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Christmas on the Island.

A little grinning lad came up the track as MacGregor began to climb the tall, upthrust boulder they called the Fishermen's Rock, his bare toes digging into the ancient footholds. In one hand the boy carried three hen eggs carefully wrapped in a lily leaf; in the other a mud crab, its claws pinioned with a strip of palm frond.

"Where are you going?" he wanted to know.

MacGregor stopped and looked at him. The boy's grin was from ear to ear.

"I'm going to the top of the rock," he said carefully.

"Just to see about?" asked the boy.

"Just to see."

"All right. You see plenty."

From the top of the rock, MacGregor saw plenty, indeed. He saw the whole beautiful world, and in the middle of it, in the water almost directly beneath him, a ketch setting sail, ice white, immaculate and curiously remote in spite of the muted rattle of blocks, the groaning of the anchor winch that came as an undercurrent to the screaming of the parrots in the trees. The departure of the little ship disturbed him--the setting out of someone he had never known for a destiny he could not guess at. It was like his own farewell to civilization six months before--it was emotionally cold. Like himself, for that matter. Or at least that was what Kathleen had told him.

"Underneath, you're as cold as a fish," she had said when she gave him back the ring. "Nothing ever warms you. You're too good, Mac. You're clinically exact. And it isn't good for you. It won't get you anywhere."

"I don't make mistakes, anyway," he had said.

"Perhaps that's what I mean," she had told him.

He had regretted Kathleen, but it was the pursuit of his painting career rather than her dismissal that had brought him to this island of Owelaka, an outlier of the Trobriand group, which is itself an archipelago set in the Coral Sea. And he stayed, though the island is not of itself beautiful. It is simply a coral plain, a little tip-tilted by forgotten earthquakes, with a vegetation that differs hardly at all from that of any coral island anywhere. But from his perch on the Fishermen's Rock, where traditionally the canoemen climbed to shout their successes to the expectant village, he could see the ocean's loveliest waters, studded at a little distance by islands that are dead volcanoes; and islands beyond islands, mountainous, symmetrical and tinted with the pastel shades of sea distance.

He had been induced to stay by some furious necessity to master the problems presented by his art. He had found a home with old Frank Richards, the trader, in Frank's great cool barn of chicken-wire walls and sago-leaf roof that served as storehouse, living quarters and trading post in the village of Lamari, on the east coast; and here he kept himself firmly applied to painting when he was not looking after Frank's interests during the trader's frequent absences. He was looking after them now, paying his weekly call at the district office in Papatalu on the north coast, where a safe anchorage and adjacent copra plantations constituted Owelaka's sole commercial assets.

He was barefoot, because that was the best way to negotiate the three ragged ridges of abruptly upthrust coral that, under heavy forest, divided Lamari's lovely coral beaches, its populated villages and fertile garden land, from Papatalu. In four places he had had to balance on slippery, peeled trunks of trees no more than six inches in diameter. Once he had crossed a rock bridge. There were two cliff faces, not high, but rugged, that had to be climbed with handholds; and everywhere except directly on the foot-wide, smooth-worn trail, the rock was jagged with razor edges. But he had all the time in the world, and the way was beautiful with flowers and brilliant butterflies and small, water-flecked green ferns.

The weather was hot. It was ten days before Christmas in the northwest monsoon, and MacGregor stayed on top of the rock. He rested and watched until the ketch had beaten northeast round the coral and headed, as he guessed now, for the main Trobriand group, which was in the north. Then he scrambled down to the track again and headed for the district office.

Stevens, the patrol officer, saw him coming and threw a yellow envelope on the counter.

"Radiogram for you," he said.

MacGregor tore it open. "Three days old?" he complained. He wasn't really surprised.

"Yes. Well, there was no hurry," Stevens said. "You can't get a message out in reply. The radio's broken down."

"When are you going to have something urgent of your own so you'll fix it?" MacGregor inquired nastily, but Stevens only grunted and turned his back. He threw a bundle of letters--mostly for Richards--on the counter. The radiogram was from Richards too. It read:

DELAYED THREE WEEKS BROKEN PROPELLOR SHAFT STOP SOME DAMAGE STOP SLIPPING SAMARAI STOP PLEASE MEET LAYONI AND EXPLAIN WHY NO CHRISTMAS STOP LOOK AFTER HER STOP SORRY TO TROUBLE YOU. FRANK.

