A Small Boy and others, by Henry James

28

There comes to me, in spite of these memories of an extended connection, a sense as of some shrinkage or decline in the beaux jours of the Institution; which seems to have found its current run a bit thick and troubled, rather than with the pleasant plash in which we at first appeared all equally to bathe. I gather, as I try to reconstitute, that the general enterprise simply proved a fantasy not workable, and that at any rate the elders, and often such queer elders, tended to outnumber the candid jeunesse; so that I wonder by the same token on what theory of the Castalian spring, as taught there to trickle, if not to flow, M. Houssaye, holding his small son by the heel as it were, may have been moved to dip him into our well. Shall I blush to relate that my own impression of its virtue must have come exactly from this uncanny turn taken — and quite in spite of the high Fezandié ideals — by the invraisemblable house of entertainment where the assimilation of no form of innocence was doubted of by reason of the forms of experience that insisted somehow on cropping up, and no form of experience too directly deprecated by reason of the originally plotted tender growths of innocence. And some of these shapes were precisely those from which our good principal may well have first drawn his liveliest reassurance: I seem to remember such ancient American virgins in especial and such odd and either distinctively long-necked or more particularly long-haired and chinless compatriots, in black frock-coats of no type or “cut,” no suggested application at all as garments — application, that is, to anything in the nature of character or circumstance, function or position — gathered about in the groups that M. Bonnefons almost terrorised by his refusal to recognise, among the barbarous races, any approach to his view of the great principle of Diction. I remember deeply and privately enjoying some of his shades of scorn and seeing how, given his own background, they were thoroughly founded; I remember above all as burnt in by the impression he gave me of the creature wholly animated and containing no waste expressional spaces, no imaginative flatnesses, the notion of the luxury of life, though indeed of the amount of trouble of it too, when none of the letters of the alphabet of sensibility might be dropped, involved in being a Frenchman. The liveliest lesson I must have drawn, however, from that source makes in any case, at the best, an odd educational connection, given the kind of concentration at which education, even such as ours, is supposed especially to aim: I speak of that direct promiscuity of insights which might easily have been pronounced profitless, with their attendant impressions and quickened sensibilities — yielding, as these last did, harvests of apparitions. I positively cherish at the present hour the fond fancy that we all soaked in some such sublime element as might still have hung about there — I mean on the very spot — from the vital presence, so lately extinct, of the prodigious Balzac; which had involved, as by its mere respiration, so dense a cloud of other presences, so arrayed an army of interrelated shades, that the air was still thick as with the fumes of witchcraft, with infinite seeing and supposing and creating, with a whole imaginative traffic. The Pension Vauquer, then but lately existent, according to Le Père Goriot, on the other side of the Seine, was still to be revealed to me; but the figures peopling it are not today essentially more intense (that is as a matter of the marked and featured, the terrible and the touching, as compared with the paleness of the conned page in general,) than I persuade myself, with so little difficulty, that I found the more numerous and more shifting, though properly doubtless less inspiring, constituents of the Pension Fezandié. Fantastic and all “subjective” that I should attribute a part of their interest, or that of the scene spreading round them, to any competent perception, in the small-boy mind, that the general or public moment had a rarity and a brevity, a sharp intensity, of its own; ruffling all things, as they came, with the morning breath of the Second Empire and making them twinkle back with a light of resigned acceptance, a freshness of cynicism, the force of a great grimacing example. The grimace might have been legibly there in the air, to the young apprehension, and could I but simplify this record enough I should represent everything as part of it. I seemed at any rate meanwhile to think of the Fezandié young men, young Englishmen mostly, who were getting up their French, in that many-coloured air, for what I supposed, in my candour, to be appointments and “posts,” diplomatic, commercial, vaguely official, and who, as I now infer, though I didn’t altogether embrace it at the time, must, under the loose rule of the establishment, have been amusing themselves not a little. It was as a side-wind of their free criticism, I take it, that I felt the first chill of an apprehended decline of the establishment, some pang of prevision of what might come, and come as with a crash, of the general fine fallacy on which it rested. Their criticism was for that matter free enough, causing me to admire it even while it terrified. They expressed themselves in terms of magnificent scorn — such as might naturally proceed, I think I felt, from a mightier race; they spoke of poor old Bonnefons, they spoke of our good Fezandié himself, they spoke more or less of everyone within view, as beggars and beasts, and I remember to have heard on their lips no qualification of any dish served to us at dêjeuner (and still more at the later meal, of which my brothers and I didn’t partake) but as rotten. These were expressions, absent from our domestic, our American air either of fonder discriminations or vaguer estimates, which fairly extended for me the range of intellectual, or at least of social resource; and as the general tone of them today comes back to me it floods somehow with light the image of the fine old insular confidence (so intellectually unregenerate then that such a name scarce covers it, though inward stirrings and the growth of a comparative sense of things have now begun unnaturally to agitate and disfigure it,) in which the general outward concussion of the English “abroad” with the fact of being abroad took place. The Fezandié young men were as much abroad as might be, and yet figured to me — largely by the upsetting force of that confidence, all but physically exercised — as the finest, handsomest, knowingest creatures; so that when I met them of an afternoon descending the Champs–Elysées with fine long strides and in the costume of the period, for which we can always refer to contemporary numbers of “Punch,” the fact that I was for the most part walking sedately either with my mother or my aunt, or even with my sister and her governess, caused the spark of my vision that they were armed for conquest, or at the least for adventure, more expansively to glow. I am not sure whether as a general thing they honoured me at such instants with a sign of recognition; but I recover in especial the sense of an evening hour during which I had accompanied my mother to the Hôtel Meurice, where one of the New York cousins aforementioned, daughter of one of the Albany uncles — that is of the Rhinebeck member of the group — had perched for a time, so incongruously, one already seemed to feel, after the sorriest stroke of fate. I see again the gaslit glare of the Rue de Rivoli in the spring or the autumn evening (I forget which, for our year of the Rue d’Angoulême had been followed by a migration to the Rue Montaigne, with a period, or rather with two periods, of Boulogne-sur-mer interwoven, and we might have made our beguiled way from either domicile); and the whole impression seemed to hang too numerous lamps and too glittering vitrines about the poor Pendletons’ bereavement, their loss of their only, their so sturdily handsome, little boy, and to suffuse their state with the warm rich exhalations of subterraneous cookery with which I find my recall of Paris from those years so disproportionately and so quite other than stomachically charged. The point of all of which is simply that just as we had issued from the hotel, my mother anxiously urging me through the cross currents and queer contacts, as it were, of the great bazaar (of which the Rue de Rivoli was then a much more bristling avenue than now) rather than depending on me for support and protection, there swung into view the most splendid, as I at least esteemed him, of my elders and betters in the Rue Balzac, who had left the questions there supposedly engaging us far behind, and, with his high hat a trifle askew and his cigar actively alight, revealed to me at a glance what it was to be in full possession of Paris. There was speed in his step, assurance in his air, he was visibly, impatiently on the way; and he gave me thereby my first full image of what it was exactly to be on the way. He gave it the more, doubtless, through the fact that, with a flourish of the aforesaid high hat (from which the Englishman of that age was so singularly inseparable) he testified to the act of recognition, and to deference to my companion, but with a grand big-boy good-humour that — as I remember from childhood the so frequent effect of an easy patronage, compared with a top-most overlooking, on the part of an admired senior — only gave an accent to the difference. As if he cared, or could have, that I but went forth through the Paris night in the hand of my mamma; while he had greeted us with a grace that was as a beat of the very wings of freedom! Of such shreds, at any rate, proves to be woven the stuff of young sensibility — when memory (if sensibility has at all existed for it) rummages over our old trunkful of spiritual duds and, drawing forth ever so tenderly this, that and the other tattered web, holds up the pattern to the light. I find myself in this connection so restlessly and tenderly rummage that the tatters, however thin, come out in handsful and every shred seems tangled with another.

