Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 43

Mr. Whitelaw Makes an End of the Mystery.

Mrs. Whitelaw had been married about two months. It was bright May weather, bright but not yet warm; and whatever prettiness Wyncomb Farm was capable of assuming had been put on with the fresh spring green of the fields and the young leaves of the poplars. There were even a few hardy flowers in the vegetable-garden behind the house, humble perennials planted by dead and gone Whitelaws, which had bloomed year after year in spite of Stephen’s utilitarian principles. It was a market-day, the household work was finished, and Ellen was sitting with Mrs. Tadman in the parlour, where those two spent so many weary hours of their lives, the tedium whereof was relieved only by woman’s homely resource, needlework. Even if Mrs. Whitelaw had been fond of reading, and she only cared moderately for that form of occupation, she could hardly have found intellectual diversion of that kind at Wyncomb, where a family Bible, a few volumes of the Annual Register, which had belonged to some half-dozen different owners before they came from a stall in Malsham market to the house of Whitelaw, a grim-looking old quarto upon domestic medicine, and a cookery-book, formed the entire library. When the duties of the day were done, and the local weekly newspaper had been read — an intellectual refreshment which might be fairly exhausted in ten minutes — there remained nothing to beguile the hours but the perpetual stitch — stitch — stitch of an industriously-disposed sempstress; and the two women used to sit throughout the long afternoons with their work-baskets before them, talking a little now and then of the most commonplace matters, but for the greater part of their time silent. Sometimes, when the heavy burden of Mrs. Tadman’s society, and the clicking of needles and snipping of scissors, grew almost unendurable, Ellen would run out of the house for a brief airing in the garden, and walk briskly to and fro along the narrow pathway between the potatoes and cabbages, thinking of her dismal life, and of the old days at the Grange when she had been full of gaiety and hope. There was not perhaps much outward difference in the two lives. In her father’s house she had worked as hard as she worked now; but she had been free in those days, and the unknown future all before her, with its chances of happiness. Now, she felt like some captive who paces the narrow bounds of his prison-yard, without hope of release or respite, except in death.

This particular spring day had begun brightly, the morning had been sunny and even warm; but now, as the afternoon wore away, there were dark clouds, with a rising wind and a sharp gusty shower every now and then. Ellen took a solitary turn in the garden between the showers. It was market-day; Stephen Whitelaw was not expected home till tea-time, and the meal was to be eaten at a later hour than usual.

The rain increased as the time for the farmer’s return drew nearer. He had gone out in the morning without his overcoat, Mrs. Tadman remembered, and was likely to get wet through on his way home, unless he should have borrowed some extra covering at Malsham. His temper, which of late had been generally at its worst, would hardly be improved by this annoyance.

There was a very substantial meal waiting for him: a ponderous joint of cold roast beef, a dish of ham and eggs preparing in the kitchen, with an agreeable frizzling sound, a pile of hot buttered cakes kept hot upon the oven top; but there was no fire in the parlour, and the room looked a little cheerless in spite of the well-spread table. They had discontinued fires for about a fortnight, at Mr. Whitelaw’s command. He didn’t want to be ruined by his coal-merchant’s bill if it was a chilly spring, he told his household; and at his own bidding the fire-place had been polished and garnished for the summer. But this evening was colder than any evening lately, by reason of that blusterous rising wind, which blew the rain-drops against the window-panes with as sharp a rattle as if they had been hailstones; and Mr. Whitelaw coming in presently, disconsolate and dripping, was by no means inclined to abide by his own decision about the fires.

“Why the —— haven’t you got a fire here?” he demanded savagely.

“It was your own wish, Stephen,” answered Mrs. Tadman.

“My own fiddlesticks! Of course I didn’t care to see my wood and coals burning to waste when the sun was shining enough to melt any one. But when a man comes home wet to the skin, he doesn’t want to come into a room like an ice-house. Call the girl, and tell her to light a blazing fire while I go and change my clothes. Let her bring plenty of wood, and put a couple of logs on top of the coals. I’m frozen to the very bones driving home in the rain.”

Mrs. Tadman gave a plaintive sigh as she departed to obey her kinsman.

“That’s just like Stephen,” she said; “if it was you or me that wanted a fire, we might die of cold before we got leave to light one; but he never grudges anything for his own comfort!”

