The Lady of the Island

Guy Boothby

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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005

The Lady of the Island

As old Bob Tuckett, trader and owner of the schooner Dancing Girl, used to say, sawing the air with his hands and speaking in his curiously deep bass voice, “There are islands and islands in this ’ere blooming Pacific; some where they’d make a barbecue of you as soon as look at you; others where you’d be as safe as in your own home; some where you’d think there be nothing anyways out of/the common; and others again, that didn’t seem to have anything to show for themselves, but where you’d come across things that would fairly make your eyebrows curl. It’s a strange world, gentlemen, and there’s few of us can say we know it as it should be known.”

He might well say that, and I flatter myself that the story I am about to tell you now will go some little way towards proving the truth of his assertion. Since I had the honour of making the acquaintance of the principal person connected with it, I have been permitted an opportunity of verifying a tale which, at first sight, would appear to be almost unbelievable. But truth is proverbially stranger than fiction; and, for my part, I have seen and heard enough in my rovings about the world to be able to credit anything. And with this preamble, let me get to business.

You must understand that what I am going to tell you took place some twenty years ago, long before certain parts of the Western Pacific had become as well known as they are today. In fact, those who did visit them were generally traders from the Fijis and Australia, after beche-demer, sandalwood, etc., and, later on, hunting up labour for the Queensland sugar plantations — blackbirding, as it was usually termed. Now, however, the islands, from the Ladrones — shall we say? — to New Zealand, are regularly patrolled by men-of-war, though perhaps less is known of the Carolines and Solomons than should be, considering what they are and the possibilities they present.

It was drawing near the close of the monsoon season when I left Yap — or, as it used to be called, Guap — Island for a trading station, belonging to the firm that employed me, on the other side of the Caroline group.

Towards the end of the wet season strong south-west gales as often as not set in, and dodging in and out the islands is by no means as easy a business as some people might imagine. However, though folk warned me to be careful, seeing the state of the weather when I was leaving, I had no fear. I knew my craft as a driver knows a favourite horse; and, what was more, having a big shipment of copra aboard, I was anxious to reach my destination and hand it over without any more delay than was absolutely necessary.

Before midday I was heartily wishing I had listened to the advice I had received. By nightfall I could have kicked myself for my folly in leaving Tomil Bay. By midnight matters were about as bad as they could be.

By the time eight bells struck for the first watch next morning matters were growing desperate, and we were scudding almost under bare poles for all we were worth. Seas broke over her continually, and it was well-nigh as much as one’s life was worth to remain on deck. Early in the morning watch our whale-boat was smashed to atoms, and an hour or so later my new topmast, that I had set up only a week before, went by the board. Why she did not part amidships herself will always remain a mystery to me, so constant and terrific was the strain upon her. By breakfast time next morning there was — so it struck me — a slight improvement, which looked as if, after all, the gale might be blowing itself out. In those seas, these bursts die away almost as quickly as they spring up, and no man can tell what a few hours may bring forth. I must ask you to imagine my feelings as I regarded her. My foremast was a wreck, a portion of my starboard bulwarks was gone, while what remained of my brand new whale-boat, of which I had been so proud, was only fit for firewood. It was enough to make a man sit down and cry his eyes out. But even had I .wanted to, I had not time for such diversion, for we were far from being out of the wood yet. My hope that matters were settling down was not destined, however, to be realised as soon as I expected. All through that day and until the afternoon of the day following we were driven along by a wind which, if it were not as strong as before, was at least quite strong enough to make me anxious. Then, with a suddenness that was as extraordinary as its springing up had been, the gale died down, leaving us rolling in the swell of a heavy sea. In all my experience of the islands, extending over a good number of years, I do not know that I had ever met with anything resembling it.

At noon I had to endeavour to find out our position — a business which, owing to the heavy rolling of the schooner, was a matter of considerable difficulty. However, this important item was at last decided with no little astonishment to myself.

“This is a nice business,” said I to my mate, as we bent together over the chart on the house table. “ I knew we’d been carried clean out of Our course, but I didn’t reckon for all this. What’s worse, look at the condition we’re in. It’s enough to make a man turn to and kick himself.”

Young Gordon was a free-spoken fellow, and he proved it now. Though I could not find it in my heart to blame him, I did not like his tone.