Gertrude Pendleton’s mere name, for instance, becomes, and very preferably, the frame of another and a better picture, drawing to it cognate associations, those of that element of the New York cousinship which had originally operated to place there in a shining and even, as it were, an economic light a “preference for Paris”— which preference, during the period of the Rue d’Angoulême and the Rue Montaigne, we wistfully saw at play, the very lightest and freest, on the part of the inimitable Masons. Their earlier days of Tours and Trouville were over; a period of relative rigour at the Florence of the still encircling walls, the still so existent abuses and felicities, was also, I seem to gather, a thing of the past; great accessions, consciously awaited during the previous leaner time, had beautifully befallen them, and my own whole consciousness of the general air — so insistently I discriminate for that alone — was coloured by a familiar view of their enjoyment of these on a tremendously draped and festooned premier of the Rue–St.-Honoré, bristling with ormolu and Pradier statuettes and looking almost straight across to the British Embassy; rather a low premier, after the manner of an entresol, as I remember it, and where the closed windows, which but scantly distinguished between our own sounds and those of the sociable, and yet the terrible, street of records and memories, seemed to maintain an air and a light thick with a mixture of every sort of queer old Parisian amenity and reference: as if to look or to listen or to touch were somehow at the same time to probe, to recover and communicate, to behold, to taste and even to smell — to one’s greater assault by suggestion, no doubt, but also to the effect of some sweet and strange repletion, as from the continued consumption, say, out of flounced and puckered boxes, of serried rows of chocolate and other bonbons. I must have felt the whole thing as something for one’s developed senses to live up to and make light of, and have been rather ashamed of my own for just a little sickishly staggering under it. This goes, however, with the fondest recall of our cousins’ inbred ease, from far back, in all such assumable relations; and of how, four of the simplest, sweetest, best-natured girls as they were (with the eldest, a charming beauty, to settle on the general ground, after marriage and widowhood, and still to be blooming there), they were possessed of the scene and its great reaches and resources and possibilities in a degree that reduced us to small provincialism and a hanging on their lips when they told us, that is when the gentlest of mammas and the lovely daughter who was “out” did, of presentations at the Tuileries to the then all-wonderful, the ineffable Empress: reports touchingly qualified, on the part of our so exposed, yet after all so scantily indurated relatives, by the question of whether occasions so great didn’t perhaps nevertheless profane the Sundays for which they were usually appointed. There was something of an implication in the air of those days, when young Americans were more numerously lovely than now, or at least more wide-eyed, it would fairly appear, that some account of the only tradition they had ever been rumoured to observe (that of the Lord’s day) might have been taken even at the Tuileries.

