The Brewer's Boy


Feona J. Hamilton



One of the horses whinnied suddenly and Daniel woke with a start. His heart was banging against his ribs with fright and he lay in the straw, listening hard, to find out what had disturbed the horse. He could hear nothing from his bed in the hayloft apart from the usual soft rustlings and stirring down below him in the stalls, as the other horses shifted in their sleep. His heartbeat slowed down and he lay staring into the dark for a few moments more. Something scuttled along through the hay near him and he kicked out so that the mouse, or, more likely rat, squeaked and ran in another direction. His eyelids drooped and he snuggled deeper into the old rough wool blanket trying to keep warm. Soon he was fast asleep again.

Beneath him, in the stall nearest to the stables door a dark figure took its hand from the horse’s muzzle and stroked the soft velvet nose, making a soft, soothing noise to keep it quiet. The horse shook its head but made no further noise. Giving it a final stroke, the figure stepped softly away and out of the stall. It stood motionless for a moment, then, reassured by the silence, crept along between the stalls until it reached the far end. Flinging back the cape that it wore, the figure crouched down and seemed to scratch at the ground. There was a spark, a flare which lit up an intent face for a brief instant, then a small flame began to creep hungrily into the hay. At once the dark figure rose and ran on tiptoe out of the stables, paused at the door of the building and then vanished round the corner.

Out in the street and sauntering casually among the other people wandering along looking for some evening fun, she pushed the hood back impatiently and shook out her rough cropped hair. Putting both hands to her head, she scratched vigorously.

“Cor!” she thought. “Them stables is alive. Gawd knows what’s crawlin’ about on me!”

She wriggled her shoulders, crinkling her nose with disgust, then shrugged and laughed.

“Still, that’s shown you, Mister Bates!” she thought.

Her head high, with the cloak swinging out behind her, she practically danced along the street, she felt so pleased with herself. Past the dingy shop fronts and the dingier doorways she went, until she came to a door that stood wide open. A burst of song and loud laughter came out, along with the smell of beer and hot humanity. Grinning widely, she bounced through the doorway and into the noisy, fuggy atmosphere of the Cock alehouse, where she fought her way across to the table in the farthest corner. Sure enough, as she expected, there sat her Uncle Tom and young Barney, her cousin. She stood in front of them, her hands on her hips underneath the cloak, revealed now in the guttering light of candles as a much worn garment, so thin that even the candlelight shone through it here and there.

“Well, young Kate, ’ave you done it?” said Uncle Tom, his eyes glittering eagerly.

“Yes, ’ave you, Cousin Kate, ’ave you?” said Barney, pushing along the bench to make room between himself and his father.

Kate plumped down between them.

“Course I ’ave!” she said, carelessly. “Just you listen out and you’ll ’ear what I done!”

She pushed out a dirty hand towards her uncle.

“Where’s the dosh, then?” she demanded.

Uncle Tom shook his head.

“Not yet, young’un,” he said. “Not till I knows for meself!”

He took up his ale pot and leant back, his other hand on his knee. Kate stared at him then, as he raised the pot to his mouth, she pushed hard on the bottom and the ale inside foamed out, over his face and all down his chest. He gave a roar of anger and swung his hand at her, but she was already off the bench and out of reach, her face red with fury. Shouts of laughter from the tables in the room where men had seen what she had done made Tom even angrier.

“Why, you little firebrand, I’ll teach you…” he shouted, standing up and coming round the table at her.  

“You promised to pay me – you promised!” she shouted back at him, her voice shaking with a mixture of fear and anger. Just as he started towards her, there was a sudden shout from outside.

“Fire! Fire!” came the cry.

Everyone inside the Cock rose as one and rushed to get out of the door. Fighting and shoving, men tumbled out onto the street, followed by the serving girls and the pot boys. Sure enough, there were flames shooting upwards from further down the street.

“It’s the Peacock!” said a voice and the news travelled through the crowd.

“Come on, lads!” yelled another voice. “Let’s see what’s a-burning down there!”

At once, the crowd started running down the street towards the flames. Sparks were coming off the top of the flames and leaping higher and higher and a smell of burning wood and straw was tainting the air. Kate could hear the horses whinnying, she thought vaguely. Then she realised – the horses! The horses must be trapped!

