Project Canterbury

Theodora Phranza; or, the Fall of Constantinople

By John Mason Neale

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1913.
First published London: J. Masters, 1857.

Chapter X.

"Val. Why, then, a ladder, quaintly made of cords, To cast up, with a pair of anchoring hooks, Would serve to scale another Hero's tower, So bold Leander would adventure it.

Duke. Now, as thou art a gentleman of blood,
Advise me where I may have such a ladder."

Two Gentlemen of Verona.

The castle of Hadrianople, to which Chrysolaras and his party were conveyed, had been built as an outpost when the Empire was harassed with the incursions of the Bulgarians; and had been constructed to possess a degree of strength which, at the time of its erection, was thought a wonder of art. The succeeding emperors had, however, added both to its conveniences and to its fortifications; and Amurath, when it came into his possession, and he had resolved to make it the head-quarters of the war of extermination which he proposed to carry on against the Empire, had surrounded it with another wall, erected by a renegade Frank.

The castle itself was not constructed, as was usually the case in the West, with a central keep, but in a quadrangle; the interior court being occupied by a damp and gloomy garden, to which, in consequence of the enormous height of the surrounding walls, the sun had access but for a few hours in the middle of the day. Hence nothing but trees that love the shade would grow there; the paved walks were green with mould; loathsome funguses grew on the stems of the trees, and on the garden beds; and the foul miasma of putrid vegetation exhaled over the building. In one of the angular turrets of this quadrangle, square, massy, and solid, the prisoners were lodged. In spite of all their tears and entreaties, Euphrasia and her mother were torn away from the rest of their party: Chrysolaras, Choniates, and the Lochagus were placed in the highest story of the building; while the Varangians, and the servants of Manuel, as unworthy of any better lot, were thrust into a dungeon.

The only fortunate circumstance in the whole series of circumstances, was the absence of Mahomet, who was understood to be in Bulgaria, occupied with the pleasures of the chase. On his return, the time of which was uncertain, the prisoners felt that their fate would be sealed.

It was late on a December afternoon that Chrysolaras and his two companions were lodged in their prison. The room they occupied was square, and very high; there were two windows, looking respectively north and east. They were circular-headed, and very narrow, but still further secured by a massy stanchion, and three or four strong bars. The walls were of hewn stone; the door plated with iron, and enormously thick. There was nothing in the room but three straw pallets, which the superior rank of the prisoners had warranted the governor in allotting to them. The windows were so high in the wall, that nothing could be seen from them except the blue and distant sky, which seemed to aggravate, by its own freedom, the loss of liberty.

As soon as the officer who had conducted them to their cell was gone, Choniates sank down on his pallet in an agony of dejection. Chrysolaras paced hurriedly up and down the room, as one beside himself; but Burstow, after investigating every corner of the apartment, striking the walls and floor with his knuckles, and trying the strength of the door, clasped his hands round the stanchion of one of the windows, and, by a great effort of strength, elevated his head to the arch, so as to be able to look down as much as possible into the space of ground immediately surrounding the castle. Having pursued his investigation at length in one window, he went through a similar process at the Other; and then, letting himself quietly down, walked two or three turns up and down the room.

"Well, my Lord," he said at length, "this is an awkward place to get out of; but, if you will both set in earnest to the work, I think it may be done."

"You are mad," said Choniates.

"Will that save Euphrasia?" inquired Chrysolaras.

"By your good leave, worthy Exarch," returned Burstow, "I am not mad; and, my good Lord, if the Lady Euphrasia Choniates be not saved by us, she will not be saved at all. We can but try; and if you be of my mind, you will rather die in escaping from this place, than waste away your lives in it."

"Undoubtedly," replied Chrysolaras; "but the thing is manifestly hopeless. Here we are, in the strongest castle in the Sultan's dominions, in the heart of his principal city; the very thought of escape is folly."

"Do you not see," persisted the Lochagus, "that this cell was never intended for a prison?"

"No, I do not," answered the young nobleman; but the Exarch, who had probably had more experience in the nature of prisons, seemed to catch at the idea, and exclaimed--

"You are right, Lochagus; it never could have been."

"A child may see that," pursued Burstow. "If it had been, they never would have built the windows to look out of the court. Where would have been the use? You don't suppose they wish to give their prisoners a view of the country, just for the sake of amusement?"