“Let’s thank our stars we’re where we are instead of being in Davy Jones’s locker,” said he. “I can tell you that more than once I made up my mind we were booked there. You’d better have spent another few days in Yap, as you were advised; we’d have had our topmast then.” .

I looked at him with a bit of a spark in my eye, I make no doubt, but he did not flinch. I knew I was to blame, and, as I had put his life at stake — well, it would not have been exactly fair to have fallen out with him for speaking his mind. However, discipline is discipline, especially aboard ship, so I gave him to understand straight out that he had better do his work and mind his own business. After that I went back to the deck, feeling angry with myself and with the Clerk of the Weather in particular.

Later in the afternoon the sea commenced to fall perceptibly, until there was scarcely enough wind to swell the canvas. The sun had come out warm, and when I came on deck to stand my watch, I found the crew busily engaged drying their wet clothes. They had had a fair dusting of it, poor I beggars, and were making the most of the warmth, as all Kanakas will.

Having located my position I was now trying to make up my mind where I should put in for an overhaul. I rather fancied there was a bit of a strain forrard, as we were making a few drops more water than” I thought we ought to do. Having decided on an island I set the course, and then sat myself down to wait for the necessary wind to carry us the way we should go. It did not seem, however, as if we should ever find it. As the sun died down the heat became almost insufferable; the pitch fairly melted in the seams, while there was scarcely a piece of iron or brass upon which you could lay your hand. We were certainly being driven from one extreme to the other.

Next day, however, a nice breeze sprang up, enabling us to make a fair amount of progress.

“If only this will hold,” I said to my mate, “we ought to pick up the island within the next thirty-six hours. Is the water gaining on us at all?”

“Not enough to be alarmed about,” he replied. “But I’d like to find out Where it’s coming in.”

He gave me the carpenter’s report, which was in a measure reassuring, but which only confirmed my opinion that there was something wrong somewhere, and that that something might very probably grow worse. However, I flattered myself that, if this wind only continued, we should very soon be able to set matters right. This was exactly what did happen, though not quite as I expected. I have already said that I was not familiar with the islands of that portion of the group, and I certainly could not have been, for at daybreak next morning I was awakened by the mate with the information that there was land to be seen ahead.

“ Land be hanged! “ I cried. “ The chart says nothing about any island hereabouts. How does it bear?”

“Two points on the weather bow,’ his reply. “ We’re picking it up fast.”

On hearing this I tumbled out of my bunk, while he returned to the deck. When I had hustled on my things I joined him there, to discover the faint outline of an island upon the horizon. From what we could see of it as we drew nearer it was of fair size, at a rough estimate perhaps ten miles in length. It was hilly, and, when I brought the glasses to bear on it, seemed to be well clothed with, trees. I went into the house once more and again overhauled the chart, but it told me nothing. I thought I might be out of my reckoning with regard to my position, but this was certainly not the case. I accordingly returned to the deck to find that we were now some five or six miles distant from it, and that it was already possible to see the surf breaking on the reef. I cannot say when I have seen a prettier picture than I had before me then — the blue sea, the white surf on the reef, and the dark green island for a background. As we drew closer in the smell of the land came off to us, and, after all we had been through during the last few days, I can tell you it was like the breath of Heaven. Later on I sent the mate up into the cross-trees to keep his eye on the reef, and it was not long before he hailed me to say that he had discovered the entrance.,,I joined him, and from that elevation was able to form a very fair idea of what the island was like. So far as I could judge it seemed admirably adapted to Our purpose; the lagoon was as smooth as a millpond, while there was a beach of dazzling white sand on the further side. Sending the mate down to the wheel, I remained where I was in order to con her through. Half an hour later we were inside and at anchor. Whether I was pleased to be there or not I must leave you to guess.

That night we ran her gently ashore on the soft sand, and next morning set to work to examine her as soon as it was light. As it:turned out, there was not very much to worry about; a plank had started forrard, and to return it to its place, and to caulk the same afterwards, was not likely to be either a long or a difficult job. When it was finished, nothing would remain but to warp her off as soon as the tide should serve, and then to sea again.

And now I am brought to the narration of the strangest part of my story — that part to which I referred at the commencement of my yarn.

