The Absentee, by Maria Edgeworth

Chapter 3.

The opening of her gala, the display of her splendid reception rooms, the Turkish tent, the Alhambra, the pagoda, formed a proud moment to Lady Clonbrony. Much did she enjoy, and much too naturally, notwithstanding all her efforts to be stiff and stately, much too naturally did she show her enjoyment of the surprise excited in some and affected by others on their first entrance.

One young, very young lady expressed her astonishment so audibly as to attract the notice of all the bystanders. Lady Clonbrony, delighted, seized both her hands, shook them, and laughed heartily; then, as the young lady with her party passed on, her ladyship recovered herself, drew up her head, and said to the company near her, “Poor thing! I hope I covered her little naïveté properly. How NEW she must be!”

Then with well practised dignity, and half subdued self-complacency of aspect, her ladyship went gliding about — most importantly busy, introducing my lady this to the sphynx candelabra, and my lady that to the Trebisond trellice; placing some delightfully for the perspective of the Alhambra; establishing others quite to her satisfaction on seraglio ottomans; and honouring others with a seat under the Statira canopy. Receiving and answering compliments from successive crowds of select friends, imagining herself the mirror of fashion, and the admiration of the whole world, Lady Clonbrony was, for her hour, as happy certainly as ever woman was in similar circumstances.

Her son looked at her, and wished that this happiness could last. Naturally inclined to sympathy, Lord Colambre reproached himself for not feeling as gay at this instant as the occasion required. But the festive scene, the blazing lights, the “universal hubbub,” failed to raise his spirits. As a dead weight upon them hung the remembrance of Mordicai’s denunciations; and, through the midst of this eastern magnificence, this unbounded profusion, he thought he saw future domestic misery and ruin to those he loved best in the world.

The only object present on which his eye rested with pleasure was Grace Nugent. Beautiful — in elegant and dignified simplicity — thoughtless of herself — yet with a look of thought, and with an air of melancholy, which accorded exactly with his own feelings, and which he believed to arise from the same reflections that had passed in his own mind.

“Miss Broadhurst, Colambre! all the Broadhursts!” said his mother, wakening him as she passed by to receive them as they entered. Miss Broadhurst appeared, plainly dressed — plainly even to singularity — without any diamonds or ornament.

“Brought Philippa to you, my dear Lady Clonbrony, this figure, rather than not bring her at all,” said puffing Mrs. Broadhurst, “and had all the difficulty in the world to get her out at all, and now I’ve promised she shall stay but half an hour. Sore throat — terrible cold she took in the morning. I’ll swear for her, she’d not have come for any one but you.”

The young lady did not seem inclined to swear, or even to say this for herself; she stood wonderfully unconcerned and passive, with an expression of humour lurking in her eyes, and about the corners of her mouth; whilst Lady Clonbrony was “shocked,” and “gratified,” and “concerned,” and “flattered;” and whilst every body was hoping, and fearing, and busying themselves about her, “Miss Broadhurst, you’d better sit here!”—“Oh, for heaven’s sake! Miss Broadhurst, not there!” “Miss Broadhurst, if you’ll take my opinion,” and “Miss Broadhurst, if I may advise —.”

“Grace Nugent!” cried Lady Clonbrony. “Miss Broadhurst always listens to you. Do, my dear, persuade Miss Broadhurst to take care of herself, and let us take her to the inner little pagoda, where she can be so warm and so retired — the very thing for an invalid — Colambre! pioneer the way for us, for the crowd’s immense.”

Lady Anne and Lady Catherine H— — Lady Langdale’s daughters, were at this time leaning on Miss Nugent’s arm, and moved along with this party to the inner pagoda. There were to be cards in one room, music in another, dancing in a third, and in this little room there were prints and chess-boards, &c.

“Here you will be quite to yourselves,” said Lady Clonbrony; “let me establish you comfortably in this, which I call my sanctuary — my snuggery— Colambre, that little table! — Miss Broadhurst, you play chess? — Colambre, you’ll play with Miss Broadhurst —”

“I thank your ladyship,” said Miss Broadhurst, “but I know nothing of chess but the moves: Lady Catherine, you will play, and I will look on.”