Well, that was Frank all over, MacGregor thought. He had the ends all tied up, but, somehow or other, nothing went right for him. He had made a special trip to get Christmas stock for his store, and now he wasn't going to be home for Christmas. Layoni was his ten-year-old half-caste daughter and the apple of his eye, and Layoni's mother had died at her birth. MacGregor had never seen the child. He felt, anyway, that he had no special affinity for children. They bored him.

One of the letters, he saw, had the name of Layoni's mission school on the envelope, so he tore it open. It contained Layoni's school report and the news that the mission schooner would land her at Papatalu on Owelaka on December 21. He looked up, reminded of something.

"Beautiful ketch just left the bay," he said. "Whose is it? No trader, I bet."

"You're safe," Stevens told him. "That was Innstrom's Tanagra. If I had his money I wouldn't be bucketing 'round these waters in a wind ship. Even though it's got everything that opens and shuts."

"Sir Gordon Innstrom?" MacGregor asked.

Stevens nodded. "The same," he said.

Sir Gordon was the one man above all others MacGregor would have liked to meet. He was the only one of the australian millionaires, as far as he knew, who took any interest in painting. More than that, in MacGregor's view, it was an informed interest. Innstrom knew his subject.

"I'd have liked to meet him," MacGregor said.

"You'll get your chance," said Stevens. "He's coming back. He spent a few days with the Allisons, and they've asked him back for their Christmas party."

The Allisons had the biggest copra plantation. There were only a dozen Europeans on the island, and the Allisons composed the self-appointed aristocracy. MacGregor avoided them when he could. Mrs. Allison got on his nerves a little.

"So charmed to welcome an artist to our little community," she said when she met him first. "I paint myself, of course. but in my first year here I painted everything, absolutely everything paintable. One can't go on painting the same coconut palm." None of her efforts hung upon her walls, and the few prints there, while they were good, seemed to bear no relationship to one another.

MacGregor himself was engaged in a period of searching introspection. When he got home he went through his paintings again and stacked them up three or four at a time in the best light. They were not what he wanted.

He had left Sydney with no very impressive reputation, but in all honesty he did not know why. His work was modern. It had flow and rhythm; and in particular, a series of portraits that almost approached caricature had deserved, he felt, a public recognition. His techniques were good. He was a young man going places, and he had undertaken the visit to the Trobriands for publicity purposes as much as anything; it was a vivid place where no other artist had been. And then the islands had intrigued him, entangled him and finally, he had to admit, defeated him. For the exaggerated color and the exotic forms of the tropics mated badly with his exaggerated technique.

He sorted out the portraits of Doraima, a Lamari village adolescent who, on a whim, had her head shaved entirely bald. The girl's figure was exquisite. The dainty conformation of her completely naked head mated wonderfully with her fine-cut features and her regal bearing. She painted designs of happiness on her face--eye-encircling curves of shining black and enameled white in pigments of charcoal and lime and coconut oil.

MacGregor's first painting of her, in his usual style, was so bad he destroyed it. The others now faced him: two or three representational treatments in assorted surroundings that offered a flat and clinical result, and a slightly better version, with an almost Egyptian flavor. This one had drawn praise from Mrs. Allison, but he felt it lacked something.

Overall, he was disappointed. His work seemed alien to the land and to himself. The more immediate reason for his inspection, however, was to decide whether the quality of his work was sufficient to intrigue such a patron as Innstrom. If he could achieve Sir Gordon's patronage, his fame and future would be assured.

A couple of days later, when a native boy arrived at Lamari with an invitation to the Allison Christmas party, he was delighted to accept. He put the latest Doraima portrait back on the easel, added a few finishing touches and planned to present it to his hostess. Brought to the party, it would inevitably form a topic for conversation into which Sir Gordon must be drawn. Thus he would make his chance.

The Allison children and four or five others--the patrol officer's two and a Sanderson and two Emmets--were on the mission schooner with Layoni when he came to meet her. She was a slim child, primly dressed, with pipestem legs and neat polished shoes, and she stood a little behind the others, ignored by them, clutching her case in both hands, with her head downcast. Her voice, when she spoke, was tiny but musical.