But what most comes back to me as the very note and fragrance of the New York cousinship in this general connection is a time that I remember to have glanced at on a page distinct from these, when the particular cousins I now speak of had conceived, under the influence of I know not what unextinguished morning star, the liveliest taste for the earliest possible rambles and researches, in which they were so good as to allow me, when I was otherwise allowed, to participate: health-giving walks, of an extraordinarily matinal character, at the hour of the meticulous rag-pickers and exceptionally French polishers known to the Paris dawns of the Second Empire as at no time since; which made us all feel together, under the conduct of Honorine, bright child of the pavement herself, as if we, in our fresh curiosity and admiration, had also something to say to the great show presently to be opened, and were free, throughout the place, as those are free of a house who know its aspects of attic and cellar or how it looks from behind. I call our shepherdess Honorine even though perhaps not infallibly naming the sociable soubrette who might, with all her gay bold confidence, have been an official inspectress in person, and to whose easy care or, more particularly, expert sensibility and candour of sympathy and curiosity, our flock was freely confided. If she wasn’t Honorine she was Clémentine or Augustine — which is a trifle; since what I thus recover, in any case, of these brushings of the strange Parisian dew, is those communities of contemplation that made us most hang about the jewellers’ windows in the Palais Royal and the public playbills of the theatres on the Boulevard. The Palais Royal, now so dishonoured and disavowed, was then the very Paris of Paris; the shutters of the shops seemed taken down, at that hour, for our especial benefit, and I remember well how, the “dressing” of so large a number of the compact and richly condensed fronts being more often than not a matter of diamonds and pearls, rubies and sapphires, that represented, in their ingenuities of combination and contortion, the highest taste of the time, I found open to me any amount of superior study of the fact that the spell of gems seemed for the feminine nature almost alarmingly boundless. I stared too, it comes back to me, at these exhibitions, and perhaps even thought it became a young man of the world to express as to this or that object a refined and intelligent preference; but what I really most had before me was the chorus of abjection, as I might well have called it, led, at the highest pitch, by Honorine and vaguely suggesting to me, by the crudity, so to say, of its wistfulness, a natural frankness of passion — goodness knew in fact (for my small intelligence really didn’t) what depths of corruptibility. Droll enough, as I win them again, these queer dim plays of consciousness: my sense that my innocent companions, Honorine en tête, would have done anything or everything for the richest ruby, and that though one couldn’t one’s self be decently dead to that richness one didn’t at all know what “anything” might be or in the least what “everything” was. The gushing cousins, at the same time, assuredly knew still less of that, and Honorine’s brave gloss of a whole range alike of possibilities and actualities was in itself a true social grace.