Miss Broadhurst drew her seat to the fire; Lady Catherine sat down to play with Lord Colambre: Lady Clonbrony withdrew, again recommending Miss Broadhurst to Grace Nugent’s care. After some commonplace conversation, Lady Anne H— — looking at the company in the adjoining apartment, asked her sister how old Miss Somebody was who passed by. This led to reflections upon the comparative age and youthful appearance of several of their acquaintance, and upon the care with which mothers concealed the age of their daughters. Glances passed between Lady Catherine and Lady Anne.

“For my part,” said Miss Broadhurst, “my mother would labour that point of secrecy in vain for me; for I am willing to tell my age, even if my face did not tell it for me, to all whom it may concern — I am passed three-and-twenty — shall be four-and-twenty the fifth of next July.”

“Three-and-twenty! — Bless me! — I thought you were not twenty!” cried Lady Anne.

“Four-and-twenty next July! — impossible!” cried Lady Catherine.

“Very possible,” said Miss Broadhurst, quite unconcerned.

“Now, Lord Colambre, would you believe it? Can you believe it?” asked Lady Catherine.

“Yes, he can,” said Miss Broadhurst. “Don’t you see that he believes it as firmly as you and I do? Why should you force his lordship to pay a compliment contrary to his better judgment, or extort a smile from him under false pretences? I am sure he sees that you, and I trust he perceives that I, do not think the worse of him for this.”

Lord Colambre smiled now without any false pretence; and, relieved at once from all apprehension of her joining in his mother’s views, or of her expecting particular attention from him, he became at ease with Miss Broadhurst, showed a desire to converse with her, and listened eagerly to what she said. He recollected that Miss Nugent had told him, that this young lady had no common character; and, neglecting his move at chess, he looked up at Miss Nugent, as much as to say, “Draw her out, pray.”

But Grace was too good a friend to comply with that request; she left Miss Broadhurst to unfold her own character.

“It is your move, my lord,” said Lady Catherine.

“I beg your ladyship’s pardon —”

“Are not these rooms beautiful, Miss Broadhurst?” said Lady Catherine, determined, if possible, to turn the conversation into a commonplace, safe channel; for she had just felt, what most of Miss Broadhurst’s acquaintance had in their turn felt, that she had an odd way of startling people, by setting their own secret little motives suddenly before them.

“Are not these rooms beautiful?”

“Beautiful! — Certainly.”

The beauty of the rooms would have answered Lady Catherine’s purpose for some time, had not Lady Anne imprudently brought the conversation back again to Miss Broadhurst.

“Do you know, Miss Broadhurst,” said she, “that if I had fifty sore throats, I could not have refrained from my diamonds on this GALA night; and such diamonds as you have! Now, really, I could not believe you to be the same person we saw blazing at the opera the other night!”

“Really! could not you, Lady Anne? That is the very thing that entertains me. I only wish that I could lay aside my fortune sometimes, as well as my diamonds, and see how few people would know me then. Might not I, Grace, by the golden rule, which, next to practice, is the best rule in the world, calculate and answer that question?”

“I am persuaded,” said Lord Colambre, “that Miss Broadhurst has friends on whom the experiment would make no difference.”

“I am convinced of it,” said Miss Broadhurst; “and that is what makes me tolerably happy, though I have the misfortune to be an heiress.”

“That is the oddest speech,” said Lady Anne. “Now I should so like to be a great heiress, and to have, like you, such thousands and thousands at command.”

“And what can the thousands upon thousands do for me? Hearts, you know, Lady Anne, are to be won only by radiant eyes. Bought hearts your ladyship certainly would not recommend. They’re such poor things — no wear at all. Turn them which way you will, you can make nothing of them.”

“You’ve tried, then, have you?” said Lady Catherine.

“To my cost. — Very nearly taken in by them half a dozen times; for they are brought to me by dozens; and they are so made up for sale, and the people do so swear to you that it’s real, real love, and it looks so like it: and, if you stoop to examine it, you hear it pressed upon you by such elegant oaths. — By all that’s lovely! — By all my hopes of happiness! — By your own charming self! Why, what can one do but look like a fool, and believe? for these men, at the time, all look so like gentlemen, that one cannot bring oneself flatly to tell them that they are cheats and swindlers, that they are perjuring their precious souls. Besides, to call a lover a perjured creature is to encourage him. He would have a right to complain if you went back after that.”