Mrs. Allison, having gathered her brood about her, nodded a bright farewell. She was a big, heavy woman, briskly pleasant.

"We'll expect to see you on Christmas Day then, Mr. MacGregor," she said. "Come in the afternoon. The children will be having their party then, and we'll expect you to stay for ours in the evening." She looked at Layoni. "Someone at Lamari can look after Frank's child," she added. "I doubt that she'd get on too well with our lot."

The little girl dropped her chin on her chest again and looked at the ground. MacGregor felt her register the snub, brutal and direct. He took her absurdly small case, made his farewells, and they started up the track. When they paused at the summit and sat in the sun by the Fishermen's Rock, Layoni waited awhile before she asked, "Will my daddy be home for Christmas?"

"I'm afraid he won't be," MacGregor said absently. "He'll have to stay in Samarai until his boat is fixed. A couple of weeks, maybe."

He suddenly sensed Layoni's disappointment and looked at her closely. For the first time he noticed the dusky glory of dark hair, the smooth olive complexion, the incredibly beautiful, liquid brown eyes. There was something a little pathetic, he thought, in the way she looked down at her toes. Suddenly realizing she was at home, on her own ground, away from the disciplined days of mission school, she reached forward, undid her shoe fastenings and stripped off shoes and socks. MacGregor thought, uncomfortably, of another disappointment.

"I'm afraid there won't be any Christmas presents either," he said. "No party. Your daddy was going to bring all the things back with him, and now he can't."

There was a long pause this time, while the movements of her hands were arrested, and then she said gently, "It doesn't matter." She looked up. "We did have a party at the mission, and it was nearly Christmas," she said. "Some of the girls there don't have any parties but mission parties." Later on, when they were walking down the track, she said, "The girls who have parties will tell us all about them when school starts."

"I thought Mrs. Allison might have asked you to come to her party," MacGregor said, and Layoni shook her head.

"She never does." She had the utmost composure and poise. "Maybe daddy will bring a party back with him," she said. "It won't be very far from Christmas, will it?"

She looked up at him, and her beautiful eyes belied these Pollyanna sentiments, for they were close to tears. He began to feel a real interest in this little scrap of humanity. Suddenly he made a resolve that she should have her party.

At night, after he had sent Layoni to bed, MacGregor sat and smoked his pipe. What on earth does one do, he thought, to please a child at Christmas? Most of his memories came from the commercial artwork he had done in student days for city stores. There would have to be a tree--well, that was simple. He could manage that. But there were no toys, no ornaments, no strings of lights. Playmates would be no problem. And he could keep the party a surprise--last-minute invitations would not worry the native children of the village. There should be an angel for the top of the tree. He tried to remember what else.

The village of Paladau, in the south of the island, was renowned for its wood carvers. They were simple artisans who cheerfully tackled the job of making, say, a three-legged table; chopping it with most intricate design out of a heavy, solid tree trunk, using tiny adzes of their own manufacture, smoothing the cuts with the sandpaper skin of a stingray and adding the final polish with a boar's tusk. Their main products were beautiful wooden bowls, simply and handsomely carved, but when a Paladau villager had nothing else to do he carved little fish or pigs, and instruments for the daily work of the people. None of te island natives cared to use any artifact that had not been given some ornamentation of beauty, but a Paladau man would neglect his gardens for his carving, with the enthusiatic approval of his wife and family.

Timothy, the old village councilor, as sharpening an looked up, smiling, when MacGregor walked in. The artist came straight to the point.

"I want you to carve me an angel, Timothy. You know this something, an angel."

"No, sir."

"A woman then--a woman that has wings on her back like a bird's wings; a woman this high"--he gestured with his hands about 15 inches apart--"and in her right hand she holds a stick that has a star, like this, on the end of it." With the point of a knife he scratched a star-tipped scepter on the ground.

"A woman with wings and a stick?" asked Timothy. "this is an angel?" He pronounced the word three times over, trying to get it right.

MacGregor caught himself quickly. "Why, no," he said. "An angel is like a woman, truly, but she must be something more. She is the meaning of all giving, the caus of all happiness; she makes your heart light."

"Like a new bride?" asked Timothy.

MacGregor searched his mind. It seemed rugent that Timothy should have exactly the right idea.