As there was nothing for me to do until the tide should rise sufficiently to float the schooner, I told the mate to put the hands on to rub her down underneath, for she had not been into dock for a long time, and, in consequence, was fairly foul. Then, procuring a rifle from my cabin, and filling my pockets with cartridges, I set off for a stroll, hoping that it might fall to my luck to obtain a pig, many of which beasts I knew ran wild in these islands. It was a beautiful morning — a trifle hot in the scrub, but nothing like what we had had to put up with during the last few days at sea. The vegetation was something’to see and wonder at, while the silence was such as to make you almost afraid of the sound of your own footsteps. So far, not a sign of a pig had I seen, nor, indeed, of any sort of game. There were plenty of birds, it is true; but, knowing the limitations of my skill with a rifle, I was not prepared to waste cartridges in the attempt to secure them, while I was also doubtful whether they would be worth the trouble of taking back, even had I been able to bring them down.

When I had reached the summit of the hill, I was able to satisfy myself as to the size of the island. As I have already said, it was about ten miles in length; and from my elevated position I could now see that its width was scarcely three. In fact, it was nothing more than along strip of land, with one peculiarity — namely, that it had evidently once formed part of a larger island, which I could only suppose had by some volcanic disturbance been split up into several parts. Straight before me, and surrounding a little inland sea — for it was larger than a lagoon — were at least a dozen smaller islands, each connected, and all clothed with palm-trees. The water was of an exquisite blue and as smooth as a looking-glass. If I had thought the lagoon in which the schooner lay made a charming picture, this was ten times more beautiful. I resolved to inspect it more closely, and, with this intention, descended the hill. I was by this time quite convinced in my own mind that I was the first white man to set foot upon the island — that is to say, unless one of the old navigators, Drake, Dampier, Cook, or some other had been there before me. Imbued with the feelings of a pioneer, I strode along, keeping all the time a sharp look-out on every side for a pig. I had almost given up hope of obtaining one, when, to my surprise, I saw a splendid specimen of the breed quietly feeding in an open spot some fifty yards or so ahead of me. Down I immediately dropped upon one knee behind a bush, through the branches of which I was able to obtain a good view of him. I fired, and when the smoke had cleared off, peered through the leaves to see what the result of my shot had been. I looked, and looked, and looked again; and then rubbed my eyes to see whether I were awake or dreaming. You will be able to understand my astonishment, no doubt, when I tell you that in the place where that pig should have dropped stood a tall woman — apparently an Englishwoman — dressed altogether in white, and, what was more, in the European fashion. I know the old saying to the effect that it is possible for a man to be so astonished that he may be knocked down with a feather. In my case, however, I fancy I might have been knocked down — shall we say? — with a cobweb. I had so completely made up my mind that-the island was uninhabited, that I should as soon have expected to find myself in Trafalgar Square as to have met a woman like this. When I looked at her again, she was walking towards the spot where I was still kneeling. I accordingly rose and advanced to meet her, my discharged rifle lying in the hollow of my left arm. As I drew closer to her, I realised that I was looking upon the most beautiful woman I had ever seen in my life, but one upon whose countenance the finger of despair had been indelibly impressed. Never before had I seen so sweet or so sad a face.

“Sir,” she said in English, “let me tell you that I do not permit the shooting of any of the beasts upon this island.”

It is beyond my power to describe to you the way in which she said this.

“I deeply regret, madam, that I should have offended,” I answered, in my best manner. “ I had no idea that the island was inhabited, and still less that an English lady lived here. I can scarcely believe it now.”

“I am not English,” she replied, still with the same grave courtesy and sadness. “If it interests you to know it, I am an American.”

She paused, and I fancied was about to leave me. My curiosity, however, was so great that I sought to detain her.

“Will you think me impertinent,” I said, “if I ask how long you have lived upon this island? ”

“For five years,” she answered, as sadly as before; and then added, “ Five years that might be five eternities.”

Had I dared I would have asked her if she were alone, but my courage failed me. She was plainly not the sort of woman to tolerate curiosity. In place of that question, therefore, I substituted another, remarking that I had been unable to find the island upon the chart.

“I had hoped that its position would remain unknown,” was her reply. “Now I fear I shall no longer be free from intruders.”

This was so obviously a thrust at me that I could not repress a smile.

