Elizabeth and Essex, by Lytton Strachey

Chapter XI.

Essex had gone away to Wanstead, where he remained in a disturbed, uncertain, and unhappy condition. The alternating contradictions in his state of mind grew more extreme than ever. There were moments when he felt that he must fling himself at the feet of his mistress, that, come what might, he must regain her affection, her companionship, and all the sweets of the position that had so long been his. He could not — he would not — think that he had been in the wrong; she had treated him with an indignity that was unbearable; and then as he brooded over what had happened, anger flamed up in his heart. He would tell her what he thought of her. Had he not always done so — ever since that evening, more than ten years ago, when he had chided her so passionately, with Raleigh standing at the door? He would chide her now, no less passionately, but, as was fitting, in a deeper and a sadder tone. “Madam,” he wrote, “When I think how I have preferred your beauty above all things, and received no pleasure in life but by the increase of your favour towards me, I wonder at myself what cause there could be to make me absent myself one day from you. But when I remember that your Majesty hath, by the intolerable wrong you have done both me and yourself, not only broken all laws of affection, but done against the honour of your sex, I think all places better than that where I am, and all dangers well undertaken, so I might retire myself from the memory of my false, inconstant and beguiling pleasures . . . I was never proud, till your Majesty sought to make me too base. And now, since my destiny is no better, my despair shall be as my love was, without repentance. . . . I must commend my faith to be judged by Him who judgeth all hearts, since on earth I find no right. Wishing your Majesty all comforts and joys in the world, and no greater punishment for your wrongs to me, than to know the faith of him you have lost, and the baseness of those you shall keep,

“Your Majesty’s most humble servant,

“R Essex.”

When the news of the disaster on the Blackwater reached him, he sent another letter, offering his services, and hurried to Whitehall. He was not admitted. “He hath played long enough upon me,” Elizabeth was heard to remark, “and now I mean to play awhile upon him, and stand as much upon my greatness as he hath upon stomach.” He wrote a long letter of expostulation, with quotations from Horace, and vows of duty. “I stay in this place for no other purpose but to attend your commandment.” She sent him a verbal message in reply. “Tell the Earl that I value myself at as great a price as he values himself.” He wrote again:

“I do confess that, as a man, I have been more subject to your natural beauty than as a subject to the power of a king.” He obtained an interview; the Queen was not ungracious; the onlookers supposed that all was well again. But it was not, and he returned to Wanstead in darker dudgeon than ever.

It was clear that what Elizabeth was waiting for was some apology. Since this was not forthcoming, a deadlock had apparently been reached, and it seemed to the moderate men at Court that it was time an effort should be made to induce the Earl to realise the essence of the situation. The Lord Keeper Egerton, therefore, composed an elaborate appeal. Did not Essex understand, he asked, that his present course was full of danger? Did he not see that he was encouraging his enemies? Had he forgotten his friends? Had he forgotten his country? There was only one thing to do — he must beg for the Queen’s forgiveness; whether he was right or wrong could make no difference. “Have you given cause, and yet take scandal to yourself? Why then, all you can do is too little to give satisfaction. Is cause of scandal given to you? Let policy, duty, and religion enforce you to yield, and submit to your sovereign, between whom and you there can be no proportion of duty.”

“The difficulty, my good Lord,” Egerton concluded, “is to conquer yourself, which is the height of all true valour and fortitude, whereunto all your honourable actions have tended. Do it in this, and God will be pleased, her Majesty well satisfied, your country will take good, and your friends comfort by it; yourself shall receive honour; and your enemies, if you have any, shall be disappointed of their bitter-sweet hope.”

Essex’s reply was most remarkable. In a style no less elaborate than the Lord Keeper’s, he rebutted all his arguments. He denied that he was doing wrong either to himself or his friends; the Queen’s conduct, he said, made it impossible for him to act in any other way. How could he serve his country when she had “driven him into a private kind of life”— when she had “dismissed, discharged, and disabled” him? “The indissoluble duty,” he continued, “which I owe to her Majesty is only the duty of allegiance, which I never will, nor never can, fail in. The duty of attendance is no indissoluble duty. I owe to her Majesty the duty of an Earl and Lord Marshal of England. I have been content to do her Majesty the service of a clerk, but can never serve her as a villain or a slave.” As he wrote, he grew warmer. “But, say you, I must yield and submit; I can neither yield myself to be guilty, or this imputation laid upon me to be just . . . Have I given cause, ask you, and take scandal when I have done? No, I give no cause . . . I patiently bear all, and sensibly feel all, that I then received when this scandal was given me. Nay more”— and now he could hold himself in no longer —“when the vilest of all indignities are done unto me, doth religion enforce me to sue?” The whole heat of his indignation was flaring out. “Doth God require it? Is it impiety not to do it? What, cannot princes err? Cannot subjects receive wrong? Is an earthly power or authority infinite? Pardon me, pardon me, my good Lord, I can never subscribe to these principles. Let Solomon’s fool laugh when he is stricken; let those that mean to make their profit of princes shew to have no sense of princes’ injuries; let them acknowledge an infinite absoluteness on earth, that do not believe in an absolute infiniteness in heaven. As for me, I have received wrong, and feel it. My cause is good, I know it; and whatsoever come, all the powers on earth can never shew more strength and constancy in oppressing than I can shew in suffering whatsoever can or shall be imposed on me.”