Martha came and lighted a fire under Mrs. Tadman’s direction. That lady was inclined to look somewhat uneasily upon the operation; for the grate had been used constantly throughout a long winter, and the chimney had not been swept since last spring, whereby Mrs. Tadman was conscious of a great accumulation of soot about the massive old brickwork and ponderous beams that spanned the wide chimney. She had sent for the Malsham sweep some weeks ago; but that necessary individual had not been able to come on the particular day she wished, and the matter had been since then neglected. She remembered this now with a guilty feeling, more especially as Stephen had demanded a blazing fire, with flaring pine-logs piled half-way up the chimney. He came back to the parlour presently, arrayed in an old suit of clothes which he kept for such occasions — an old green coat with basket buttons, and a pair of plaid trousers of an exploded shape and pattern — and looking more like a pinched and pallid scarecrow than a well-to-do farmer. Mrs. Tadman had only carried out his commands in a modified degree, and he immediately ordered the servant to put a couple of logs on the fire, and then drew the table close up to the hearth, and sat down to his tea with some appearance of satisfaction. He had had rather a good day at market, he condescended to tell his wife during the progress of the meal; prices were rising, his old hay was selling at a rate which promised well for the new crops, turnips were in brisk demand, mangold enquired for — altogether Mr. Whitelaw confessed himself very well satisfied with the aspect of affairs.

After tea he spent his evening luxuriantly, sitting close to the fire, with his slippered feet upon the fender, and drinking hot rum-and-water as a preventive of impending, or cure of incipient, cold. The rum-and-water being a novelty, something out of the usual order of his drink, appeared to have an enlivening effect upon him. He talked more than usual, and even proposed a game at cribbage with Mrs. Tadman; a condescension which moved that matron to tears, reminding her, she said, of old times, when they had been so comfortable together, before he had taken to spend his evenings at the Grange.

“Not that I mean any unkindness to you, Ellen,” the doleful Tadman added apologetically, “for you’ve been a good friend to me, and if there’s one merit I can lay claim to, it’s a grateful heart; but of course, when a man marries, he never is the same to his relations as when he was single. It isn’t in human nature that he should be.”

Here Mrs. Tadman’s amiable kinsman requested her to hold her jaw, and to bring the board if she was going to play, or to say as much if she wasn’t. Urged by this gentle reminder, Mrs. Tadman immediately produced a somewhat dingy-looking pack of cards and a queer little old-fashioned cribbage-board.

The game lasted for about an hour or so, at the end of which time the farmer threw himself back in his chair with a yawn, and pronounced that he had had enough of it. The old eight-day clock in the lobby struck ten soon after this, and the two women rose to retire, leaving Stephen to his night’s libations, and not sorry to escape out of the room, which he had converted into a kind of oven or Turkish bath by means of the roaring fire he had insisted upon keeping up all the evening. He was left, therefore, with his bottle of rum about half emptied, to finish his night’s entertainment after his own fashion.

Mrs. Tadman ventured a mild warning about the fire when she wished him good night; but as she did not dare to hint that there had been any neglect in the chimney-sweeping, her counsel went for very little. Mr. Whitelaw threw on another pine-log directly the two women had left him, and addressed himself to the consumption of a fresh glass of rum-and-water.

“There’s nothing like being on the safe side,” he muttered to himself with an air of profound wisdom. “I don’t want to be laid up with the rheumatics, if I can help it.”

He finished the contents of his glass, and went softly out of the room, carrying a candle with him. He was absent about ten minutes, and then came back to resume his comfortable seat by the fire, and mixed himself another glass of grog with the air of a man who was likely to finish the bottle.

While he sat drinking in his slow sensual way, his young wife slept peacefully enough in one of the rooms above him. Early rising and industrious habits will bring sleep, even when the heart is hopeless and the mind is weary. Mrs. Whitelaw slept a tranquil dreamless sleep to-night, while Mrs. Tadman snored with a healthy regularity in a room on the opposite side of the passage.

There was a faint glimmer of dawn in the sky, a cold wet dawn, when Ellen was awakened suddenly by a sound that bewildered and alarmed her. It was almost like the report of a pistol, she thought, as she sprang out of bed, pale and trembling. It was not a pistol shot, however, only a handful of gravel thrown sharply against her window.