"There's something in that," observed Chrysolaras, "certainly."

"And look you, my Lord; these iron stanchions have been inserted since the castle was built, and rudely enough too. The windows were open before that."

"So they must have been," said Chrysolaras. "But granting it was not designed for a prison, what follows?"

"Our deliverance, my Lord. We cannot get out at the sides; but, I will stake my life on it, that the floor is not guarded."

"I take you, Lochagus, I take you," cried the Exarch. "If we had but instruments!"

"I never put my head into a lion's mouth, without devising how I may get it out," said Burstow, coolly. "I can show you nothing now, for we shall have our worthy keeper ere long with our supper. But, if my plan holds, we can get into the room below us. If there be prisoners there, we must take our chance of them; there are few men who would not risk somewhat for liberty. Somewhere in this turret the Lady Choniatis is confined: we shall see. God grant Mahomet may have good sport!"

The plan was discussed at some length, as day darkened and darkened. As twilight was closing, the keeper made his appearance with a pitcher of water, and three small loaves, which he deposited on the floor; and without deigning any reply to the "good-night" of Burstow, went out. The prisoners heard the lock shoot into its cell, the bolts drawn, the retiring footsteps of the gaoler, and then all was silence.

"A surly fellow, that," said Burstow, whose spirits seemed to rise in proportion to his danger. "The bolts move rustily; I do not think this cell has been lately used.--Come, my Lord, I trust to see you sit down to a better supper than this; but this is better than none. I have a good deal to do afterwards."

He practised what he had advised, and had already finished his loaf; while his companions, utterly worn out in mind and body, had the utmost difficulty in swallowing a mouthful or two.

"Now," said the Lochagus, when their sad meal was finished, "you must keep perfectly quiet. I wish to find out whether there is any one in the apartment below."

He lay down on the floor, and applied his ear to the boards; keeping so profoundly still, that, were it not for the tension of every muscle, he might have passed for a corpse. After about three minutes he rose, and said--

"I am pretty sure that the room is empty, unless the prisoner is asleep. We will try that too.--First let us finish the water in the pitcher."

"I have had enough," said the Exarch.

"For now," answered the Lochagus; "but better too much than too little. But you had better drink it, for we must break it directly."

"Break the pitcher!" cried Chrysolaras.

"Yes," said Burstow. "I will lie down as before; one of you must let the pitcher fall, so as to make as much noise as possible. That will answer a double purpose: it will wake anybody beneath, and I shall hear him; and if they are watching us very closely, they will come in to see what is the matter."

"It will wake him, I doubt not, if there is any one below," said Choniates; "but how can you be sure of hearing him?"

"I tell you I can," cried the Lochagus. "I learnt the art of listening through wood from a Candiot pirate, in recompense of a good turn I did him,--our Lady assoil him!--and it has stood me in good stead before now. I will tell you the way another time. Have you finished the water? Here is to our success!" And he drained what was left. "Now," he continued, "I am going to listen again: when I raise my hand,--thus,--do you, my Lord, let the pitcher fall from as high as you can hold it."

He accordingly lay down, composed himself in the same attitude of profound attention, and all was silent as before. Chrysolaras held up the pitcher, and, at the appointed signal, down it came, shivering into a thousand atoms, with a crash that echoed down the staircase which led to the apartment where the prisoners were. In another moment Burstow rose, saying, "I am sure there is no one. Now to see whether the gaoler will come."

They waited for five minutes, but no alarm appeared to have been excited. At one time, indeed, Chrysolaras imagined that he heard a step on the stair; but nothing occurred, and the prisoners felt convinced that they were not watched.

"Well," said Burstow, "nothing like careless guard. Had I been keeper now--but that does not matter. We must set to work. But first I will show you what I have. And with some difficulty drawing off one of his boots of untanned leather, he extricated from the sole a very thin saw, with teeth so fine that at first sight the edge appeared to be almost straight. From a belt which he wore next to his chest he produced a gimlet, and then a sharp-pointed pen-knife.

"I wonder," he said, "when they stripped us of our arms and our gold, that they did not find my belt. I trembled for it, I promise you; for the saw by itself would have been very little use."

"I do believe," cried the Exarch, overjoyed at all these preparations, "I do believe, Lochagus, that we shall succeed."

