outs of the complaint. It isn't possible for Mr. Wendover to get any drink in this house, and he never goes out of it without me. Every drop of wine and spirits is under lock and key, and all the servants are warned against giving him anything.'

Ida sighed, full of shame at the thought that her husband, the man whom it was her duty to honour and obey, should be degraded by such humiliating precautions; and yet there was no help for it. He had brought himself to this pass. This is the end of ambrosial nights, the feast of reason, the flow of soul, wit drowned in whisky, satire stimulated by brandy and soda.

Ida went back to her brother's room. It was there her love, her fears, her cares were all concentrated. Duty might make her careful and thoughtful for her husband, but here love was paramount. To sit by his pillow, to talk to him, or read to him, or pray for him, to minister to him, jealous of the skilled nurse who had been hired to perform these offices,--these things were her delight. Lady Palliser, worn out with watching and anxiety, had now broken down altogether, and had consented to take a long day's rest; but Ida's more energetic nature could do with much less rest--half an hour's delicious sleep now and then, with her head on her darling's pillow, was all-sufficient to restore her.

And so the blessed days of hope went on, and every morning and every afternoon Mr. Fosbroke's report was more favourable. It was a tedious recovery from a cruel disease, happily shortened by at least two-thirds of its old-fashioned length by modern treatment; but all was going well, and the hearts of the watchers were at ease. The boy lay swathed in cotton wool, very helpless, very languid, fed and petted from morning till night, like a young bird brought up by hand: and Ida and her stepmother had to be patient and thankful.

Ida had often thought during the boy's illness of the man who had found him, and brought him safely home to them on that anxious day; and she wished much to testify her gratitude to the misanthropic dweller in the gamekeeper's cottage; but she hesitated as to her manner of approaching him. To go herself would be futile, when he had so obdurately shut his door against her. Then she had Vernon's assurance that this Bohemian hated women. She might have sent a servant with a message; but she had reason to know, from Vernon's description of the man, that he was altogether above the servant class, and would be likely to resent such a form of approach. She might have written to him; but her pride recoiled from that course, remembering his cavalier treatment of her. And so she let the days slip by, until Vernon began to recover strength and good spirits, and to inquire about his friend.

'I want Jack to come and see me, and sit with me,' said the boy; 'he could come to tea couldn't he, mother? You wouldn't mind, would you?'

'My dear, he is not a proper person for you to associate with,' replied Lady Palliser. 'You oughtn't to bemean yourself by associating with your inferiors.'

'Bemean fiddlesticks!' cried Vernie; 'I don't believe there is such a word. Jack is the cleverest man I know--cleverer than Mr. Jardine, and that's saying a great deal.'

Vainly did the widow endeavour to awaken her son's mind to the great gulf which divides a baronet from a hawker--a gulf not to be bridged over by the genius of a Dalton or a Whewell--and to those nice distinctions which obtain between a casual out-of-door intercourse with a man of this class, and a deliberate invitation to tea.

'When I'm well enough to go out I can go to him,' answered Vernon, doggedly; 'but now I'm ill he must come to me; and it's very unkind of you not to let him come. Blow his station in life! If he was a duke I shouldn't want him.'

'I can't think what you can want with this low person, when Ida and I are always doing everything to amuse you,' moaned Lady Palliser.

'Ida's a darling, and you too, mother,' said the boy, putting his thin little arms round his mother's neck. He was now just able to move those poor arms, which had been so racked with pain a little while ago. 'But I get tired of everything--Shakespeare, Dickens, even. It's so long to stay in bed; and I think Jack would amuse me more than anyone, if you'd let him come.'

'He shall come, darling. Is there anything I could refuse you?' said the mother, eagerly, moved by the sight of tears in Vernon's innocent blue eyes.

'Ask him to come to tea this afternoon.'

'Yes, love; I'll go and see about it this minute.'

Lady Palliser went in quest of Ida, who was sitting in Brian's study reading, while her husband wrote, or made believe to write, at a table in the window piled with books of reference, which he consulted every now and then, lolling back in his chair and reading listlessly--altogether a mere show and pretence of study, never likely to result in anything--a weary dawdling away of the long summer morning.

To Ida, Lady Palliser explained her difficulty. A note of some kind must be written to this Cheap Jack; and the little woman did not know how to word that note.