“Oh, not them, not them!” she said, suddenly aghast at what she had done. She took a step forward, only to find herself prevented by a hand grabbing at her hair.

“You done it alright, girl!” said Tom’s voice in her ear. “’Ere’s yer dosh – now get away from here and don’t spend it all at once. We don’t want anyone putting two and two together, now do we? You don’t know anyfing and no more do I – got that?”

He twisted her hair so cruelly that it brought tears to her eyes and forced her to turn round and face him. She felt him thrust the coins into her hand, then he let her go with a suddenness that made her stagger. She regained her balance and ran back into the alehouse, through the now empty room, and out through the back. Crossing the yard, she fumbled at the catch on the gate there for a long moment before it gave beneath her hand and she was out in the little lane that ran between the houses.

She turned to her right, away from the fire, and ran as fast as she could until she was at the end of the path and into the wide road that was Old Street. Panting, she drew to a halt and looked about her. There was little light here – most of the shop fronts were in darkness and only the odd flaming torch lit up the person holding it as he hurried past. Most people slipped along in the dark and she could only make out shadows. No-one seemed to be aware of what was happening at the other end of Whitecross Street but, as she looked back over her shoulder, she could see the flames beginning to show against the darkness. There was a shout from her left and she shrank back into a doorway. The man hurried past her, pulling another one along with him.

“Come on mate!” he urged his companion. “There’s summat goin’ on down there – maybe we can pick up a few bits.”

It was beginning to dawn on Kate that maybe she had started something bigger than she had meant to. Were these men going to steal from the Bateses? After all, it was only Mister Bates who had made her so angry, telling her Uncle Tom they weren’t welcome in his alehouse. And she’d only set the fire because Uncle Tom asked her to and offered her money. Slowly, she turned her back on the flames and walked off. Her Uncle Tom had warned her not to go back and he was always right. Sighing, she turned down a small alley between two houses and pushed open the door at the end. It led her into a hovel so small that it was little more than a single room. She could see the figure of her mother, bent over the fire, raking away at the little lumps of coal in an effort to get more flame and more warmth.

As she shut the door behind her, her mother turned round.

“Oh, it’s you back,” she grumbled. “I don’t suppose you’ve got anyfing to eat, ’ave yer? Or a little sup o’ gin for yer pore old Mum?

Kate shook her head.

“No,” she said. “I ain’t got food nor gin. I ain’t got nuffin’.”

“Whatcha come back for then?” said her mother, giving her a push. “Git out there and stay out. I’ve told you before – don’t come back ’ere unless you’ve got somefing for me!”

She shoved at Kate again, urging her towards the door and Kate let her. The last thing she wanted was for her mother to find out she had money on her. She knew what would happen – it would all be taken from her and her mother would disappear in the direction of the nearest gin shop and stay there until the money ran out, if it wasn’t stolen from her as she lay in a drunken stupor somewhere.

Without saying another word, she opened the door and went outside again. The dark was almost a comfort after that reception and she was glad to be out again.

“That’s it!” she thought savagely. “I’m never going back to that old bag again. Uncle Tom and Barney will look after me if I ask ’em, I’m sure! She don’t want me really I know – unless I’ve got gin or money to pay for it. Huh!”

And she stamped off down the road, back the way she’d come.

* * *

Daniel was still coughing and gasping, but he had at least woken up in time and managed to get down from the hayloft. His lungs felt as if they were burning, yet still he struggled to get the two horses to safety. They were mad with their fear of the fire and were kicking desperately in their stalls. He unlatched the nearest door and jumped back as the horse charged out and ran into the yard beyond. Quickly, wheezing and gasping as the smoke thickened about him, he found the latch for the second stall and flung it open. The horse pushed past him with such force that he was knocked off his feet, but he staggered up again and followed the animal out into the yard. Taking great gasps of breath, he leant against the wall near the gate which led into the street. The horses had been caught by bystanders and were being soothed. No-one came to soothe him or lead him away, he thought bitterly.

Instead, he felt the heavy hand of his master clamp down on his shoulder and he was lifted off his feet. He would have fallen over completely if Mister Bates hadn’t been holding him so firmly.

“What ’ave you done now, you young devil!” he said. “’Ow many times ’ave I told you not to take candle ends up there?”

“I didn’t do it, honest!” he croaked, his throat still full of the ashy taste from the smoke and flames behind him. “Honest, Mister Bates, honest!”