"Of course we shall," said Burstow. "Now, as we may be interrupted, and I were loth to lose my saw, I will put it where no one will ever dream of looking for it." He climbed up to the window, which, it need hardly be said, was not glazed, and passing his finger outside the stanchions, found that there was a ledge sufficiently wide for the saw to lie on without fear of falling.

"That is well," said he; "now then I will begin my task in the place where this middle pallet is, because it can most easily be covered over, if need be."

The mattress was soon drawn from its place, and Richard Burstow kneeling down, applied his gimlet to the floor. "Well," said he, presently, "the planks are thin enough; they will not give us much trouble. I must find out, however, where the joists lie; for if we should not be able to get down without cutting one of those, our case will be somewhat desperate." Accordingly, he bored the floor in four or five places, and expressed himself satisfied. "There will be room enough, but none to spare," he said. "Now I shall begin my operation. I do not think that any one is listening to our proceedings, or in any way watching us: but it is as well to be on the safe side. I must make some noise in sawing, though it will be little: one of you must sing or hum pretty loudly while I work, and that will overpower my noise. The other had better lie down, both because you will want rest, and also because, in case of our being interrupted, it will look well that some one of us should be asleep."

"Do you lie down, my Lord," said Choniates; "you have had far harder work than I; and I am but little fatigued."

"I will accept your offer with thankfulness," replied Chrysolaras, "provided you will promise to call me at the end of two hours, that I may take my share of the labour."

"At the end of four I will," said Choniates. "Then we shall each take our half of the night. Now lie down; and the Lochagus and I will do what we may towards our liberation."

Worn out with labour and grief, the young nobleman had hardly stretched himself on his hard couch before he was asleep. The Lochagus was now busily at work with his penknife in cutting out a small space for the saw to move in; and having at length succeeded, he requested Choniates to begin. Over and over again, therefore, the Exarch, who was by no means naturally musical, sang or hummed a tune of most doleful ditty; the subject being the capture of Smyrna by the Turks, and the miseries of the sack. To this accompaniment Burstow worked hard and sedulously, till the sweat rolled off his face in streams, notwithstanding the chillness of the night.

"Take the saw awhile, worthy Exarch," he said at length: "my fingers will hardly hold it: I will sing to you."

Choniates worked away with great alacrity, but little skill; and at the end of twenty minutes was forced to give in.

"It matters not," said Burstow. "We shall soon have succeeded. I would I had a cup of wine. Now, then." And he exerted himself so vigorously that, in three hours from the commencement of the work, he had sawn round a square of eighteen inches, and lifted it out of the floor. The Exarch could hardly repress his exultation: Burstow, who better knew how much remained to be done, was eager to proceed.

"The next thing to be done," he said, "is to find what is the height of the room below. I have a good quantity of twine wrapped round me--I will try with that."

Accordingly, disengaging a piece, he tied the gimlet to it, and cautiously lowered it: when, to the vexation of the adventurers, the height appeared to be not less than thirteen feet.

"It is impossible to drop that," said the Lochagus, in a tone of annoyance: "if I escaped without broken bones, I should run the chance of causing a disturbance, and I see no way of getting back. This will delay us several hours; for we must plait the twine into a cord. But first I will close our trap-door again, and replace the saw; one never knows when to expect a visit here."

This having been accordingly done, "We must waken the Lord Manuel," said Burstow; "we shall want our full strength in this work."

Chrysolaras was roused; and the position of affairs having been explained to him, he joined the Exarch and the Lochagus in their labour. It was with the utmost difficulty, while their fingers moved mechanically through the work, that they resisted the extreme and painful tendency to sleep.

At length, after two hours' vigorous work, the operation was finished, and a piece of plaited twine produced, long enough to reach into the lower apartment, and fully stout enough to support a man's weight. By this time, however, the night was wearing away: a faint and uncertain glimmer began to find its way into the prison; and the Lochagus saw that little more could be done till the return of darkness.

"At all events," said he, "I will try to find out what is in the apartment below the next one. Shut the trapdoor on my rope, as soon as I am down, in case any one should be on the alert; and hold it with all your might while I descend."

A little exertion placed Burstow in the lower apartment. "Shut the door, shut the door," cried he: "I must have a little leisure: you can open it again in a quarter of an hour."