“You need not fear that I will betray your island,” I said; “ that is, supposing you really wish it to remain a secret.”

“I am more desirous that it should not become known than you can imagine,” she replied. “ If you knew all, you would understand how dear that wish is to me.”

I felt that I would have given a great deal to know her secret, but Idid not ask her to throw any light upon the subject. When, however, she said she thought I must be hot and tired after my walk, and offered me refreshment at her dwelling, you may be sure I did not hesitate to accept. Perhaps, I told myself, I may learn something there.

“ Let me show you the way, then,” she said.

With that she led me along the glade in which I had fired at the pig, and thence by a narrow path down a gentle slope towards the water. We walked in silence for some minutes, until I found courage to ask her whether she did not find her life very lonely in such an out-of-the-world spot.

“My life is all loneliness,” she answered. “It would be impossible it could be otherwise.”

Every moment the mystery was deepening, and with each my curiosity was growing greater. Then we turned the corner of the path, and came face to face with her house. If I had been surprised at finding the island, at discovering the inland sea, and at meeting her, my astonishment was in no way diminished now. I have seen a good many

trading stations in my time, some of them a great deal too good for the men who live in them, and, as everybody knows, there are by no means bad residences in Beretania Street, Honolulu; but I always look back on this as the prettiest I have seen. It was built of coral and some sort of polished wood. It was not the material, however, so much as the style of architecture that was so unusual. To attempt to describe it would be for me a work of impossibility. But I can well remember the impression it made upon’me. Before it, and running down to the beach, was a garden as unique as the house itself. It was evident that the greatest possible care, amounting to what could only have been a labour of love, was continually expended upon it. There was another peculiarity about it. In the centre, and standing in a little grove of palms, was what at first glance looked like a temple, or, may be, a white stone summer-house. Later I discovered that it was a tomb — or perhaps I should say a mausoleum — which, as in the case of the house, was constructed of coral.

My hostess opened a little gate and conducted me up the path towards the house. The verandah was a fine one, neatly railed with polished wood, and wide enough to permit of half a dozen folk walking abreast upon it. Creepers of every hue twined luxuriantly upon it, giving a coolness that was more than refreshing after the close heat of the scrub. In this verandah were several chairs and native mats, and in one of the former my hostess invited me to seat myself while refreshment was being prepared for me. I thanked her, and, choosing a chair near the steps, in order that I might command a view of the water below, awaited her return. She was absent for upwards of a quarter of an hour, at the end of which time she returned to inform me that luncheon (how strangely the word sounded in my ears!) awaited me in the dining-room. I accordingly followed her into the house, and from the hall — which was decorated as I had never seen another in the South Seas — to a dining-room which might well’have been an apartment in an English mansion. There I found the table spread with a white cloth, silver, and glass, just as I had been accustomed to see it in my own home as a boy; and I cannot tell you what recollections it called up. Of what the meal consisted I have no remembrance now. All I recall is that it included several kinds of fish and a salad, the component parts of which were to me quite unknown.

As soon as I had seated myself at the table, my hostess begged me to excuse her, and left the room. I made a hearty meal, fairly revelling in my surroundings. How different it all was to our meals aboard the schooner, with the coffee-stained table-cloth, the chipped crockery, and the Kanaka steward hovering around, doing next to nothing, and yet upsetting everything! When I had finished I returned to the verandah, and waited to see what would happen next. I had not been there very long before I was joined by my hostess,. whereupon I took the liberty of paying her a compliment on the beauty of her garden. It did not rouse her, however. She seemed incapable of emotion; her beautiful face had but one expression, and that, as I have already said, was one of despair. To say that I was sorry for her would be to put the matter too mildly. Until an hour before I had never set eyes on her, and yet now I felt that I would do all in my power to help her. Being fairly familiar with the United States, and thinking it would please her, I began to talk to her about that country. She stopped me, however.

“Please do not speak of it,” she said. “You can have no idea what it means to me.”

This time I could not control my curiosity, and before I had time to check myself I had blurted out, “ Why? ”

She looked at me steadily for a few moments, and then, rising from her seat, signed to me to follow her into the garden. I did so, and together we made our way down the path toward the tomb, or mausoleum, to which I have already referred.

It was admirably constructed, and kept with the most scrupulous care. Inscription there was none, so that I was unable to tell whose resting-place it was. I was not to remain in ignorance very long, however.