Magnificent words, certainly, but dangerous, portentous, and not wise. What good could come of flaunting republican sentiments under the calm nose of a Tudor? Such oratory was too early or too late. Hampden would have echoed it; but in truth it was the past rather than the future that was speaking with the angry pen of Robert Devereux. The blood of a hundred Barons who had paid small heed to the Lord’s Anointed was pulsing in his heart. Yes! If it was a question of birth, why should the heir of the ancient aristocracy of England bow down before the descendant of some Bishop’s butler in Wales? Such were his wild feelings — the last extravagance of the Middle Ages flickering through the high Renaissance nobleman. The facts vanished; his outraged imagination preferred to do away with them. For, after all, what had actually happened? Simply this, he had been rude to an old lady, who was also a Queen, and had had his ears boxed. There were no principles involved, and there was no oppression. It was merely a matter of bad temper and personal pique.

A realistic observer would have seen that in truth there were only two alternatives for one in Essex’s position — a graceful apology followed by a genuine reconciliation with the Queen, or else a complete and final retirement from public life. More than once his mind swayed — as so often before — towards the latter solution; but he was not a realist, he was a romantic — passionate, restless, confused — and he shut his eyes to what was obvious — that, as things stood, if he could not bring himself to be one of those who “make their profit of princes” he must indeed make up his mind to a life of books and hunting at Chartley. Nor were those who surrounded him any more realistic than himself. Francis Bacon had for many months past avoided his company; Anthony was an enthusiastic devotee; Henry Cuffe was rash and cynical; his sisters were too ambitious, his mother was too much biased by her lifelong quarrel with Elizabeth to act as a restraining force. Two other followers completed his intimate domestic circle. His mother’s husband — for Lady Leicester had married a third time — was Sir Christopher Blount. A sturdy soldier and a Roman Catholic, he had served his stepson faithfully for many years, and, it was clear, would continue to do so, whatever happened, to the end.

More dubious, from every point of view, was the position of Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy. The tall young man with the brown hair and the beautiful complexion, who had won Elizabeth’s favour by his feats at tilting, and who had fought a duel with Essex over the golden chessman given him by the Queen, had grown and prospered with the years. The death of his elder brother had brought him the family peerage; he had distinguished himself as Essex’s lieutenant in all his expeditions, and he had never lost the favour of Elizabeth. But he was united to Essex by something more than a common military service — by a singular romance. The Earl’s favourite sister, Lady Penelope, had been the Stella Sir Philip Sidney had vainly loved. She had married Lord Rich, while Sidney had married Walsingham’s daughter, who, on Sir Philip’s death, had become the wife of Essex. Penelope had not been happy; Lord Rich was an odious husband, and she had fallen in love with Lord Mountjoy. A liaison sprang up — a lifelong liaison — one of those indisputable and yet ambiguous connexions which are at once recognised and ignored by society — between Essex’s friend and Essex’s sister. Thus Mountjoy, doubly bound to the Earl, had become — or so it seemed — the most faithful of his adherents. The little group — Essex, Lady Essex, Mountjoy, and Penelope Rich — was held together by the deepest feelings of desire and affection; while behind and above them all there hovered, in sainted knightliness, the shade of Sir Philip Sidney.