They all enjoyed, in fine, while I somehow but wastefully mused — which was after all my form of enjoyment; I was shy for it, though it was a truth and perhaps odd enough withal, that I didn’t really at all care for gems, that rubies and pearls, in no matter what collocations, left me comparatively cold; that I actually cared for them about as little as, monstrously, secretly, painfully, I cared for flowers. Later on I was to become aware that I “adored” trees and architectural marbles — that for a sufficient slab of a sufficiently rare, sufficiently bestreaked or empurpled marble in particular I would have given a bag of rubies; but by then the time had passed for my being troubled to make out what in that case would represent on a small boy’s part the corruptibility, so to call it, proclaimed, before the vitrines, by the cousins. That hadn’t, as a question, later on, its actuality; but it had so much at the time that if it had been frankly put to me I must have quite confessed my inability to say — and must, I gather, by the same stroke, have been ashamed of such inward penury; feeling that as a boy I showed more poorly than girls. There was a difference meanwhile for such puzzlements before the porticos of the theatres; all questions melted for me there into the single depth of envy — envy of the equal, the beatific command of the evening hour, in the régime of Honorine’s young train, who were fresh for the early sparrow and the chiffonier even after shedding buckets of tears the night before, and not so much as for the first or the second time, over the beautiful story of La Dame aux Camélias. There indeed was another humiliation, but by my weakness of position much more than of nature: whatever doing of “everything” might have been revealed to me as a means to the end, I would certainly have done it for a sight of Madame Doche and Fechter in Dumas’s triumphant idyll — now enjoying the fullest honours of innocuous classicism; with which, as with the merits of its interpreters, Honorine’s happy charges had become perfectly and if not quite serenely, at least ever so responsively and feelingly, familiar. Of a wondrous mixed sweetness and sharpness and queerness of uneffaced reminiscence is all that aspect of the cousins and the rambles and the overlapping nights melting along the odorously bedamped and retouched streets and arcades; bright in the ineffable morning light, above all, of our peculiar young culture and candour!

All of which again has too easily led me to drop for a moment my more leading clue of that radiation of goodnature from Gertrude Pendleton and her headlong hospitalities in which we perhaps most complacently basked. The becraped passage at Meurice’s alluded to a little back was of a later season, and the radiation, as I recall it, had been, that first winter, mainly from a petit hôtel somewhere “on the other side,” as we used with a large sketchiness to say, of the Champs Elysées; a region at that time reduced to no regularity, but figuring to my fond fancy as a chaos of accidents and contrasts where petits hôtels of archaic type were elbowed by woodyards and cabarets, and pavilions ever so characteristic, yet ever so indefinable, snuggled between frank industries and vulgarities — all brightened these indeed by the sociable note of Paris, be it only that of chaffering or of other bavardise. The great consistencies of arch-refinement, now of so large a harmony, were still to come, so that it seemed rather original to live there; in spite of which the attraction of the hazard of it on the part of our then so uniformly natural young kinswoman, not so much ingeniously, or even expressively, as just gesticulatively and helplessly gay — since that earlier pitch of New York parlance scarce arrived at, or for that matter pretended to, enunciation — was quite in what I at least took to be the glitter of her very conventions and traditions themselves; exemplified for instance by a bright nocturnal christening-party in honour of the small son of all hopes whom she was so precipitately to lose: an occasion which, as we had, in our way, known the act of baptism but as so abbreviated and in fact so tacit a business, had the effect for us of one of the great “forms” of a society taking itself with typical seriousness. We were much more serious than the Pendletons, but, paradoxically enough, there was that weakness in our state of our being able to make no such attestation of it. The evening can have been but of the friendliest, easiest and least pompous nature, with small guests, in congruity with its small hero, as well as large; but I must have found myself more than ever yet in presence of a “rite,” one of those round which as many kinds of circumstance as possible clustered — so that the more of these there were the more one might imagine a great social order observed. How shall I now pretend to say how many kinds of circumstance I supposed I recognised? — with the remarkable one, to begin with, and which led fancy so far afield, that the “religious ceremony” was at the same time a “party,” of twinkling lustres and disposed flowers and ladies with bare shoulders (that platitudinous bareness of the period that suggested somehow the moral line, drawn as with a ruler and a firm pencil); with little English girls, daughters of a famous physician of that nationality then pursuing a Parisian career (he must have helped the little victim into the world), and whose emphasised type much impressed itself; with round glazed and beribboned boxes of multi-coloured sugared almonds, dragées de baptême above all, which we harvested, in their heaps, as we might have gathered apples from a shaken tree, and which symbolised as nothing else the ritual dignity. Perhaps this grand impression really came back but to the dragées de baptême, not strictly more immemorial to our young appreciation than the New Year’s cake and the “Election” cake known to us in New York, yet immensely more official and of the nature of scattered largesse; partly through the days and days, as it seemed to me, that our life was to be furnished, reinforced and almost encumbered with them. It wasn’t simply that they were so toothsome, but that they were somehow so important and so historic.