“Stephen,” she cried, half awake and very much, frightened, “what was that?” But, to her surprise, she found that her husband was not in the room.

While she sat on the edge of her bed hurrying some of her clothes on, half mechanically, and wondering what that startling sound could have been, a sudden glow of red light shone in at her window, and at the same moment her senses, which had been only half awakened before, told her that there was an atmosphere of smoke in the room.

She rushed to the door, forgetting that to open it was perhaps to admit death, and flung it open. Yes, the passage was full of smoke, and there was a strange crackling sound below.

There could be little doubt as to what had happened — the house was on fire. She remembered how repeatedly Mrs. Tadman had declared that Stephen would inevitably set the place on fire some night or other, and how little weight she had attached to the dismal prophecy. But the matron’s fears had not been groundless, it seemed. The threatened calamity had come.

“Stephen!” she cried, with all her might, and then flew to Mrs. Tadman’s door and knocked violently. She waited for no answer, but rushed on to the room where the two women-servants slept together, and called to them loudly to get up for their lives, the house was on fire.

There were still the men in the story above to be awakened, and the smoke was every moment growing thicker. She mounted a few steps of the staircase, and called with all her strength. It was very near their time for stirring. They must hear her, surely. Suddenly she remembered an old disused alarm-bell which hung in the roof. She had seen the frayed rope belonging to it hanging in an angle of the passage. She flew to this, and pulled it vigorously till a shrill peal rang out above; and once having accomplished this, she went on, reckless of her own safety, thinking only how many there were to be saved in that house.

All this time there was no sign of her husband, and a dull horror came over her with the thought that he might be perishing miserably below. There could be no doubt that the fire came from downstairs. That crackling noise had increased, and every now and then there came a sound like the breaking of glass. The red glow shining in at the front windows grew deeper and brighter. The fire had begun in the parlour, of course, where they had left Stephen Whitelaw basking in the warmth of his resinous pine-logs.

Ellen was still ringing the bell, when she heard a man’s footstep coming along the passage towards her. It was not her husband, but one of the farm-servants from the upper story, an honest broad-shouldered fellow, as strong as Hercules.

“Lord a mercy, mum, be that you?” he cried, as he recognised the white half-dressed figure clinging to the bell-rope “let me get ‘ee out o’ this; the old place’ll burn like so much tinder;” and before she could object, he had taken her up in his arms as easily as if she had been a child, and was carrying her towards the principal staircase.

Here they were stopped. The flames and smoke were mounting from the lobby below; the man turned immediately, wasting no time by indecision, and ran to the stairs leading down to the kitchen. In this direction all was safe. There was smoke, but in a very modified degree.

“Robert,” Ellen cried eagerly, when they had reached the kitchen, where all was quiet, “for God’s sake, go and see what has become of your master. We left him drinking in the parlour last night. I’ve called to him again and again, but there’s been no answer.”

“Don’t you take on, mum; master’s all right, I daresay. Here be the gals and Mrs. Tadman coming downstairs; they’ll take care o’ you, while I go and look arter him. You’ve no call to be frightened. If the fire should come this way, you’ve only got to open yon door and get out into the yard. You’re safe here.”

The women were all huddled together in the kitchen by this time, half dressed, shivering, and frightened out of their wits. Ellen Whitelaw was the only one among them who displayed anything like calmness.

The men were all astir. One had run across the fields to Malsham to summon the fire-engine, another was gone to remove some animals stabled near the house.

The noise of burning wood was rapidly increasing, the smoke came creeping under the kitchen-door presently, and, five minutes after he had left them, the farm-servant came back to say that he could find no traces of his master. The parlor was in flames. If he had been surprised by the fire in his sleep, it must needs be all over with him. The man urged his mistress to get out of the house at once; the fire was gaining ground rapidly, and it was not likely that anything he or the other men could do would stop its progress.

The women left the kitchen immediately upon this warning, by a door leading into the yard. It was broad daylight by this time; a chilly sunless morning, and a high wind sweeping across the fields and fanning the flames, which now licked the front wall of Wyncomb Farmhouse. The total destruction of the place seemed inevitable, unless help from Malsham came very quickly. The farm servants were running to and fro with buckets of water from the yard, and flinging their contents in at the shattered windows of the front rooms; but this was a small means of checking the destruction. The house was old, built for the most part of wood, and there seemed little hope for it.