'If I say, "Lady Palliser presents her compliments to Mr. Cheap Jack, and requests the pleasure of his company," it seems like patting myself on a level with him, don't you know. I wish you'd write for me, Ida.'

'Willingly, dear mother; but I'm afraid the man won't come. He is such a very rough diamond.'

'Oh! but surely he will be gratified at an invitation to tea!'

'I'm afraid not. But I'll write at once. Anything to please Vernon.' Ida wrote as follows:--

'Sir Vernon Palliser, who is slowly recovering from a serious illness, will be very pleased if his friend Jack will spend an hour or two with him this afternoon. Any hour convenient to Jack will be agreeable to Sir Vernon, but he would much like Jack to drink tea with him between four and five. The other members of the family will not intrude upon the sick room while Jack is there.'

'I think that will do,' said Ida; and Lady Palliser carried off the note, wondering at her stepdaughter's cleverness, yet inclined to fear that the hermit of Blackman's Hanger might be offended at being addressed as Jack, _tout court;_ and yet how could one deal ceremoniously with a man who acknowledged no surname, and was known to all the neighbourhood only as 'Cheap Jack'?

Mr. Fosbroke came for his noontide visit just after this business of the letter, and found Ida and her stepmother both with the invalid. He was told what they had done.

'Do you think he'll come?' Vernon asked, eagerly.

'I should think he would. Sir Vernon,' answered the doctor; 'for I know he takes a keen interest in your recovery. All the time you were really bad he used to hang about the Park gate every day as I went out, and stopped me to ask how you were. And he asked after you, too, Mrs. Wendover,--seemed to be afraid your anxiety about this little man would be too much for you.'

'Remarkably polite of him,' said Ida, laughing; 'yet he treated me in the most bearish manner when I went to his cottage.'

'If he is a bear, he is a bear with gentlemanly instincts,' replied the doctor. 'Nothing could be more respectful, more delicate, than his inquiries about you; and I could see by the expression of his eyes that he really felt for you. He has very fine eyes.'

'One of the tokens of his gipsy blood, I suppose,' said Ida.

'Yes; I believe he is a gipsy. They are a keen-witted race.'

'A gipsy!--and with so much plate as there is in this house!' exclaimed Lady Palliser. 'Oh, Vernie, you ought not to have asked me to ask him!'

'Don't be afraid, mother,' said Ida; 'he shall be sharply looked after, if he does come.'

'Looked after, indeed! Why, you might give him the run of a silver mine. What does he care for your trumpery silver spoons?' cried Vernon, contemptuously.

The invalid was doomed to disappointment. About two hours after Ida's letter had been despatched, a small boy brought Cheap Jack's reply, to the following effect:--'Jack is very sorry he cannot drink tea with his little friend--'

'Little friend, indeed! What vulgar familiarity!' exclaimed Lady Palliser.

'But he belongs to the dwellers in tents, and would be out of place in a fine house--'

'Then he _is_ a gipsy,' said Lady Palliser. 'What a luck; escape!'

'He looks forward to the pleasure of seeing Sir Vernon on the Hanger before long. Meanwhile he can only send his duty and best wishes for Sir Vernon's speedy recovery.'

'The end is a little better than the commencement,' said Lady Palliser; 'but I call it a great liberty for a Cheap Jack to talk of my son as his little friend.'

'He might have left out "little," considering that I shall be twelve next birthday,' said Vernon, with dignity. 'But I am his friend, mother; and I mean to be his friend always. And when I am grown up I shall take him to the Rocky Mountains, and we will hunt moose and things.'

Lady Palliser sighed, and hoped that this passion for low company would pass with the other follies of childhood.

Now that all danger was past, and that Vernon was on the high-road to health, Ida spent the greater part of her time in attendance upon her husband. It was her duty, she told herself; and she who had so failed in love must needs fulfil every duty. But the performance of this simple, wifely duty of attendance on an invalid husband was fraught with pain: his temper was so irritable, his mind was so weak, his whole being so degraded and sunk by his infirmity, that the progress of his decay was, of all forms of dissolution, the most painful for the looker-on. That he was sinking into a lower depth of degradation, rather than recovering, was sadly obvious to Ida, in spite of occasional intervals of better feeling and rare flashes of his old brightness.