His companions did so. "If any man can extricate us, it is he," said the Exarch presently; "but I fear--I fear------"

"Nay, my Lord," said Manuel Chrysolaras: "if the Sultan returns not for this day or two, we have every reason to hope."

"Ay,--if,"--said Choniates;--"but who shall assure that?"

"I hear him," cried Manuel: "he is trying the lower floor: what a noise he makes!"

"Hark!" said the other. "It is some one coming up the stairs--what are we to do?"

"Pull the mattress over the door," cried the young nobleman, suiting the action to the word. "Nay, nay; never lie down: best seem to be what we are--wide awake. There--that may perhaps do: "and he arranged his travelling cloak on the further bed, in the best way that he could, in the hope that it might be taken for the sleeping Lochagus.

"Well," said Choniates, "I never hoped to escape. God's will be done! Here he is!" And the steps came nearer: a bright light shone under the door, a key was applied to the lock: the wards creaked and groaned.

"God's will be done, as you say," said Chrysolaras: "but I hope to escape nevertheless. Leave all to me. Now, then!" And the door opened.

"What is all this disturbance?" cried the rough voice of the gaoler. "I have heard you all this night--what is it all about? Where is the other prisoner?"

"Where I wish I were," said Chrysolaras, boldly, and pointing to the cloak which, though arranged in the dark, had fortunately very much the effect of a real sleeper."--Disturbance? One can't help being restless, I suppose."

"But you can help disturbing the whole place," said the gaoler: "or, if you cannot, I will teach you how--down in the dungeon will be hardly so good a lodging, Allah knows."

"Well," said Chrysolaras, "I will try and go sleep. Let us lie down, worthy Exarch! Good-night, master gaoler!" And that functionary, who never had entertained any idea that anything was wrong, but had merely imagined that the prisoners were unusually and amazingly restless, growled a good-night, and departed.

"That was a near escape," said Manuel, as soon as he was gone. "In future we must be more cautious. Nothing more to be done to-night, except extricating the Lochagus."

The mattress was moved back, the trap-door opened, and Burstow duly summoned and drawn up.

"How did you escape? how did you escape?" said he. "I heard that ruffian of a fellow above--and gave up all for lost."

They related what had passed. "Then," said he, "it is impossible to do more to-night. God grant the Sultan returns not--or whatever happens to you, it will be the bow-string for me! I am well-nigh sure there are prisoners in the room below the next. However,--let us sleep now--we may want all our strength to-morrow night." And the three friends, utterly worn out, were, notwithstanding the imminency of their danger, in a few moments enjoying an unbroken and deep sleep.

Wearily passed the hours of the next day: broken only by the visit of the gaoler as he brought the morning, and noon, and evening meals of the prisoners. Nothing whatever was to be learnt from him, for his sullenness and ferocity appeared to increase with each succeeding visit; but it was evident that they were treated as persons of some consideration; the food supplied to them being not only plentiful, but of superior quality, while the wine was excellent. The Lochagus, according to his usual practice and precept, failed not to supply himself plentifully with the good things set before him; and both he and his companions passed the afternoon in such sleep as they could get; for, as he observed, they had a hard night's work before them. "And a good night's work too," he added, "or I am very much mistaken: we have our preparations ready, we are fresh men, and can do twice as much work in the same time."

Evening closed in around them, and Chrysolaras was beginning to inquire whether it would not soon be time to think of recommencing operations, when the gaoler was heard on the stairs, and, while the prisoners were wondering what this unusual visit might mean, he re-entered the chamber. He entered it as if on business of moment, and he spoke more civilly.

"The Sultan is returned," he said; "and he desires your presence, (addressing Chrysolaras,) and that immediately. As to you, Varangian, make the best of the time that remains: for your death to-morrow is as certain as the Empire of the Prophet."

"Amen," cried Burstow; "so it be no surer. Could you not get me a bottle of wine, good gaoler? If this be so, I am not likely to taste any more."

"Drunken dog!" cried the gaoler: "but you shall have it. Come, worthy sir."

"This is fatal indeed," said Chrysolaras, speaking in modern Greek. "And when I had hoped----"

"Hush, my Lord, hush!" cried Burstow, fearful that the turnkey might have some knowledge of that language. "You are safe yourself from all danger, except that of paying a good ransom; and you may be able to do more for the lady."