“O dear! what a move was there!” cried Lady Catherine. “Miss Broadhurst is so entertaining to-night, notwithstanding her sore throat, that one can positively attend to nothing else. And she talks of love and lovers too with such connoissance de fait— counts her lovers by dozens, tied up in true lovers’ knots!”

“Lovers! — no, no! Did I say lovers? — suitors I should have said. There’s nothing less like a lover, a true lover, than a suitor, as all the world knows, ever since the days of Penelope. Dozens! — never had a lover in my life! — And fear, with much reason, I never shall have one to my mind.”

“My lord, you’ve given up the game,” cried Lady Catherine; “but you make no battle.”

“It would be so vain to combat against your ladyship,” said Lord Colambre, rising, and bowing politely to Lady Catherine, but turning the next instant to converse with Miss Broadhurst.

“But when I talked of liking to be an heiress,” said Lady Anne, “I was not thinking of lovers.”

“Certainly. — One is not always thinking of lovers, you know,” added Lady Catherine.

“Not always,” replied Miss Broadhurst. “Well, lovers out of the question on all sides, what would your ladyship buy with the thousands upon thousands?”

“Oh, every thing, if I were you,” said Lady Anne.

“Rank, to begin with,” said Lady Catherine.

“Still my old objection — bought rank is but a shabby thing.”

“But there is so little difference made between bought and hereditary rank in these days,” said Lady Catherine.

“I see a great deal still,” said Miss Broadhurst; “so much, that I would never buy a title.”

“A title, without birth, to be sure,” said Lady Anne, “would not be so well worth buying; and as birth certainly is not to be bought —”

“And even birth, were it to be bought, I would not buy,” said Miss Broadhurst, “unless I could be sure to have it with all the politeness, all the noble sentiments, all the magnanimity, in short, all that should grace and dignify high birth.”

“Admirable!” said Lord Colambre. Grace Nugent smiled.

“Lord Colambre, will you have the goodness to put my mother in mind, I must go away?”

“I am bound to obey, but I am very sorry for it,” said his lordship.

“Are we to have any dancing to-night, I wonder?” said Lady Anne. “Miss Nugent, I am afraid we have made Miss Broadhurst talk so much, in spite of her hoarseness, that Lady Clonbrony will be quite angry with us. And here she comes, Lady Catherine.”

My Lady Clonbrony came to hope, to beg, that Miss Broadhurst would not think of running away; but Miss Broadhurst could not be prevailed upon to stay. Lady Clonbrony was delighted to see that her son assisted Grace Nugent most carefully in shawling the young heiress — his lordship conducted her to her carriage, and his mother drew many happy auguries from the gallantry of his manner, and from the young lady’s having stayed three quarters, instead of half an hour — a circumstance which Lady Catherine did not fail to remark.

The dancing, which, under various pretences, Lady Clonbrony had delayed till Lord Colambre was at liberty, began immediately after Miss Broadhurst’s departure; and the chalked mosaic pavement of the Alhambra was, in a few minutes, effaced by the dancers’ feet. How transient are all human joys, especially those of vanity! Even on this long meditated, this long desired, this gala night, Lady Clonbrony found her triumph incomplete — inadequate to her expectations. For the first hour all had been compliment, success, and smiles; presently came the buts, and the hesitated objections, and the “damning with faint praise”— all that could be borne — every body has his taste — and one person’s taste is as good as another’s; and while she had Mr. Soho to cite, Lady Clonbrony thought she might be well satisfied. But she could not be satisfied with Colonel Heathcock, who, dressed in black, had stretched his “fashionable length of limb” under the Statira canopy, upon the snow-white swandown couch. When, after having monopolized attention, and been the subject of much bad wit, about black swans and rare birds, and swans being geese and geese being swans, the colonel condescended to rise, and, as Mrs. Dareville said, to vacate his couch — that couch was no longer white — the black impression of the colonel remained on the sullied snow.

“Eh, now! really didn’t recollect I was in black,” was all the apology he made. Lady Clonbrony was particularly vexed that the appearance of the Statira canopy should be spoiled before the effect had been seen by Lady Pococke, and Lady Chatterton, and Lady G— — Lady P— — and the Duke of V— — and a party of superlative fashionables, who had promised to look in upon her, but who, late as it was, had not yet arrived. They came in at last. But Lady Clonbrony had no reason to regret for their sake the Statira couch. It would have been lost upon them, as was every thing else which she had prepared with so much pains and cost to excite their admiration. They came resolute not to admire. Skilled in the art of making others unhappy, they just looked round with an air of apathy. —“Ah! you’ve had Soho! — Soho has done wonders for you here! — Vastly well! — Vastly well! — Soho’s very clever in his way!”