The case was altogether perplexing. Towler admitted that he was more puzzled than he had ever been about any patient whom he had enjoyed the honour of attending. Mr. Wendover, under his present conditions of absolute sobriety, and with youth on his side, ought to have shown a decided improvement by this time; and yet there was no substantial amelioration of his state, and his latest fit of the horrors, which occurred only a night ago, had been quite as bad as the first which Towler had witnessed.

'You do not think that he gets brandy without your knowledge?' inquired Ida, blushing at the question.

'No, ma'am; I'm too careful for that. I've searched his trunks even, and every cupboard in his rooms; and I've looked behind the registers of the stoves, which are very handy places for patients hiding bottles in summer time; but there's not so much as an ounce phial. And Mr. Wendover's hardly out of my sight, except when he takes his bath, or just going in and out of his bath-room, where he keeps his pipes, as you know, ma'am. Besides, even if he had any hiding-place for the drink, who is likely to supply him with it?'

'No; I hope there is no one,' said Ida, thoughtfully. 'I hope no one in this house would so betray my confidence.'

'I've taken stock of all the servants, ma'am, and I don't think there's one that would do it.'

Ida was of the same opinion. The servants were old servants, as loyal to the heads of the house as a highland clan to their chief.

Sunday came--a peaceful summer Sabbath--a day of sunshine and azure sky, and Ida, whose anxiety about Vernon had kept her away from her parish church for the last three Sundays, was able to set out upon her walk to the village with a heart quite at rest on the boy's account. Even the mother could find no excuse for staying at home with her boy, and felt that conscience and society alike required that she should assist at the service of her parish church. Vernie was convalescent, able to sit up in his bed, propped with pillows, and eat hot-house grapes, and turn over the leaves of endless volumes of _Punch_, laughing with his hearty childish laugh at Leech's jokes and the curious garments of a departed era.

'How could men wear such trousers? and how could women wear such bonnets?' he asked his mother, wonderingly contemplating fashionable youth as represented by the great pen-and-ink humourist.

'I don't know why we shouldn't wear them, Vernie,' said his mother, with rather an offended air; 'those spoon bonnets were very becoming. I wore one the day your pa first saw me.'

'And hoops under your gown like that?' said Vernie, pointing; 'and those funny little boots? What a guy you must have looked!'

When a boy has come to this pass he may fairly be left with servants for a couple of hours; so Lady Palliser put on her stateliest mourning--her thick corded silk, flounced with crape and her Mary Stuart bonnet, and went across the park, and up hill and down hill, for it was a country of hills and hollows--to the parish church of Wimperfield, a very ancient edifice, with massive columnar piers, Norman groined roof, and walls enriched by a grand array of memorial tablets, setting forth the honours and virtues of those dead and gone landowners whose bones were mouldering in the vaults below the square oaken pews in which the living worshipped. In the chancel there was the usual stately monument to some magnate of the middle ages, who was represented kneeling by his wife's side, with a graduated row of sons and daughters kneeling behind them, as if the whole family had died and petrified simultaneously, in the act of pious worship.

Ida did not invite her husband to join her in her Sabbath devotions, assured that he would claim an invalid's privilege to stay at home. He had very rarely attended the parish church with his wife, affecting to despise such humdrum and conventional worship. He had just that thin smattering of modern science which enables shallow youth to make a merit of disbelief in all things beyond the limit of mathematical demonstration. He had skimmed Darwin, and spoke lightly of mankind as the latest development of time and matter, and no higher a being, from a spiritual point of view, than the first worm that wriggled in its primeval slime. He had dipped into Herbert Spencer, and talked largely of God as the Unknowable; and how could the Unknowable be supposed to take pleasure in the automatic prayers of a handful of bumpkins and clodhoppers met together in a mouldy old church, time out of mind the temple of superstitions and ceremonies. The vast temple of the universe was Brian Walford's idea of a church; and a very fine church it is, if a man will only worship faithfully therein; but the man who abandons formal prayers and set seasons of devotion with a vague idea of worshipping in the woodland or on the hill top, very rarely troubles himself to realise his ideal.