"God grant it!" said Choniates and the young nobleman.

"Farewell, noble despot," cried the latter,--"and you too, Lochagus. I trust your fate may be better than this good man thinks."

"I trust so too," said Burstow; and Chrysolaras was taken off.

"Fate is against us," said Choniates: "it is useless contending against it."

"Fate is what Paynims talk about, and not Christians," said the stout Englishman; "if God and our Lady be for us, all the fate in the world may be against us. Stop! I will say forty Paternosters, and as many Aves."

"And I, five hundred Kyries," added Choniates. And, falling on their knees, the companions in misfortune went through the prescribed prayers with great speed and devotion.

They had hardly finished, when the turnkey again came, bringing a bottle of wine, which he set down on the floor, and, wishing his charge good-night, departed.

"We shall need this, before we make our escape," said Burstow. "I think we may soon begin: but we had perhaps better wait an hour, to see whether Lord Chrysolaras will return."

The hour passed, but he came not; and as it was now nearly dark, it was determined to continue the work.

"We must both now leave this room for good," said the Lochagus; and we had better dispose things so as to give the appearance of our still being here, if the gaoler should pay us another visit. Spread your cloak, worthy Exarch, over your bed; I will do the same over mine, and lay them with a hump in the middle, as if some one were below them.

"But is it not possible," inquired Choniates, "that Lord Chrysolaras will return?"

"I think not," replied the other, "or he would have come before now. But if we are to escape at all, it must be now or never; and, to be plain with you, I think your daughter's danger greater by far than that of Chrysolaras."

"But how does our escape affect her?" inquired the Exarch.

"I have good hope," answered Burstow, "that they are confined in the room next but one below this--that is, on the second storey. If so, we will see what can be done."

"Let us lose no more time," said her father. "Oh, if it might but be so!"

"I say nothing," cried Burstow, "of my own neck: but you must remember that no man likes to be strangled if he can help it; and though, thanks to our Lady, I have no particular cause to fear death, the rather that I confessed and was shriven before I left Constantinople, yet I own that I had sooner live."

"I trust you will escape," said Nicetas Choniates; "I had not remembered--I fear mine own sorrows make me selfish--let us only try."

"You must descend first," said Burstow, opening the trap-door: I can hold the rope for you, which is more, I think, than you could for me. Then you must break my fall as well as you can." He lowered Choniates down with some difficulty; and then, letting himself through the opening, and hanging with his hands on the floor, he contrived so to arrange the trap-door as that when he removed his fingers it should fall into its place. "Now then!" cried he, "stand firm and let me get my hand on your shoulder as I leap: the rest I will manage for myself." The manoeuvre was with some difficulty accomplished; and the adventurers now found themselves safely in the room below that which they lately occupied, without having given the slightest alarm, and in good spirits for their next operation.

"Now we must fall to it again," cried Burstow: "God send our second attempt as prosperous as the first."

Accordingly, the gimlet was introduced as before, the place chosen, and the saw set to work: but not quite with the same result. Scarcely had it fairly got into play, when voices were heard in the apartment below.

"It is my wife and daughter," said Nicetas Choniates, in great agitation.

"I think so too," answered Burstow. "I hope they will not be alarmed and cry out. We must be quick."

Presently, however, the words--"Who is that?" could be clearly distinguished, and no doubt remained that it was Maria Choniatis who spoke.

"Our Lady strike that woman dumb!" was the secret ejaculation of the Lochagus, as he plied his task more vigorously than ever: while the Exarch walked up and down in a state of agitation almost amounting to frenzy.

"Who is that?" was presently repeated more loudly and shrilly: and, no answer being returned, a succession of shrieks issued from the apartment below them.

"They have done for us," said Burstow, coolly, as he withdrew his saw, and concealed it about his person.

Some little time passed, and no notice seemed to be taken of the uproar: Burstow, hoping that he might this time succeed better, again inserted the saw, and began with the greatest caution to work. But no sooner was the grating noise heard, than the shrieks were renewed with more violence than ever: and the Lochagus impatiently withdrew his tool, and awaited the result.

This time the clamour was more successful. The door of the room in which the ladies were confined was presently opened; and a loud, gruff voice was heard in conversation with them. Burstow listened attentively, but could not distinguish the words: the tone, however, was threatening, and the interview, of whatever kind, short. The door was soon closed again, and all was silence.