Ellen and the other women went round to the front of the house, and stood there, dismal figures in their scanty raiment, with woollen petticoats pinned across their shoulders, and disordered hair blown about their faces by the damp wind. They stood grouped together in utter helplessness, looking at the work of ruin with a half-stupid air; almost like the animals who had been hustled from one place of shelter to another, and were evidently lost in wonder as to the cause of their removal.

But presently, as the awful scene before them grew more familiar, the instincts of self-interest arose in each breast. Mrs. Tadman piteously bewailed the loss of her entire wardrobe, and some mysterious pocket-book which she described plaintively as her “little all.” She dwelt dolefully upon the merits of each particular article, most especially upon a French-merino dress she had bought for Stephen’s wedding, which would have lasted her a lifetime, and a Paisley shawl, the gift of her deceased husband, which had been in her possession twenty years, and had not so much as a thin place in it.

Nor was the disconsolate matron the only one who lamented her losses. Sarah Batts, with clasped hands and distracted aspect, wept for the destruction of her “box.”

“There was money in it,” she cried, “money! Oh, don’t you think the men could get to my room and save it?”

“Money!” exclaimed Mrs. Tadman, sharply, aroused from the contemplation of her own woes by this avowal; “you must be cleverer than I took you for, Sarah Batts, to be able to save money, and yet be always bedizened with some new bit of finery, as you’ve been.”

“It was give to me,” Sarah answered indignantly, “by them as had a right to give it.”

“For no good, I should think,” replied Mrs. Tadman; “what should anybody give you money for?”

“Never you mind; it was mine. O dear, O dear! if one of the men would only get my box for me.”

She ran to intercept one of the farm-labourers, armed with his bucket, and tried to bribe him by the promise of five shillings as a reward for the rescue of her treasures. But the man only threatened to heave the bucket of water at her if she got in his way; and Miss Batts was obliged to abandon this hope.

The fire made rapid progress meanwhile, unchecked by that ineffectual splashing of water. It had begun at the eastern end of the building, the end most remote from those disused rooms in the ivy-covered west wing; but the wind was blowing from the north-east, and the flames were spreading rapidly towards that western angle. There was little chance that any part of the house could be saved.

While Ellen Whitelaw was looking on at the work of ruin, with a sense of utter helplessness, hearing the selfish lamentations of Mrs. Tadman and Sarah Batts like voices in a dream, she was suddenly aroused from this state of torpor by a loud groan, which sounded from not very far off. It came from behind her, from the direction of the poplars. She flew to the spot, and on the ground beneath one of them she found a helpless figure lying prostrate, with an awful smoke-blackened face — a figure and face which for some moments she did not recognize as her husband’s.

She knew him at last, however, and knelt down beside him. He was groaning in an agonized manner, and had evidently been fearfully burnt before he made his escape.

“Stephen!” she cried. “O, thank God you are here! I thought you were shut up in that burning house. I called with all my might, and the men searched for you.”

“It isn’t much to be thankful for,” gasped the farmer. “I don’t suppose there’s an hour’s life in me; I’m scorched from head to foot, and one arm’s helpless. I woke up all of a sudden, and found the room in a blaze. The flames had burst out of the great beam that goes across the chimney-piece. The place was all on fire, so that I couldn’t reach the door anyhow; and before I could get out of the window, I was burnt like this. You’d have been burnt alive in your bed but for me. I threw up a handful of gravel at your window. It must have woke you, didn’t it?”

“Yes, yes, that was the sound that woke me; it seemed like a pistol going off. You saved my life, Stephen. It was very good of you to remember me.”

“Yes; there’s men in my place who wouldn’t have thought of anybody but themselves.”

“Can I do anything to ease you, Stephen?” asked his wife.

She had seated herself on the grass beside him, and had taken his head on her lap, supporting him gently. She was shocked to see the change the fire had made in his face, which was all blistered and distorted.

“No, nothing; till they come to carry me away somewhere. I’m all one burning pain.”

His eyes closed, and he seemed to sink into a kind of stupor. Ellen called to one of the men. They might carry him to some place of shelter surely, at once, where a doctor could be summoned, and something done for his relief. There was a humble practitioner resident at Crosber, that is to say, about two miles from Wyncomb. One of the farm-servants might take a horse and gallop across the fields to fetch this man.