Others of great importance came in, full of some slight accident that had happened to themselves, or their horses, or their carriages; and, with privileged selfishness, engrossed the attention of all within their sphere of conversation. Well, Lady Clonbrony got over all this; and got over the history of a letter about a chimney that was on fire, a week ago, at the Duke of V——‘s old house, in Brecknockshire. In gratitude for the smiling patience with which she listened to him, his Grace of V—— fixed his glass to look at the Alhambra, and had just pronounced it to be “Well! — very well!” when the Dowager Lady Chatterton made a terrible discovery — a discovery that filled Lady Clonbrony with astonishment and indignation — Mr. Soho had played her false! What was her mortification, when the dowager assured her that these identical Alhambra hangings had not only been shown by Mr. Soho to the Duchess of Torcaster, but that her grace had had the refusal of them, and had actually criticised them, in consequence of Sir Horace Grant, the great traveller’s objecting to some of the proportions of the pillars — Soho had engaged to make a new set, vastly improved, by Sir Horace’s suggestions, for her Grace of Torcaster.

Now Lady Chatterton was the greatest talker extant; and she went about the rooms telling every body of her acquaintance — and she was acquainted with every body — how shamefully Soho had imposed upon poor Lady Clonbrony, protesting she could not forgive the man. “For,” said she, “though the Duchess of Torcaster had been his constant customer for ages, and his patroness, and all that, yet this does not excuse him — and Lady Clonbrony’s being a stranger, and from Ireland, makes the thing worse.” From Ireland! — that was the unkindest cut of all — but there was no remedy.

In vain poor Lady Clonbrony followed the dowager about the rooms to correct this mistake, and to represent, in justice to Mr. Soho, though he had used her so ill, that he knew she was an Englishwoman. The dowager was deaf, and no whisper could reach her ear. And when Lady Clonbrony was obliged to bawl an explanation in her ear, the dowager only repeated, “In justice to Mr. Soho! — No, no; he has not done you justice, my dear Lady Clonbrony! and I’ll expose him to every body. Englishwoman! — no, no, no! — Soho could not take you for an Englishwoman!”

All who secretly envied or ridiculed Lady Clonbrony enjoyed this scene. The Alhambra hangings, which had been in one short hour before the admiration of the world, were now regarded by every eye with contempt, as cast hangings, and every tongue was busy declaiming against Mr. Soho; every body declared, that from the first, the want of proportion “struck them, but that they would not mention it till others found it out.”

People usually revenge themselves for having admired too much, by afterwards despising and depreciating without mercy — in all great assemblies the perception of ridicule is quickly caught, and quickly too revealed. Lady Clonbrony, even in her own house, on her gala night, became an object of ridicule — decently masked, indeed, under the appearance of condolence with her ladyship, and of indignation against “that abominable Mr. Soho!”

Lady Langdale, who was now, for reasons of her own, upon her good behaviour, did penance, as she said, for her former imprudence, by abstaining even from whispered sarcasms. She looked on with penitential gravity, said nothing herself, and endeavoured to keep Mrs. Dareville in order; but that was no easy task. Mrs. Dareville had no daughters, had nothing to gain from the acquaintance of my Lady Clonbrony; and conscious that her ladyship would bear a vast deal from her presence, rather than forego the honour of her sanction, Mrs. Dareville, without any motives of interest, or good-nature of sufficient power to restrain her talent and habit of ridicule, free from hope or fear, gave full scope to all the malice of mockery, and all the insolence of fashion. Her slings and arrows, numerous as they were and outrageous, were directed against such petty objects, and the mischief was so quick in its aim and its operation, that, felt but not seen, it is scarcely possible to register the hits, or to describe the nature of the wounds.