"We must try again," said Burstow; and, for the third time, he set to work. One faint scream below, apparently hushed off; and then he was allowed to pursue his labour uninterruptedly to its close.

"Now, worthy Exarch," cried the Varangian, "we are just through: be ready to speak to them, when I have removed the piece of wood." This was done: and stifled sobs were heard from the darkness below.

The Exarch knelt down, and called, gently, "Maria! Euphrasia!"

"Who are you, in the Panaghia's name?" cried Maria Choniatis, faintly.

"It is I and a Varangian officer," said her husband. "Only keep quiet, and we will save you."

"Oh, God be praised! Oh, God be praised!" was all that he could hear in return--till Burstow broke in with--"Now, sir, you must descend: here is the rope." And without much difficulty, Choniates was lowered down--and in a moment was in the arms of his wife and daughter.

"Have you any bed, or any other soft thing to break my fall?" cried Burstow, from the top. A mattress was soon dragged under the aperture; and then the Lochagus descended, closing the trap-door after him, as he had done before.

Some few minutes were given to explanations and congratulations and sorrow for Chrysolaras. The Lady Choniatis dwelt on the dreadful terror that Euphrasia and herself had suffered when it became evident that some one was endeavouring to enter from above; their shrieks had brought the gaoler to inquire what was the matter. He treated their entreaties for protection with contempt, assuring them that the room above was, and had long been empty, and that, if he were disturbed any more by their folly, he would try whether a separation of the prisoners might not keep them more quiet. This threat effectually silenced all further outcries; and in an agony of fear they awaited the result.

"And nearly marred it," said the Lochagus, bluntly. "Well, thank God, the past is past. The thing now is the future. Do you know, lady, whether the room below you is occupied or not?"

"Half an hour ago," replied Maria Choniatis, "there was the sound of a hard struggle, and of cries: but before and after, all has been as still as death. We thought that some one entered the room, and left it again."

"Then we will run the chance," said the Lochagus: "but speak low, if you speak at all." He set to work instantly, and while he was proceeding in his task, Euphrasia eagerly demanded from her father some more minute account of Manuel Chrysolaras. He assured her of his conviction of that nobleman's perfect safety; told her that all his anxiety was for her; and in his turn inquired into the kind of treatment that she had received. The Lady Choniatis, too, had her own tale of hopes and fears to tell; and by the time that particulars on all sides had been communicated, Burstow announced that his task was completed. The separated piece was removed, and the adventurous Lochagus again lowered. To his dismay, however, on reaching the floor, he found that he had no longer wood to contend with, but that it was of stone; although from his recollection of the castle, he felt certain that he was not on a level with the ground. Groping with hands and feet in the pitch darkness that surrounded him, he at length stumbled over a long iron bar, which evidently was connected with a trap-door. It required merely to be drawn back, and then the massy plate which composed the door was raised on its hinges. As it opened, a cold, damp air rushed into the apartment; and at the same time the roar of waters beneath burst upon the ear. It was clear that the river Toondja, dark, fierce, and rapid, poured under the arch on which the room was raised.

Choniates speedily descended; and the two adventurers were equally at fault what course to pursue. The Lochagus, habituated to all sorts of dangers by sea and land, had not the least fear of submitting himself to the torrent. Choniates could swim a little, but had never ventured into aught else than the smooth waters of a sunny sea: and how Euphrasia and her mother were to be saved, seemed utterly beyond human power to devise. Meantime, the attempt must be made at once or never. Twilight was already breaking, and concealment or escape would in an hour be impossible.

"It is very strange," said Burstow, "but I could have sworn that I saw a flash of light below. Surely the river cannot be a free road here--there must be a chain or cage-work somewhere to secure the place."

"I thought I saw it too," said Choniates: "nay, and I fancied that I heard the faint dash of an oar."

"There is certainly some one below," said the Lochagus, after listening for a moment.

"Will you not own now that there is such a thing as fate?" inquired the Exarch, half reproachfully.

"No," answered Burstow. "I will speak to them in Turkish. We cannot be worse off than we are, and we may be better."

"Try, in S. Demetrius's name, then," said Choniates.

"Who goes there?" demanded the Lochagus, bending over the aperture, and assuming a tone of authority.

To explain the answer he received, we must go back in our story.

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