"Like a new bride and a new mother," he said. "Like the bride and the mother of all the world." He wondered whence the image came, and thought it over. It did not sound ridiculous at all. "And she looks like this," he added. He drew three quick little sketches of the angel while the councilor watched him intently.

"I want it quickly," warned MacGregor. "The day after tomorrow." Absently he added a halo to the frontface figure.

"All right," Timothy said. "I'll bring to to Lamari."

"Something else," MacGregor remembered. "I want some things for a child to play with. There should be three wise men with camels, and shepherds with their sheep and a crib of a Baby. You know sheep? Or camels?"

"Are they like pigs?" asked Timothy.

"Like pigs," MacGregor said. "Only more like this." He drew a sheep and watched the old man's eyes when he looked at it. "Never mind," he said. "I guess pigs will do. They are for Layoni, for Chirstmas."

The old man nodded. I know this Christmas," he said. "that is when the government holds the sports at Losuia."

MacGregor drew a deep breath. "Christmas is more than that, Timothy," he said. "Christmas is when everybody thinks of other people, to make them happy. At Christmas the white man thinks of God and pleases Him by making His children happy."

I sound like a preacher, he thought. I have never thought these things before.

Timothy was looking up, smiling. "I have heard of these things but not seen them," he said. "I will be glad to help. But Mr. Richards will bring toys from Samarai."

"Not this Christmas, Timothy," MacGregor said. "His boat has broken down. That's why I want you to make these things. And not you only. Tell the others what I want. Tell them that I need toys for the children and that I will pay them well."

"The day after tomorrow I will bring them to Lamari," the councilor promised.

Once he had committed himself to give Layoni the party, MacGregor went about it enthusiastically. Layoni had renewed friendships among the children of the village, though in the year she had been gone she had almost forgotten the Boyowan language of the island; and most of the day she spent on the beach or in the water and was never underfoot. MacGregor saw her only for meals, which he sometimes got himself but more often left to the hired boys Richards kept in the store. At night Layoni would look briefly at her books, which were few; then go to bed to sleep dreamlessly. MacGregor's affection for her grew with each meeting, and in the two days of preparations she was much in his thoughts.

It was easy, without her knowledge, to find a she-oak tree with the necessary symmetry and the desired size and to install it in a corner of the store and conceal it with burlap sheets and cartons of goods. He was also able to recruit a few of the village women to help him by making strings of shell beads and raucous trumpets made from the coiled leaves of the coconut palms. They caught his enthusiasm, and by Christmas Eve other villagers to whom he had not spoken were bringing in gifts--a beautiful little outrigger canoe with mast and butterfly-wing sail and tiny paddles laid across the planking. There was a set of tops made from halved coconut shells doweled with wooden pegs and a cord-carrying bag in five colors.

Timothy and three men from Paladau came late on Christmas Eve with their carvings. The angel was a triumph, queerly modern in design, with a long body and short, thick legs; and, in place of the halo that MacGregor had drawn, she carried a cooking pot on her head. She had long, almost eyes and a straight, unsmiling mouth. But she was nevertheless beautiful, with an air of proud kindliness most suitable for an angel. MacGregor handled the carving for a long time and turned it over and over. Then he looked at the other things spread about him on the ground.

There were at least 20 little pigs, each round and fat and standing stockily on four absurd short legs. There were 3 little figures of men. There was a short trough, shaped like a Phoenician galley--"Something for the baby," Timothy said. MacGregor recognized it. It was an ancient baby bath, just big enough to admit the fingers of a mother's hand and holding just enough warm water to clean a baby. It was the only Trobriand article made for babies. MacGregor set it down carefully. And then he saw the thing.

It was a big carving a foot long. It was cut from some golden timber, and it had a long body, six short legs and a tail that was a dragon's a tail that was a dragon's tail, except that it curved upward and back, its frill of broad spines soaring like a banner and joined in two places to the thing's back. The neck balanced the tail but carried an enormous head with two pointed ears, four round eyes and rows and rows of bared teeth. MacGregor picked it up.

"what is it?" he asked.

"It is a camel," said Timothy, and MacGregor put back his head and laughed.

"I think it is a camel. I have never seen a camel," Timothy added. He seemed affronted, and MacGregor stopped laughing.