“ Ever since we met,” began my companion, “I have noticed a look of wonderment upon your face. You were surprised to see me; you did not expect to find the house, and now you are at a loss to understand the meaning of this tomb. Believe me when I say that this is the key to everything. Would you care to hear the story?”

“I need scarcely say that I should, but I have no desire that you should suffer in the telling.”

She shook her head.

“Wait till you have heard me out,” she said.

I did not know what reply to make to this, so I held my tongue, like a prudent man.

She led me to a seat in the shadow of the palms, and then, with her eyes fixed upon the tomb we had just left, began her story.

“As I told you this morning, I am an American. My mother was a Cuban; my father — but there, it doesn’t matter what State he hailed from. I was their only child, wayward and headstrong from my babyhood, spoiled by all who knew me, and thoughtless of everything save my own pleasure. When I was nearly twenty-one I met a man — a Spaniard — with whom my father had had some business dealings. They had quarrelled; and when he proposed to me, and I vowed that I would marry him, despite all opposition — for I had inherited a large fortune from my mother, and was, therefore, independent — I thought my father would have killed me in his rage. As a matter of fact, he never really recovered from the shock, and, what is worse, I do not think he ever forgave me. As soon as we were married we left the States for Cuba, where a large portion of my fortune was sunk in a tobacco plantation owned by my husband. By the time I had been a. few months on the island, I discovered the fatal mistake I had made. The man I had chosen was a profligate, a bully, and a gambler. Before I had been married to him a year, I had learnt to hate him as I had never thought it possible I could hate any. one. If he but touched my hand, my whole being rose in revolt against him. He knew this, and found pleasure in tormenting me. Day by day matters grew worse, until I felt that I must do something to end it. Then there appeared upon the scene a third person — a young Englishman, who had but lately arrived in the island. He and my husband had met on several occasions, and as we were in want of an overseer at the time, it was suggested that he should join us in that capacity, which, being without employment, he gladly consented to do. I am convinced that, from the first, he understood how strained was the relationship between my husband and myself, though he never allowed me to believe that he noticed anything. One day, however, he told me something that I had known for a long time, and from that moment it became impossible for him to remain with us. He accordingly left, and took up his quarters in the city of Santiago. God knows it was not my fault, and I pitied him from the bottom of my heart.

“That my husband knew, or guessed, something of what had taken place, I felt quite certain. For his manner towards me changed altogether, and instead of being openly brutal, as before, he becamelsuddenly sneeringly polite. This continued for upwards of a month, and might have lasted longer but for an event which has resulted in my being here to tell you the story today. The young Englishman came to the house to bid me ‘goodbye’— he was going home. His father had died, and it appeared that he had succeeded to a title that was one of the oldest among all those historic names. He thanked me for my kindness, and, I fear, would have said more, but that I checked him. My husband came in while he was with me, and, regardless of his presence, used expressions that would have lashed any woman into a fury. Heaven knows it was not premeditated; but months of ill-treatment had brought me to such a condition that I could bear no more. Without counting the cost of what I was doing, I pulled open a drawer in the writing-table and seized a revolver, which I knew was kept there. A minute later he was stretched dead at my feet. For the time being I must have been mad, for I have no recollection of anything that happened from the moment I saw him lying before me until I came to my senses nearly a week later. Then I was informed that the man, whom I am now only too proud to say that I loved, had been arrested on his own confession for the crime I had committed, and that within a week’s time he was to suffer the extreme penalty of the law for the same. To save me he was willing to yield his life. You see, I am telling all this in bald language. It is the only way. To save him it was necessary that I should confess myself guilty. God help me! I was a coward at first, but, as you will see, I grew braver later.