“’E got the ’orses out, din’t ’e?” said one of the men standing holding on to one of them,. “I seed ’im do it!”

There was a murmur of agreement from the men and women standing within earshot. Bates let go of Daniel’s shoulder and looked round at the others.

“Whether ’e did it or not, will you help me to try and put it out?” he said to the assembled crowd.

“Might as well,” said a voice. “Afore it spreads down the ’ole street!”

Quickly, they formed a double line and Bates fetched pails and tankards and anything else that would hold water from the alehouse, which was as yet untouched, as the stables lay on the opposite side of the yard from it. The man nearest to the pump in the yard began working the lever up and down and soon water was gushing out. They passed the full pails and tankards along one way and the empty ones back down to the pump as fast as ever they could. The water hissed and spat on the burning straw and wood, but it was not too long before the flames began to die down. In a surprisingly short time, the fire was under control, with most of the stables saved. A few small flames licked up now and then, but they were small enough to be stamped out.

At last, the fire seemed to be out. Apart from a strong smell of burning and the thickness of the smoke still hanging in the air, making everyone cough and clear their throats, it seemed that the incident was over. People stood around, gasping and hawking, trying to catch their breath again.

Bates stood, hands on hips and feet wide apart, staring at the ground. Finally, he raised his head.

“Where’s that boy?” he said, gruffly.

Timidly, afraid of another shaking, Daniel came across the yard from the horses, where he had taken shelter. He stood in front of Bates and looked up at him, his eyes huge in his thin face.

“You did alright, boy,” said Dick Bates. “Come into the kitchen and have something to warm you. The rest of you,” he said to the crowd. “Go round the front. I’ll get the wife to open up and you can all wet your throats on me.”

There was a ragged cheer and they moved quickly, out of the yard and round the corner, where the door to the alehouse was opened in a few moments. Daniel, meanwhile, with the unaccustomed feeling of being in someone’s good books, followed him into the kitchen and was given a mug of heated ale all to himself – something he could never remember happening before. He sat happily sipping away at the hot drink near the fire which Mrs Bates had stirred back into life. The warmth and the excitement caught up with him and, if it hadn’t been for the little servant who was standing watching him with curiosity, he would have dropped the mug on the floor. She caught it just as his head drooped forward and his eyes began to close.

“Oi!” she said softly. “Stick yer feet up on the settle afore you fall off!”

Obediently, Daniel squirmed round and lay down completely. The girl took a sip from the mug she had caught and wrinkled her nose in distaste, before setting it down quietly on the table in the middle of the kitchen. Then she checked the fire was burning low and no sparks were likely to fly out, before tip-toeing out of the kitchen. She shut the door carefully and made her weary way up to her room at the top of the house. Climbing into her narrow truckle bed, she pulled the thin blankets over her head and fell asleep.


The stables were not as badly damaged as Dick Bates had feared. He stood just inside them now, scratching his head sleepily, and looked carefully around for signs of how the fire had started. Pushing the main door wide open let a shaft of daylight shine in almost to the back of the stalls. The horses were being cared for by his neighbour, so he was able to step inside each empty space and look around. He did not spend long searching in them, but went to the side wall, where the fire had blazed most fiercely.

Daylight showed through the thatch which had burnt in the roof, but the sturdy wooden beams above his head had survived intact, despite the black scorch marks along them. The brick wall was also scorched and burnt, with a few cracked bricks where the blaze had been hottest, but they could easily be replaced or repaired with lime cement. The hay and straw on the floor had clearly been the main part of the fire and there was a heap of ash on the earth floor to show for it. Something caught on the badly burnt wooden slats of the stall nearby caught his eye and he bent closer to tug it loose. It was a scrap of dark green cloth with a few fair hairs caught on it.

“Hmmm!” said Dick to himself.

Carefully, he placed the scrap in his trouser pocket. It was a clue of sorts and, since Daniel’s hair was dark and he had nothing made of green cloth as far as his master knew, it seemed that someone else must have been in the stables last night. He patted his pocket thoughtfully and bent down to look more closely at the ash on the floor. There was nothing else to be seen there which might show how the fire started, but he had an idea that it had been done by someone who wanted to give him a fright, not destroy him totally. The thing was to find out why, and that might tell him who. For now, he was content to see that the fire was out completely and no rogue embers would suddenly flare up again. There was still a burnt smell, so he left the door to the building wide open to clear it. It was no use expecting the horses to go back inside with that smell lingering in the air.