Brian's broadly-declared agnosticism had long been a cause of pain and grief to his wife. She had felt that this alone would have made sympathy impossible between them, had there been no other ground for difference. She thought with a bitter sense of contrast of his cousin, who was a student and a thinker, and who yet was not ashamed to believe and to worship as a little child. Surely it was not a sign of a weak intelligence for a man to believe in something better and higher than himself, when Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Homer, and Virgil could so believe. Brian Walford's idea of cleverness was to consider himself the ultimate product of incalculable antecedent time, the full-stop of creation.

Here were all the pious parishioners, the county families, and the country bumpkins, meekly kneeling on their knees, and uplifting their voices in perfect faithfulness--not thinking very deeply of any element in the service perhaps, but honest in their reverence and their love. The old church was a pretty sight on such a summer morning--the white robes of the choristers touched with supernal radiance, the light tempered by the deep rubies and purples and ambers in windows old and new--the very irregularities and architectural anomalies of the building producing a quaintness which was more pleasing than absolute beauty.

The litany was nearly over when Ida heard a familiar step on the stone pavement of the nave. It was Brian's step; and presently he stopped at the door of the high oaken pew, opened it, and came in and seated himself-on the bench, opposite to the spot where she knelt by her step-mother's side. It was a capacious old pew, and would have held ten people. Brian kicked about the hassocks, and made himself comfortable; but he did not kneel, or take any part in the service. He sat with his elbows on his knees, and his chin in his hands, staring at the floor. His presence filled Ida with anxiety. He had not risen from his bed when she left home, and Towler had given her to understand that he would not get up for some time, as he had had a very bad night. He must have risen and dressed hurriedly in order to follow her to church. His eyes had the wild look in them which she had noticed on the night when he saw visions.

It was in vain that Ida tried after this to fix her mind upon the service--every movement, every look of Brian's, alarmed her. She was thankful for the high pew which sheltered him from the gaze of the congregation; and presently when they stood up to sing a hymn, she was glad that Brian remained seated, albeit their was irreverence in the attitude.

But when the last verse was being sung, he rose suddenly and looked all round the church with those wild eyes of his, took up a book and turned the leaves abstractedly, and remained standing like a sleep-walker for a minute or so, after the congregation had gone down on their knees for the communion service.

When the gospel was read he rose again, and lolled with his back against the plastered wall, his head just under a winged cherub head in marble, which adorned the base of a memorial tablet. This time he stood till all the service was over, so obviously apart from all the rest of the congregation, so evidently uninterested in anything that was going on, that Ida felt as if every eye must be watching him, every creature in the church conscious of his infirmity. He was carelessly dressed, his collar awry, his necktie loose, his hair unbrushed. His very appearance was a disgrace, which Lady Palliser, whose great object in life was to maintain her dignity before the eyes of the county families, felt could hardly be lived down in the future.

That pale haggard countenance, those bloodshot, wandering eyes,--surely every creature in the church must know that they meant brandy!

The sermon began--one of those orthodox, old-fashioned, dry-as-dust sermons often heard in village churches, a discourse which sets out with a small point in Bible history, not having any obvious bearing upon modern thought or modern life, and discusses, and explains, and enlarges upon it with deliberate scholarship for about half-an-hour, and then, in a brisk five minutes, endeavours to show how the conduct of Ahab, or Jehoram, or Ahaziah, in this little matter, was an exact counter-part or paradigm of our conduct, my dear brethren, when we, etc., etc.

The Vicar had not arrived at this point, but was still expatiating upon the unbridled wickedness of Jehoram, when Brian, who after a period of alarming restlessness had been sitting like a statue for the last few minutes, suddenly started up, and exclaimed wildly, 'I can't endure it a moment longer--the stench of corruption--the dead rotting in their graves--the horrid, nauseous odour of grave-clothes--the foul stink of earth-worms! How can you bear it! You must have no feeling! you must be made of stone!'

Ida and her stepmother had both risen, each in her way was trying to soothe, to quiet him, to induce him to sit down again. The Vicar had stopped in his discourse, scared by that other voice, but as Brian's loud accents sank into mutterings he took up the thread of his argument, and went on denouncing Jehoram.

'Brian, indeed there is nothing--no bad odour here.'

'Yes, there is the stench of death,' he protested, staring at the ground, and then pointing with a convulsive movement of his wasted hand he cried, 'Don't you see, under that seat there, the worms crawling up through the rotten flooring, there? there!--fifty--a hundred--legion. For God's sake get me out of this charnel house! I can hear the dry bones rattle as the worms swarm out of the mouldering coffins.'