It was with no such frippery, however, that I connected the occasional presence among us of the young member of the cousinship (in this case of the maternal) who most moved me to wistfulness of wonder, though not at all, with his then marked difference of age, by inviting my free approach. Vernon King, to whom I have in another part of this record alluded, at that time doing his baccalauréat on the other side of the Seine and coming over to our world at scraps of moments (for I recall my awe of the tremendous nature, as I supposed it, of his toil), as to quite a make-believe and gingerbread place, the lightest of substitutes for the “Europe” in which he had been from the first so technically plunged. His mother and sister, also on an earlier page referred to, had, from their distance, committed him to the great city to be “finished,” educationally, to the point that for our strenuous cousin Charlotte was the only proper one — and I feel sure he can have acquitted himself in this particular in a manner that would have passed for brilliant if such lights didn’t, thanks to her stiff little standards, always tend to burn low in her presence. These ladies were to develop more and more the practice of living in odd places for abstract inhuman reasons — at Marseilles, at Düsseldorf (if I rightly recall their principal German sojourn), at Naples, above all, for a long stage; where, in particular, their grounds of residence were somehow not as those of others, even though I recollect, from a much later time, attending them there at the opera, an experience which, in their fashion, they succeeded in despoiling for me of every element of the concrete, or at least of the pleasantly vulgar. Later impressions, few but firm, were so to enhance one’s tenderness for Vernon’s own image, the most interesting surely in all the troop of our young kinsmen early baffled and gathered, that he glances at me out of the Paris period, fresh-coloured, just blond-bearded, always smiling and catching his breath a little as from a mixture of eagerness and shyness, with such an appeal to the right idealisation, or to belated justice, as makes of mere evocation a sort of exercise of loyalty. It seemed quite richly laid upon me at the time — I get it all back — that he, two or three years older than my elder brother and dipped more early, as well as held more firmly, in the deep, the refining waters the virtue of which we all together, though with our differences of consistency, recognised, was the positive and living proof of what the process, comparatively poor for ourselves, could do at its best and with clay originally and domestically kneaded to the right plasticity; besides which he shone, to my fancy, and all the more for its seeming so brightly and quietly in his very grain, with the vague, the supposititious, but the intensely accent-giving stamp of the Latin quarter, which we so thinly imagined and so superficially brushed on our pious walks to the Luxembourg and through the parts where the glamour might have hung thickest. We were to see him a little — but two or three times — three or four years later, when, just before our own return, he had come back to America for the purpose, if my memory serves, of entering the Harvard Law School; and to see him still always with the smile that was essentially as facial, as livingly and loosely fixed, somehow, as his fresh complexion itself; always too with the air of caring so little for what he had been put through that, under any appeal to give out, more or less wonderfully, some sample or echo of it, as who should say, he still mostly panted as from a laughing mental embarrassment: he had been put through too much; it was all stale to him, and he wouldn’t have known where to begin. He did give out, a little, on occasion — speaking, that is, on my different plane, as it were, and by the roundabout report of my brother; he gave out, it appeared, as they walked together across shining Newport sands, some fragment, some beginning of a very youthful poem that “Europe” had, with other results, moved him to, and a faint thin shred of which was to stick in my remembrance for reasons independent of its quality:

“Harold, rememberest thou the day,

    We rode along the Appian Way?