He would have to ask his neighbour to look after the horses and feed them for today. Grumbling to himself, he wandered back across the yard and into the kitchen, looking for his breakfast. Daniel was still fast asleep on the settle, only the top of his head showing above the blanket and his feet poking out from the bottom. He was a good lad, young Daniel, thought Dick Bates. Not that he would tell him to his face o’ course – until he’d really proved himself, that was! Now it was high time he was up and about his morning duties. He kicked the tall side of the settle so that it shook and Daniel’s face appeared, blinking and scowling.

“Wha--? Oh!” he saw who had kicked his bed and swung his legs round quickly.

“Now then, young Daniel!” said Bates. “Get yerself under that pump smartish, then get some breakfast inside yer and go and ask Mr. Shute next door to keep them ’orses in ’is place for the mornin’. Then get yerself back ’ere and clean up our stables and yard.”

“Yes, Mister Bates,” said Daniel, leaping up so fast that he stumbled on the edge of the blanket he was still clutching. “Um, Mr Bates, I never done that fire, sir. I wouldn’t ’urt the ’orses…”

“It’s OK, Daniel, lad,” said Mr Bates. “I know it warn’t you. I dunno ’oo it was yet – but I’m goin’ to make sure and find out. Well – don’t stand gawpin’, get on with it!”

He strode across to the kitchen door and opened it, to bellow up the stairs.

“Oi – anyone goin’ to come and get me breakfast, then?”

Slamming the door behind him, he sat himself down at the table and waited, drumming his fingers impatiently on the table. There were scuttling sounds overhead and the noise of someone clattering down the stairs, then the door burst open and his wife appeared. The little serving maid, who had crept out into the yard while Bates was talking to Daniel, re-appeared, wiping her wet hands on a grubby cloth that she had tied over her dress. Why she had bothered was a mystery, since both seemed as dirty as each other. Quickly, she grabbed an iron kettle from the hob and ran to fill it at the pump set by the sink. Then, staggering slightly from the weight she brought it over and set it on the hob to boil. Mrs Bates had riddled the fire and was slapping great rashers of bacon into the frying pan, which she set next to the kettle. Before long there was a hissing noise as the bacon began to cook and a delicious smell filled the kitchen. Next, she grabbed a loaf from the crock in which it had been sitting. Using the knife that had cut the bacon, she sliced two thick hunks off the loaf and spread dripping on them. She gave them to the waiting servant girl and shooed her out of the kitchen.

“One for you and one for Daniel, mind!” she shouted after the girl. “Eat ’em both and you’ll feel my ’and, girl!”

The kettle was singing merrily and she turned to make a pot of tea for herself and her husband. Without a word, she plonked it down on the table. The bacon was nearly ready and she flipped the rashers once to make sure they caught on both sides. Slicing two more hunks off the loaf, she placed one each on heavy earthenware plates, added one rasher for herself and two for her husband, and put both plates down on the table. She took cutlery from the drawer in the old dresser against the wall and sat down opposite her husband with a sigh of relief.

“’Ere you are, then, Dick!” she said, setting to with a will. “Eat yer breakfuss!”

There was silence except for chewing and slurping sounds, mostly from Dick, as his wife had some pretences to being ‘refained’ as she termed it. She frowned heavily at her innocent food and tried to ignore the noises coming from the other side of the table.

“I dunno,” she muttered in exasperation, after a particularly noisy slurp followed by a belch from the other side of the table.

“What don’t you know, my dear?” said Mr Bates, smiling. He knew what was coming but could not resist teasing his Dolly sometimes.

“’Ow can we hever ’ope to get an hotel and attract the gentry, if you’re goin’ to sit at meals making’ them noises?” said his wife plaintively.

“But, my dear,” said Mr Bates, cheerfully. “Whatever makes you think the gentry would want to sit down and eat with their landlord? That ain’t wot ’appens, and well you knows it!”

He grinned toothily at her and went back to his food. It was no good, she knew, when he was in this mood.