His deadly pallor, his countenance convulsed with disgust, showed how real this horror was to him. Ida put her hand through his arm, and led him quietly away, out of the stony church into the glow of the summer noontide.

He sank exhausted upon a grassy mound in the churchyard--a village child's grave, with the rose wreath which loving hands had woven fading above the sod.

'How can you sit in such a vault?' he asked; 'how can you live in such foul air?'

'Indeed, dear Brian, it is only fancy. There is nothing amiss.'

'There is everything amiss. Death is everywhere--we begin to die directly we are born--life is a descending scale of decay--we rot and rot and rot as we walk about the world, pretending to be alive. First a man loses his teeth, and then his hair, and then he looks in the glass and sees himself withered, and haggard, and wrinkled, and knows that the skeleton's clutch is upon him. I tell you we are always dying. Why go to that vault yonder,' pointing to the church, 'to breathe the concentrated essence of mortality?'

'It is good for us to remember the dead when we worship God, Brian. He is the God of the dead as well as the living. There is nothing terrible in death, if we believe.'

'If we believe! If! The whole future is an "if!" The future! What future can there be for us? We came from nothing, we go back to nothing--we are resolved into the elements which renew the earth for new comers. The wheel of progress is always revolving--for the mass there is eternity, infinity--no beginning, no end; but for the individual, his little span of life begins and ends in corruption.'

The sound of the organ and the fresh rustic voices singing a familiar hymn told Ida that the sermon was over. Lady Palliser was in an agony of anxiety to get Brian away before the congregation came out. She and Ida contrived to beguile him out of the churchyard and away towards Wimperfield Park by a meadow path which was but little frequented. He grew more rational as they walked home, but talked and argued all the way with that semi-hysterical garrulity which was so painful to his hearers.

They found Vernon sitting up in bed, reading 'Grimm's Goblins,' and in very high spirits. A most wonderful event had happened. Cheap Jack had been to see him. He came with Mr. Fosbroke at twelve o'clock. He had overtaken Mr. Fosbroke in the park, and had asked leave to go up to the house with him, just for a peep at his patient.

'He only stayed a quarter of an hour,' said Vernie, 'for old Fos was in a hurry; but it was such fun! He made me laugh all the time, and Fos laughed, too,--he couldn't help it; and he said Jack's funny talk was better for me now than all the medicine in his surgery; and I am to get up for an hour or two this afternoon; and I am to have some chicken, and as much asparagus as ever I can eat--and in less than a week I shall be able to go up to the hanger and see Jack.'

'My darling, you will have to be much stronger first,' said Ida.

'Oh, but I am very strong now, Ah, there's Brian,' as his brother-in-law looked in at the door. 'What a time since you're been to see me! You've been ill, too, mother said. Come in, Brian. Don't mind about giving me a bad cold that day. It wasn't your fault.'

Brian came into the room with a hang-dog look, and sat by the boy's bed.

'Yes, it was my fault, Vernie. I am a wretched creature. Everything that I do ends badly. I didn't mean to do you any harm.'

'Of course not. You thought it was fun, and so did I, till I got tired and hungry. But those men who were chasing you! There were no men, were there? _I_ didn't see any,' said the boy, with his clear blue eyes on Brian's haggard face.

'Yes, they were there, dodging behind the trees. I saw them plain enough,' answered Brian, moodily. 'It was about that business I told you of. No, I couldn't tell you; it was not a thing to tell a child--a shameful accusation; but I have given them the slip.'

'Brian,' said Ida, laying her hand on his shoulder, 'why do you say these things? You know you are talking nonsense.'

'Am I?' he muttered, cowering as he looked up at her. 'Well, it's as likely as not. Ta, ta, Vernie! You're as well as ever you were. It is I who am booked for a coffin!'

He went away with his feeble shuffling steps, so unlike the step of youth; Ida following him, thinking sadly of the autumn afternoons when he used to come leaping out of his boat--young, bright, and seemingly full of life and energy, and when she half believed she loved him. _

Read next: Chapter 27. John Jardine Solves The Mystery

Read previous: Chapter 25. 'My Seed Was Youth, My Crop Was Endless Cake'

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