Neglected tomb and altar cast

    Their lengthening shadow o’er the plain,

And while we talked the mighty past

    Around us lived and breathed again!”

That was European enough, and yet he had returned to America really to find himself, even with every effort made immediately near him to defeat the discovery. He found himself, with the outbreak of the War, simply as the American soldier, and not under any bribe, however dim, of the epaulette or the girt sword; but just as the common enlisting native, which he smiled and gasped — to the increase of his happy shortness of breath, as from a repletion of culture, since it suggested no lack of personal soundness — at feeling himself so like to be. As strange, yet as still more touching than strange, I recall the sight, even at a distance, of the drop straight off him of all his layers of educational varnish, the possession of the “advantages,” the tongues, the degrees, the diplomas, the reminiscences, a saturation too that had all sunk in-a sacrifice of precious attributes that might almost have been viewed as a wild bonfire. So his prodigious mother, whom I have perhaps sufficiently presented for my reader to understand, didn’t fail to view it — judging it also, sharply hostile to the action of the North as the whole dreadful situation found her, with deep and resentful displeasure. I remember how I thought of Vernon himself, during the business, as at once so despoiled, so diverted, and above all so resistantly bright, as vaguely to suggest something more in him still, some deep-down reaction, some extremity of indifference and defiance, some exhibition of a young character too long pressed and impressed, too long prescribed to and with too much expected of it, and all under too firmer a will; so that the public pretext had given him a lift, or lent him wings, which without its greatness might have failed him. As the case was to turn nothing — that is nothing he most wanted and, remarkably, most enjoyed — did fail him at all. I forget with which of the possible States, New York, Massachusetts or Rhode Island (though I think the first) he had taken service; only seeming to remember that this all went on for him at the start in McClellan’s and later on in Grant’s army, and that, badly wounded in a Virginia battle, he came home to be nursed by his mother, recently restored to America for a brief stay. She held, I believe, in the event, that he had, under her care, given her his vow that, his term being up, he would not, should he get sufficiently well, reengage. The question here was between them, but it was definite that, materially speaking, she was in no degree dependent on him. The old, the irrepressible adage, however, was to live again between them: when the devil was sick the devil a saint would be; when the devil was well the devil a saint was he!

The devil a saint, at all events, was Vernon, who denied that he had passed his word, and who, as soon as he had surmounted his first disablement, passionately and quite admirably reenlisted. At once restored to the front and to what now gave life for him its indispensable relish, he was in the thick, again, of the great carnage roundabout Richmond, where, again gravely wounded, he (as I figure still incorrigibly smiling) succumbed. His mother had by this time indignantly returned to Europe, accompanied by her daughter and her younger son — the former of whom accepted, for our great pity, a little later on, the office of closing the story. Anne King, young and frail, but not less firm, under stress, than the others of her blood, came back, on her brother’s death, and, quietest, most colourless Electra of a lucidest Orestes, making her difficult way amid massed armies and battle-drenched fields, got possession of his buried body and bore it for reinterment to Newport, the old habitation, as I have mentioned, of their father’s people, both Vernons and Kings. It must have been to see my mother, as well as to sail again for Europe, that she afterwards came to Boston, where I remember going down with her, at the last, to the dock of the English steamer, some black and tub-like Cunarder, an archaic “Africa” or “Asia” sufficing to the Boston service of those days. I saw her off drearily and helplessly enough, I well remember, and even at that moment found for her another image: what was she most like, though in a still sparer and dryer form, but some low-toned, some employed little Brontë heroine? — though more indeed a Lucy Snowe than a Jane Eyre, and with no shade of a Brontë hero within sight. To this all the fine privilege and fine culture of all the fine countries (collective matter, from far back, of our intimated envy) had “amounted”; just as it had amounted for Vernon to the bare headstone on the Newport hillside where, by his mother’s decree, as I have already noted, there figured no hint of the manner of his death. So grand, so finely personal a manner it appeared to me at the time, and has indeed appeared ever since, that this brief record irrepressibly springs from that. His mother, as I have equally noted, was however, with her views, to find no grace in it so long as she lived; and his sister went back to her, and to Marseille, as they always called it, but prematurely to die.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38