“Seein’ as ’ow the stables is burnt and the ’orses is Gawd knows where, you’re in a very good mood!” she said. “I thought you’d be rantin’ and ravin’ and givin’ everyone a piece of your mind but no – ’ere you sits wiv a big grin on your face instead. Wot’s goin’ on?”

“Well now,” he said. “Firstly, it ain’t that bad. I’ve looked at the stables and there’s just a bit of patching needed for the roof and a bit of washing down of the wall to wipe off the soot, wiv a couple of new planks where the old ’uns are badly burnt. Secondly, the ’orses is next door and they’re both all right. Thirdly, we can open up as usual and we’ll do very, very ’andsome. All them people ’oo want to come and see and hear wot ’appened! We’ll make a nice lot of dosh outta this, see if we don’t!”

“Oh, I see!” said his wife, a smile starting on her face, too.

She heaved herself off the chair and walked over to the dresser, where she began opening cupboards and drawers and counting the plates on the shelves. Dick watched her in amazement.

“Now what?” he said.

“Well, my dear ’usband,” said Dolly. “Lots of people means lots of ale, it’s true, but being curious can make you very ’ungry, too, can’t it? I’d better get more food up from the cellar and send that girl to the market too!”

Dick Bates leant back and gave her a fond squeeze.

“I know why I married yer, Dolly!” he said. “You’re as fly as me: come the chance and you’ll take it. Ha!”

Still laughing, he got up too and went through into the alehouse to get it ready for opening up. The floor was being swept by Daniel and the little servant was clearing off the tables and giving them a quick wipe with an old rag. She picked up a pile of plates and empty pie dishes so high that she couldn’t see over it and tottered off into the scullery. Putting everything in the sink with a clatter, she worked the pump handle to one side of the great stone sink and the water gushed in until it was almost full. Leaving the crocks to soak, she went back into the kitchen to stretch her hands out gratefully to the warmth of the fire, until Mrs Bates boxed her ears for her trouble and shooed her away back to the dishes piled in the scullery sink.

* * *

Kate woke up and put a sleepy hand out to where she expected the window to be. It wasn’t there and she suddenly realised why. She was in Uncle Tom’s house, lying on a truckle bed in one of the upstairs rooms. Lying there, half-asleep and half-awake, she became aware of the noises coming from his shop downstairs. She could hear the rumble of men’s voices and the occasional higher tones of his wife as they served the customers. Uncle Tom had his wife were grocers and made a good living – or so she had heard her mother say. Maybe he’d teach her how to serve and she could stand there with the rest of them, behind the counter, chopping up cheese and wrapping bread, she thought, vaguely aware that these two activities certainly took place in the shop.

She sat up and pushed the bed-clothes off, then stopped. Where were her clothes? She had nothing on but her shift and, although she looked all round the room in the light that seeped in through the thin curtains, there was no sign of her other clothes. Nothing was on the stool against the wall but her shoes were on the floor underneath it. Apart from the bed and the stool, there was a dressing table against one wall and a small wardrobe against the opposite wall. Maybe her things were in the wardrobe. She thought, and got out of bed, placing her bare feet on the rag rug beside it.

Shivering slightly in the cold, she was about to stand up and cross the floor when the bedroom door started to open very softly. Quickly, she swung her feet back under the bedclothes and pulled them up to her chin.

“’Oo’s there?” she said in a frightened voice.A head came round the door and, relieved, she recognised her Aunt Joan.

“Just seeing if you was awake yet, my dear!” said her aunt, soothingly.

Kate relaxed.

“Yes, I just woke up,” she confessed. “But where’s me clothes?”

Aunt Joan looked a bit sheepish.

“I took ’em away for a wash,” she said. “I thought you might like ’em to be a bit cleaner. There was straw and soot or somefing on your skirt an’ it was torn an’ all.”

Her sharp eyes took in Kate’s expression.

“You know anyfink about that fire down the Peacock last night, then?” she said.

“I saw it all right,” said Kate. “I was down Whitecross Street last night, warn’t I?”

Her aunt stared at her for a long minute and Kate dropped her eyes and shifted uneasily in the bed.

“This wouldn’t ’ave anyfing to do wiv yer Uncle Tom, would it?” said her aunt.

Kate stuck her lip out and gazed down at the bedclothes. Aunt Joan waited for a reply, but Kate obviously was not going to say anything.