Some hits, sufficiently palpable, however, are recorded for the advantage of posterity. When Lady Clonbrony led her to look at the Chinese pagoda, the lady paused, with her foot on the threshold, as if afraid to enter this porcelain Elysium, as she called it — Fool’s Paradise, she would have said; and, by her hesitation, and by the half pronounced word, suggested the idea — “None but belles without petticoats can enter here,” said she, drawing her clothes tight round her; “fortunately, I have but two, and Lady Langdale has but one.” Prevailed upon to venture in, she walked on with prodigious care and trepidation, affecting to be alarmed at the crowd of strange forms and monsters by which she was surrounded.

“Not a creature here that I ever saw before in nature! — Well, now I may boast I’ve been in a real Chinese pagoda!”

“Why, yes, every thing is appropriate here, I flatter my self,” said Lady Clonbrony.

“And how good of you, my dear Lady Clonbrony, in defiance of bulls and blunders, to allow us a comfortable English fire-place and plenty of Newcastle coal in China! — And a white marble — no! white velvet hearthrug painted with beautiful flowers — Oh! the delicate, the useful thing!”

Vexed by the emphasis on the word useful, Lady Clonbrony endeavoured to turn off the attention of the company. “Lady Langdale, your ladyship’s a judge of china — this vase is an unique, I am told.”

“I am told,” interrupted Mrs. Dareville, “this is the very vase in which B— — the nabob’s father, who was, you know, a China captain, smuggled his dear little Chinese wife and all her fortune out of Canton — positively, actually put the lid on, packed her up, and sent her off on shipboard! — True! true! upon my veracity! I’ll tell you my authority!”

With this story, Mrs. Dareville drew all attention from the jar, to Lady Clonbrony’s infinite mortification.

Lady Langdale at length turned to look at a vast range of china jars.

“Ali Baba and the forty thieves!” exclaimed Mrs. Dareville: “I hope you have boiling oil ready!”

Lady Clonbrony was obliged to laugh, and to vow that Mrs. Dareville was uncommon pleasant to-night —“But now,” said her ladyship, “let me take you to the Turkish tent.”

Having with great difficulty got the malicious wit out of the pagoda and into the Turkish tent, Lady Clonbrony began to breathe move freely; for here she thought she was upon safe ground:—“Every thing, I flatter myself,” said she, “is correct, and appropriate, and quite picturesque”— The company, dispersed in happy groups, or reposing on seraglio ottomans, drinking lemonade and sherbet — beautiful Fatimas admiring, or being admired —“Every thing here quite correct, appropriate, and picturesque,” repeated Mrs. Dareville.

This lady’s powers as a mimic were extraordinary, and she found them irresistible. Hitherto she had imitated Lady Clonbrony’s air and accent only behind her back; but, bolder grown, she now ventured, in spite of Lady Langdale’s warning pinches, to mimic her kind hostess before her face, and to her face. Now, whenever Lady Clonbrony saw any thing that struck her fancy in the dress of her fashionable friends, she had a way of hanging her head aside, and saying, with a peculiarly sentimental drawl, “How pretty! — How elegant! — Now that quite suits my teeste.” this phrase, precisely in the same accent, and with the head set to the same angle of affectation, Mrs. Dareville had the assurance to address to her ladyship, apropos to something which she pretended to admire in Lady Clonbrony’s costume— a costume, which, excessively fashionable in each of its parts, was, altogether, so extraordinarily unbecoming, as to be fit for a print-shop. The perception of this, added to the effect of Mrs. Dareville’s mimicry, was almost too much for Lady Langdale; she could not possibly have stood it, but for the appearance of Miss Nugent at this instant behind Lady Clonbrony. Grace gave one glance of indignation, which seemed suddenly to strike Mrs. Dareville. Silence for a moment ensued, and afterwards the tone of the conversation was changed.

“Salisbury! — explain this to me,” said a lady, drawing Mr. Salisbury aside. “If you are in the secret, do explain this to me; for unless I had seen it, I could not have believed it. Nay, though I have seen it, I do not believe it. How was that daring spirit laid? By what spell?”

“By the spell which superior minds always cast on inferior spirits.”

“Very fine,” said the lady, laughing, “but as old as the days of Leonora de Galigai, quoted a million times. Now tell me something new and to the purpose, and better suited to modern days.”

“Well, then, since you will not allow me to talk of superior minds in the present day, let me ask you if you have never observed that a wit, once conquered in company by a wit of higher order, is thenceforward in complete subjection to the conqueror; whenever and wherever they meet.”