“My husband had possessed many relatives and numerous so-called friends, for he had been prodigal with my money. These latter now realised that a profitable source of income was being taken away from them. They had always hated the Englishman, and their hatred was made all the keener by the act which he confessed to having committed. At any cost to myself I knew that I must save him, and that without delay. I prayed to God to give me strength to carry it through. Late as it was, and though scarcely able to stand, I determined to go to the judge that night and confess everything. This, however, I was not destined to do, for at the moment that I was about to give the order for my carriage, my faithful old servant, Domingo, abandoning for once his usual stateliness, burst into the room with the terrifying intelligence that the mob, hounded on, as I suppose, by the friends and relatives to whom I referred just now, had broken into the gaol, seized the prisoner, and were carrying him off to hang him in a valley some three miles distant from my home. Though years have passed since then, I can feel the agony of that moment now. I can recall the fact that I seized Domingo by the shoulders, and, glaring ‘at him like a madwoman, I have no doubt, demanded of him whether he was quite certain of the truth of his story. The poor old fellow answered that he was sure of it, and implored me to calm myself. In a whirlwind of terror and rage I shook him off, and bade him saddle me a horse at once. Once more he protested, pointing out to me the state of my health — that I was not strong enough even to sit in a saddle. Ah! but he little knew the power that was sustaining me.

My despair had given me the strength of the strongest man. He saw that it was useless to argue with me, and, with a groan, went out to do my bidding. While he was absent I went to the drawer where was the fatal revolver with which I had shot my husband. Ithrust it into the bosom of my dress and then ran out in search of the horse. Once more Domingo would have pleaded with me, but again I shook him off, and, mounting, dashed off on my errand, which was truly one of life and death.

“ Fortunately, I was as familiar with the track that led from the plantation to the valley in question as I was with the interior of my own house, and, what was more, I was mounted on a horse as sure-footed as a cat. All the time one question was ringing in my brain, ‘Should I be in time?’ What I was going to do when I got there I never paused to think. My only desire was to save him, or, at least, to die with him. On — onwards sped the horse; my hat was swept off by a tree branch, and my hair streamed behind me in the hot night air.

“At last, after what seemed like an eternity, I saw the glow of lights and could hear the hoarse roar of a crowd. Another hundred yards and I was near enough to obtain a full view of the scene.”

As she said this she put up her hands as if to shut the memory of it out. I might have counted twenty slowly before she resumed her story.

“There must have been at least five hundred people present, many of whom carried torches. He, my lover, the man who was dying, as he thought, to save me, was standing, his hands bound behind him, beneath a large tree. Even at that awful moment his courage had not failed him, and he stood and faced them with all the pride of his race. I was close to them before they became aware of my presence. Then a wild shout went up as the glare of the torches revealed my identity. I must have looked more like a madwoman than anything else, for those nearest to me fell back a pace or two. Had they not, I should have ridden them down in my anxiety to reach his side. He saw me, and uttered a cry of amazement and horror. To slip the fatal noose from around his neck was the work of an instant. Then I did a thing which I cannot understand now, and can scarcely credit when I think of it. Bending forward in my saddle, and exerting a strength which only God could have given me, I seized him with both hands, and dragged him up before me. The horse, frightened by the torches and my action, plunged wildly, and then, with a loud snort and a scramble of hoofs, dashed away into the darkness before the crowd had time to recover from its astonishment. As we disappeared several rifle shots rang out, but I paid no heed to them; my desire was to get beyond reach of pursuit as soon as possible. How I held him up during that fierce ride I cannot tell you, but at last, when I was compelled to allow the weary horse to come to a standstill, he slipped to the ground, staggered for a moment, and then fell prone. In a moment I was by his side, loosening his bonds and calling upon him by name. At last he regained his senses, and again I implored him to speak to me. He, however, only pointed to his throat, and when I looked closer I saw that a dark stream was trickling down his neck.

“My story is drawing to a close; there remains little more to be told. With the help of my friends we lay in hiding for upwards of a month. Then, with the same kind assistance, a schooner was purchased, a way was found for us to board her one dark night, and in her we set sail, ostensibly for Europe, in reality for the Southern Seas. Murderess though I was, he married me, and from that moment I devoted my whole life to him. Eventually, after many wanderings, we found this island, built this house, and settled down with the intention of never again returning to civilisation. The schooner we presented to our captain, in return for certain services which he was to render us. A good friend he has proved.”

“And your husband’s wound? Was it serious?”

She turned her face away from me as she replied ——

“From the moment that the bullet pierced his throat he never spoke again.”

There was a pause which I did not like to break. Then she continued ——

“He lies there, in the tomb that we built together. I shall lie by his side when my time comes. I pray night and day that it may not be long.”

Whether that time has come or not I have never heard. For her sake, poor soul, I trust it has.

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