Robert Dunn, the bailiff, heard her cries presently and came to her. He was very much shocked by his master’s condition, and at once agreed to the necessity of summoning a surgeon. He proposed that they should carry Stephen Whitelaw to some stables, which lay at a safe distance from the burning house, and make up some kind of bed for him there. He ran back to dispatch one of the men to Crosber, and returned immediately with another to remove his master.

But when they tried to raise the injured man between them, he cried out to them to let him alone, they were murdering him. Let him lie where he was; he would not be moved. So he was allowed to lie there, with his head on his wife’s lap, and his tortured body covered by a coat, which one of the men brought him. His eyes closed again, and for some time he lay without the slightest motion.

The fire was gaining ground every instant, and there was yet no sign of the engine from Malsham; but Ellen Whitelaw scarcely heeded the work of destruction. She was thinking only of the helpless stricken creature lying with his head upon her lap; thinking of him perhaps in this hour of his extremity with all the more compassion, because he had always been obnoxious to her. She prayed for the rapid arrival of the surgeon, who must surely be able to give some relief to her husband’s sufferings, she thought. It seemed dreadful for him to be lying like this, with no attempt made to lessen his agony. After a long interval he lifted his scorched eyelids slowly, and looked at her with a strange dim gaze.

“The west wing,” he muttered; “is that burnt?”

“No, Stephen, not yet; but there’s little hope they’ll save any part of the house.”

“They must save that; the rest don’t matter — I’m insured heavily; but they must save the west wing.”

His wife concluded from this that he had kept some of his money in one of those western rooms. The seed-room perhaps, that mysterious padlocked chamber, where she had heard the footstep. And yet she had heard him say again and again that he never kept an unnecessary shilling in the house, and that every pound he had was out at interest. But such falsehoods and contradictions are common enough amongst men of miserly habits; and Stephen Whitelaw would hardly be so anxious about those western rooms unless something of value were hidden away there. He closed his eyes again, and lay groaning faintly for some time; then opened them suddenly with a frightened look and asked, in the same tone,

“The west wing — is the west wing afire yet?”

“The wind blows that way, Stephen, and the flames are spreading. I don’t think they could save it — not if the engine was to come this minute.”

“But I tell you they must!” cried Stephen Whitelaw. “If they don’t, it’ll be murder — cold-blooded murder. O, my God, I never thought there was much harm in the business — and it paid me well — but it’s weighed me down like a load of lead, and made me drink more to drown thought. But if it should come to this — don’t you understand? Don’t sit staring at me like that. If the fire gets to the west wing, it will be murder. There’s some one there — some one locked up — that won’t be able to stir unless they get her out.”

“Some one locked up in the west wing! Are you mad, Stephen?”

“It’s the truth. I wouldn’t do it again — no, not for twice the money. Let them get her out somehow. They can do it, if they look sharp.”

That unforgotten footstep and equally unforgotten scream flashed into Mrs. Whitelaw’s mind with these words of her husband’s. Some one shut up there; yes, that was the solution of the mystery that had puzzled and tormented her so long. That cry of anguish was no supernatural echo of past suffering, but the despairing shriek of some victim of modern cruelty. A poor relation of Stephen’s perhaps — a helpless, mindless creature, whose infirmities had been thus hidden from the world. Such things have been too cruelly common in our fair free country.

Ellen laid her husband’s head gently down upon the grass and sprang to her feet.

“In which room?” she cried. But there was no answer. The man lay with closed eyes — dying perhaps — but she could do nothing for him till medical help came. The rescue of that unknown captive was a more urgent duty.

She was running towards the burning house, when she heard a horse galloping on the road leading from the gate. She stopped, hoping that this was the arrival of the doctor; but a familiar voice called to her, and in another minute her father had dismounted and was close at her side.

“Thank God you’re safe, lass!” he exclaimed, with some warmer touch of paternal feeling than he was accustomed to exhibit. “Our men saw the fire when they were going to their work, and I came across directly. Where’s Steph?”

“Under the trees yonder, very much hurt; I’m afraid fatally. But there’s nothing we can do for him till the doctor comes. There’s someone in still greater danger, father. For God’s sake, help us to save her — some one shut up yonder, in a room at that end of the house.”