"It is not quite a camel," he said. "But it is a very good something. I am truly pleased with it."

"Yes, it is a very good something," Timothy said complacently.

MacGregor paid the men well in tobacco and goods from the store, and they left. He looked at the angel a long time; then he took his paints and, with some compunction at hiding the beautiful grain of the wood, painted it in the colors of life. He painted the pigs, too, and the little men who represented shepherds; and when that was done, he turned to decoration of the tree, trying in place the brilliant crimson globes of fruits and golden oranges, and all the colorful things he could think of. He could not add the angel or the painted toys until the morning, when the colors would be dry, but even so it was long past midnight when he went to take a final look at the sleeping Layoni on his way to bed.

She was lying quietly, a little olive-skinned doll herself, with her dark hair spread about the pillow, her thin little arms carelessly outside the single sheet that covered her. In her sleep she looked a little sad and a little lonely, and he felt a great affection for the child.

He took a long time to go to sleep himself, thinking not of Layoni but of the Allison party. He was excited about it, and in a way disgusted with himself for being excited, because he certainly condemned Mrs. Allison for her rejection of Layoni. It would have been easy for her to be kind to the child, who was, after all, the only person on the island alien to both the natives and the whites. At least on Christmas Day she could have given her the companionship of the other English-speaking children, MacGregor felt. On the other hand, he felt the prospects of the Innstrom contact to be enormously important. Sir Gordon's was an acquaintance that MacGregor could develop with, he felt, the happiest of results when he returned to civilization. From the starting point of the Doraima painting, which Mrs. Allison would certainly have in a place of prominence, he might even secure Sir Gordon as a kind of patron, and that, combined with his own ability, would be quite sufficient to ensure the success of his whole career.

So his thoughts went, on and on into the night, and it was quite late when he awoke.

"Where will you go this morning?" he asked Layoni at breakfast.

"Just swimming, I think," she said, and he nodded. He would be able to find her when he wanted her. So he said nothing about the waiting Christmas tree. Better to keep it really a surprise. In an hour or two it would be ready.

It took even less than that to set the painted angel at the top of the tree, to wrap in concealing leaves the painted pigs that should have been sheep, the funny little men that should have been shepherds and the toys--the tops decorated now with red and blue bands--and to arrange them all in their places. But when that was done, Layoni and her village friends were nowhere to be seen.

It would be a four-hour walk to the Allison place--maybe three hours if he hurried--but MacGregor did not particularly worry about his time schedule. A little later never mattered in the islands. The children would turn up by lunchtime; he could start their party off and still arrive at the Allisons' party in plenty of time. But it was early afternoon before Layoni appeared.

"We've had a lovely day, Uncle Mac!" she cried. "We found a cave--"

"Well, go and find all the other kids again, and quickly," he said. "Bring them here as fast as you can."

He looked at his watch as she ran off. It was one o'clock. He pulled down all the burlap barriers and the pile of crates and revealed the Christmas tree. Even in his impatience he was pleased with the result. The tree was beautiful, its branches gracious under the brilliant offerings, and from the top-most twig the angel, proud and lovely, looked indeed as though she offered her benediction.

When the little girl came again to the doorway of the store, she just stood still and stared. Behind her, a throng of brown children pushed their way in until they too could see the tree and the angel.

"Merry Christmas, Layoni," greeted MacGregor. She did't hear him until he had said it twice more. Then she ran, not to the tree, but to him, clutched his legs and looked up at his face; and he felt the strong, unselfish love of a man for a child welling up in him, almost choking him. It was new in his experience and it took him by the throat and left him weak.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you!" she cried.

"Just for you," he smiled. "You and your friends. It's all yours."

She walked slowly over to the tree and picked her way daintily, and there was that in her eyes that dimmed the radiance of the angel enthroned there. It was a look of beauty, of complete adoration and reflected the kind of sheer happiness that can bring tears. MacGregor watched her for long minutes; he sat there watching while she called the others; he sat on and on. And suddenly it was urgent that he should keep forever the memory of that look and that happiness; and almost unconsciously he reached for his sketch pad.

Working swiftly, he captured the moment. Quickly he made sketch after sketch--the face, the uplifted eye, a hand outstretched--not coldly and clinically, but in a mountin fever of excitement that was somehow intertwined with his other emotions.