“You would not persuade me that yonder gentle-looking girl could ever be a match for the veteran Mrs. Dareville? She may have the wit, but has she the courage?”

“Yes; no one has more courage, more civil courage, where her own dignity, or the interests of her friends are concerned — I will tell you an instance or two to-morrow.”

“To-morrow! — To-night! — tell it me now.”

“Not a safe place.”

“The safest in the world, in such a crowd as this — Follow my example. Take a glass of orgeat — sip from time to time, thus — speak low, looking innocent all the while straight forward, or now and then up at the lamps — keep on in an even tone — use no names — and you may tell any thing.”

“Well, then, when Miss Nugent first came to London, Mrs. Dareville —”

“Two names already — did not I warn ye?”

“But how can I make myself intelligible?”

“Initials — can’t you use — or genealogy? — What stops you? — It is only Lord Colambre, a very safe person, I have a notion, when the eulogium is of Miss Nugent.”

Lord Colambre, who had now performed his arduous duties as a dancer, and had disembarrassed himself of all his partners, came into the Turkish tent just at this moment to refresh himself, and just in time to hear Mr. Salisbury’s anecdotes.

“Now go on.”

“Mrs. Dareville, you remember, some years ago, went to Ireland, with some lady lieutenant, to whom she was related — there she was most hospitably received by Lord and Lady Clonbrony — went to their country house — was as intimate with Lady Clonbrony and with Miss Nugent as possible — stayed at Clonbrony Castle for a month; and yet, when Lady Clonbrony came to London, never took the least notice of her. At last, meeting at the house of a common friend, Mrs. Dareville could not avoid recognizing her ladyship; but, even then, did it in the least civil manner and most cursory style possible —‘Ho! Lady Clonbrony! — didn’t know you were in England! — When did you come? — How long shall you stay in town? — Hope, before you leave England, your ladyship and Miss Nugent will give us a day?’—A day!— Lady Clonbrony was so astonished by this impudence of ingratitude, that she hesitated how to take it; but Miss Nugent, quite coolly, and with a smile, answered, ‘A day! — Certainly — to you, who gave us a month!’”

“Admirable! — Now I comprehend perfectly why Mrs. Dareville declines insulting Miss Nugent’s friends in her presence.”

Lord Colambre said nothing, but thought much. “How I wish my mother,” thought he, “had some of Grace Nugent’s proper pride! She would not then waste her fortune, spirits, health, and life, in courting such people as these.”

He had not seen — he could not have borne to have beheld — the manner in which his mother had been treated by some of her guests; but he observed that she now looked harassed and vexed; and he was provoked and mortified, by hearing her begging and beseeching some of the saucy leaders of the ton to oblige her, to do her the favour, to do her the honour, to stay to supper. It was just ready — actually announced. “No, they would not, they could not; they were obliged to run away: engaged to the Duchess of Torcaster.”

“Lord Colambre, what is the matter?” said Miss Nugent, going up to him, as he stood aloof and indignant: “Don’t look so like a chafed lion; others may perhaps read your countenance, as well as I do.”

“None can read my mind so well,” replied he. “Oh, my dear Grace! —”

“Supper! — Supper!” cried she: “your duty to your neighbour, your hand to your partner.”

The supper room, fitted up at great expense, with scenery to imitate Vauxhall, opened into a superb greenhouse, lighted with coloured lamps, a band of music at a distance — every delicacy, every luxury that could gratify the senses, appeared in profusion. The company ate and drank — enjoyed themselves — went away — and laughed at their hostess. Some, indeed, who thought they had been neglected, were in too bad humour to laugh, but abused her in sober earnest; for Lady Clonbrony had offended half, nay, three quarters of her guests, by what they termed her exclusive attention to those very leaders of the ton, from whom she had suffered so much, and who had made it obvious to all that they thought they did her too much honour in appearing at her gala. So ended the gala for which she had lavished such sums; for which she had laboured so indefatigably; and from which she had expected such triumph.

“Colambre, bid the musicians stop — they are playing to empty benches,” said Lady Clonbrony. “Grace, my dear, will you see that these lamps are safely put out? I am so tired, so worn out, I must go to bed; and I am sure I have caught cold, too. What a nervous business it is to manage these things! I wonder how one gets through it, or why one does it!”

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Last updated Sunday, March 2, 2014 at 14:01