“Some one shut up! One of the servants, do you mean?”

“No, no, no. Some one who has been kept shut up there — hidden — ever so long. Stephen told me just now. O, father, for pity’s sake, try to save her!”

“Nonsense, lass. Your husband’s brain must have been wandering. Who should be shut up there, and you live in the house and not know it? Why should Stephen hide any one in his house? What motive could he have for such a thing? It isn’t possible.”

“I tell you, father, it is true. There was no mistaking Stephen’s words just now, and, besides that, I’ve heard noises that might have told me as much, only I thought the house was haunted. I tell you there is some one — some one who’ll be burnt alive if we’re not quick — and every moment’s precious. Won’t you try to save her?”

“Of course I will. Only I don’t want to risk my life for a fancy. Is there a ladder anywhere?”

“Yes, yes. The men have ladders.”

“And where’s this room where you say the woman is shut up?”

“At that corner of the house,” answered Ellen, pointing.

“There’s a door at the end of the passage, but no window looking this way. There’s only one, and that’s over the wood-yard.”

“Then it would be easiest to get in that way?”

“No, no, father. The wood’s all piled up above the window. It would take such a time to move it.”

“Never mind that. Anything’s better than the risk of going into yonder house. Besides, the room’s locked, you say. Have you got the key?”

“No; but I could get it from Stephen, I daresay.”

“We won’t wait for you to try. We’ll begin at the wood-yard.”

“Take Robert Dunn with you, father. He’s a good brave fellow.”

“Yes, I’ll take Dunn.”

The bailiff hurried away to the wood-yard, accompanied by Dunn and another man carrying a tall ladder. The farm-servants had ceased from their futile efforts at quenching the fire by this time. It was a labour too hopeless to continue. The flames had spread to the west wing. The ivy was already crackling, as the blaze crept over it. Happily that shut-up room was at the extreme end of the building, the point to which the flames must come last. And here, just at the moment when the work of devastation was almost accomplished, came the Malsham fire-engine rattling along gaily through the dewy morning, and the Malsham amateur fire-brigade, a very juvenile corps as yet, eager to cover itself with laurels, but more careful in the adjustment of its costume than was quite consistent with the desperate nature of its duty. Here came the brigade, in time to do something at any rate, and the engine soon began to play briskly upon the western wing.

Ellen Whitelaw was in the wood-yard, watching the work going on there with intense anxiety. The removal of the wood pile seemed a slow business, well as the three men performed their work, flinging down great crushing piles of wood one after another without a moment’s pause. They were now joined by the Malsham fire-escape men, who had got wind of some one to be rescued from this part of the house, and were eager to exhibit the capabilities of a new fire-escape, started with much hubbub and glorification, after an awful fire had ravaged Malsham High-street, and half-a-dozen lives had been wasted because the old fire-escape was out of order and useless.

“We don’t want the fire-escape,” cried Mr. Carley as the tall machine was wheeled into the yard. “The room we want to get at isn’t ten feet from the ground. You can give us a hand with this wood if you like. That’s all we want.”

The men clambered on to the wood-pile. It was getting visibly lower by this time, and the top of the window was to be seen. Ellen watched with breathless anxiety, forgetting that her husband might be dying under the poplars. He was not alone there; she had sent Mrs. Tadman to watch him.

Only a few minutes more and the window was cleared. A pale face could be dimly seen peering out through the dusty glass. William Carley tried to open the lattice, but it was secured tightly within. One of the firemen leapt forward upon his failure, and shattered every pane of glass and every inch of the leaden frame with a couple of blows from his axe, and then the bailiff clambered into the room.

He was hidden from those below about five minutes, and then emerged from the window, somehow or other, carrying a burden, and came struggling across the wood to the ladder by which he and the rest had mounted. The burden which he carried was a woman’s figure, with the face hidden by his large woollen neckerchief. Ellen gave a cry of horror. The woman must surely be dead, or why should he have taken such pains to cover her face?

He brought his burden down the ladder very carefully, and gave the lifeless figure into Ellen’s arms.

“Help me to carry her away yonder, while Robert gets the cart ready,” he said to his daughter; “she’s fainted.” And then he added in a whisper, “For God’s sake, don’t let any one see her face! it’s Mrs. Holbrook.”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31