Suddenly she was lifting up the animal Timothy had carved--the six-legged monster with a dragon's tail.

"What is it?" she asked.

"It's a something," he told her. "Timothy said it's a camel." She dissolved into laughter.

From there it went on as a children's party does, except that the creator of the party sat there among them, his pencil flying, stabilizing and holding forever the moments in which a fat, brown baby sat in ecstasy and fingered a spotty painted pig; or the whirl of movement with which a lucky lad raced to the water with a toy canoe. And when, at last, MacGregor retrieved the angel from the top of the tree and Layoni took it and sat with it in her arms, her face molded into a pure testimony of love and happiness, he sat and drew that, too; his lines swiftly conspired to produce, not merely the features, the waving black hair, the liquid brown eyes, but the configuration of love itself--of love and happiness and the true recipient spirit of Christmas.

When he had finished he realized that the afternoon was gone, that the sun was sinking and that the Allisons would this day see neither himself nor the portrait of Doroima. There was no time for him to go, and no excuse. He could never explain such a late arrival.

Instead he stayed with Layoni, and when the village children went, read to her a little while and watched her sleep at last, the painted wooden angel clutched in her arms, its cooking-pot halo against her shoulder. He realized he had probably made an enemy of the Allisons--the explanation that he had failed to arrive so that he could give a Christmas party for Layoni would certainly not be acceptable to the woman who had refused to invite the little girl herself. The Allisons didn't matter, but he regretted the lost opportunity of meeting Innstron.

The day after Christmas was like any day after Christmas, MacGregor thought moodily as he cleared away the tree and the debris of children's play. He worked slowly, absorbed in his thoughts, and was surprised by a stranger at the door, a tall, gray man, a little red in the face from walking, dressed in correct tropical whites and carrying an ebony stick. The stranger held out his hand.

"My name's Innstrom," he said. "You're MacGregor. I heard some talk about you last night, and I wanted to see for myself how an artist would treat all this magnificent material."

MacGregor could hardly believe his luck. They talked for a while, and he brought out his paintings; some of the lesser ones first. But as Sir Gordon looked at painting after painting, MacGregor's spirits sank. The visitor was politely appreciative, no more. When at last the Doraima portrait stood against the wall, MacGregor knew with certainty that his work hadn't passed the tests of this man's criticism.

"Interesting," said Sir Gordon, fingering a gray mustache. "A really interesting solution, and I can see the problems you're up against here."

MacGregor made tea, and managed with difficulty to keep up a conversation. Whatever it was the millionaire had come hoping to see, he had not found it, and the artist reacted with disappointment almost to the point of despair. But as he turned to go, Sir Gordon idly picked up the sketch pad with the drawings of the children at the party. Carefully he went through them, page after page; then, with the pad, seated himself at the table.

"Now these?" he asked. "You'll be working on these? They're quite recent?"

"Yesterday's," said MacGregor. He laughed. "They're the reason I didn't meet you at the Allisons'."

"Obviously," said Sir Gordon, "you found something better to do." He pointed to the Doroima portrait against the wall. "You see the difference? That one's good--good technique, good balance, a fine subject--but it's cold. It lacks emotion. You felt nothing. You had nothing to feel. These"--he took up the drawings again--"these are different. They have feeling. They are alive. Here your hands were directed through eyes altered by your own emotions. You were emotionally involved, you see. You are forever involved. And I think you will never be the same as you were before." He reached in his pocket and found a card. "I must go, young man. I'm glad I came. I'd like to see more of your work. Your later work. Look me up when you come to Sydney."

MacGregor walked with him to the Fishermen's Rock at the top of the hill. He had a feeling he might never see Sir Gordon again, for suddenly he knew with certainty that he didn't need him. When he returned, Layoni came racing from the beach and threw herself into his arms. The wooden angel hit him on the head, but he didn't care.

"Thank you! Thank you, Uncle Mac!" cried Layoni. "thank you for the party!"

"Thank you, little girl," he said. "Thank you for everything." She didn't understand him, but he didn't bother to explain.
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Title Annotation:story
Author:Ruhen, Olaf
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Dec 1, 1984
Words:5345
Previous Article:A family's fight for justice.
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