“I see,” said her aunt. “Well, I daresay he told you to keep it quiet and gave you somefing for yer trouble, didn’t ’e?”

Kate nodded, then put her handover her mouth and looked up fearfully as she realised what she’d done. Aunt Joan said nothing for a while, just folded her arms across her front and looked hard at her niece.

“Well,” she said at last. “You can nearly keep a secret and you’re a loyal little thing, I give you that. Don’t you worry any more about it – I’ll sort out yer Uncle Tom, see if I don’t! Now, you stay where you are and I’ll bring some clothes for you to wear.”

She leant forward and twitched away the bedclothes before Kate could stop her.

“Hmmm,” she said. “I can find something for you fer now and we’ll sort you out properly later.”

She bustled out of the room and was back in a very short time with a dress and a pinafore, some woollen stockings and a mob-cap. They were old but clean – and, apart from the mob-cap, much too big.

“’Ere y’are, Kate,” she said. “Get these on you and come down to the kitchen. Tie the apron strings tight and roll back the sleeves and that’ll do. Out the door and turn right, then down the back stairs.”

She nodded briskly and went out, shutting the door behind her. Kate was out of the bed and dressed. The clothes were obviously her Aunt Joan’s, but she did as she was told and tied strings and rolled back sleeves until she felt less drowned in clothing. Then she went downstairs as she had been told and found herself in the warmest, cosiest, cleanest kitchen she’d ever seen.

At the scrubbed pine table, set in the middle of the room, Aunt Joan was chopping a pile of carrots and throwing handfuls of the chopped rounds into another large pot sitting on the table beside her. A mound of potatoes, already peeled and scrubbed, was waiting for the same treatment at her elbow. Hearing Kate’s entry, she looked up with a pleased expression.

“Don’t you look a picture?” she said.

“Come on then!” she went on, handing a knife to Kate. “If you’re goin’ to wear me clothes, you might as well ’elp out here, too.”

“Fair enough,” agreed Kate and, grabbing the knife, she took a potato from the top of the pile and started to hack it into big lumps.

“Not like that!” said Aunt Joan. “Ain’t you chopped spuds before?”

Kate shook her head and her aunt took up another potato.

“Like this,” she said, raising the knife and bringing down swiftly so that the potato was sliced into five or six even rounds. Then she sat the rounds in two neat towers and slice across them again. A pile of neat chunks was thrown into the pot along with the carrots. Kate tried to do the same, but was much slower. Still, she persevered for another ten minutes until Aunt Joan got up and inspected a smaller pot which had been bubbling away.

“Breakfast!” she said.

Picking up a dish from a pile on the table she began to ladle great dollops of porridge into it. She plonked a dish in front of Kate, who tasted it gingerly, decided she liked it, and ate it. Uncle Tom came in just as she started and gave his wife a squeeze before demanding his own plate of porridge. He sat down opposite Kate, nodded briskly at them, and started eating porridge so quickly that she was amazed.

“Don’t that burn yer mouth, Uncle Tom?” she asked.

He paused between gulps.

“No, my dear,” he said. “My mouth’s used to me shovin’ ’ot food into it and it don’t notice no more.”

A snort came from Aunt Joan, standing behind him.

“More likely it’s pickled in beer,” she said. “Considerin’ ’ow much of that you shoves in yer mouth!”

Before Tom could answer, the back door opened and Barney stood there. Kate felt herself going pink and stood up hurriedly, but he took no more notice of her than he ever did.

“Are we goin’ down the road today, Pa?” he said. “There seems to ’ave been some excitement last night.”

His father swallowed a last mouthful of porridge and stood up. He grabbed his hat from the hook by the door and nodded at Barney.

“Course we are, young ’un!” he said. “I wonder what ’appened?”

He turned and gave Kate a sly wink and then stepped across to his wife and gave her a hearty kiss.

“Come on,” he said to Barney, and the two of them clattered out of the kitchen and shut the door behind them with a bang that rattled the plates on the dresser and blew a big flame up the chimney. Joan sighed dramatically, but said nothing. She stood gazing at the fire for a few more moments, thinking hard, then looked curiously at Kate. That young lady could not meet her eye. What have you been up to, I wonder? she thought to herself. But Joan had learned the wisdom of keeping a closed mouth and an open eye and ear and decided that this was not the time to question her young niece on a subject which she clearly knew more about than she was telling.


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