And so there was no barrier to hold Essex back from folly and intemperance; on the contrary, the characteristics of his environment — personal devotion, family pride, and military zeal — all conspired to urge him on. More remote influences worked in the same direction. Throughout the country the Earl’s popularity was a growing force. The reasons for this were vague, but none the less effectual. His gallant figure had taken hold of the popular imagination; he was generous and courteous; he was the enemy of Raleigh, who was everywhere disliked; and now he was out of favour and seemed to be hardly used. The puritanical City of London especially, tending, as it always did, to be hostile to the Court, paid an incongruous devotion to the unregenerate Earl. The word went round that he was a pillar of Protestantism, and Essex, who was ready enough to be all things to all men, was not unwilling to accept the rôle. Evidence of another kind of esteem appeared when, on the death of Burghley, the University of Cambridge at once elected him to fill the vacant place of Chancellor. He was delighted by the compliment, and as a mark of gratitude presented the University with a silver cup of rare design. The curious goblet still stands on the table of the Vice-Chancellor, to remind the passing generations of Englishmen at once of the tumult of the past and of the placid continuity of their history.

Egged on by private passion and public favour, the headstrong man gave vent, in moments of elation, to strange expressions of anger and revolt. Sir Christopher Blount was present at Wanstead when one of these explosions occurred, and, though his stepson’s words were whirling and indefinite, they revealed to him with startling vividness a state of mind that was full, as he said afterwards, of “dangerous discontentment.” But the moments of elation passed, to be succeeded by gloom and hesitation. What was to be done? There was no satisfaction anywhere; retirement, submission, defiance — each was more wretched than the others; and the Queen still made no sign.

In reality, of course, Elizabeth too was wavering. She kept up a bold front; she assured everybody, including herself, that this time she was really going to be firm; but she knew well enough how many times before she had yielded in like circumstances, and experience indicated that the future would resemble the past. As usual, the withdrawal of that radiant presence was becoming insupportable. She thought of Wanstead — so near, so far — and almost capitulated. Yet no, she would do nothing, she would go on waiting; only a little longer, perhaps, and the capitulation would come from the other side. And then one dimly discerns that, while she paused and struggled, a new and a sinister element of uncertainty was beginning to join the others to increase the fluctuation of her mind. At all times she kept her eyes and her ears open; her sense of the drifts of feeling and opinion was extremely shrewd, and there were many about her who were ready enough to tell unpleasant stories of the absent favourite and expatiate on his growing — his extraordinary — popularity all over the country. One day a copy of the letter to Egerton was put into her hand. She read it, and her heart sank; she scrupulously concealed her feelings, but she could no longer hide from herself that the preoccupation which had now come to wind itself among the rest that perturbed her spirit was one of alarm. If that was his state of mind — if that was his position in the country . . . she did not like it at all. The lion-hearted heroine of tradition would not have hesitated in such circumstances — would have cleared up the situation in one bold and final stroke. But that was very far indeed from being Elizabeth’s way. “Pusillanimity,” the Spanish ambassadors had reported; a crude diagnosis; what really actuated her in the face of peril or hostility was an innate predisposition to hedge. If there was indeed danger in the direction of Wanstead she would not go out to meet it — oh no! — she would propitiate it, she would lull it into unconsciousness, she would put it off, and put it off. That was her instinct; and yet, in the contradictory convolutions of her character, another and a completely opposite propensity may be perceived, which nevertheless — such is the strange mechanism of the human soul — helped to produce the same result. Deep in the recesses of her being, a terrific courage possessed her. She balanced and balanced, and if one day she was to find that she was exercising her prodigies of agility on a tight-rope over an abyss — so much the better! She knew that she was equal to any situation. All would be well. She relished everything — the diminution of risks and the domination of them; and she would proceed, in her extraordinary way, with her life’s work, which consisted of what? Putting out flames? Or playing with fire? She laughed; it was not for her to determine!

Thus it happened that when the inevitable reconciliation came it was not a complete one. The details are hidden from us; we do not know the terms of the peace; we only know that the pretext for it was yet another misfortune in Ireland. Sir Richard Bingham had been sent out to take command of the military operations, and early in October, immediately upon his arrival at Dublin, he died. All was in confusion once more; Essex again offered his services; and this time they were accepted. Soon the Queen and the favourite were as much together as they had ever been. It appeared that the past had been obliterated, and that the Earl — as was his wont — had triumphantly regained his old position, as if there had never been a quarrel. In reality it was not so; the situation was a new one; mutual confidence had departed. For the first time, each side was holding something back. Essex, whatever his words, his looks, and even his passing moods may have been, had not uprooted from his mind the feelings of injury and defiance that had dictated his letter to Egerton. He had returned to Court as unchastened and undecided as ever, blindly impelled by the enticement of power. And Elizabeth on her side had by no means forgotten what had happened; the scene in the Council Chamber still rankled; she perceived that there was something wrong with those protestations; and, while she conversed and flirted as of old, she kept open a weather eye.

But these were subtleties it was very difficult to make sure of, as the days whirled along at Whitehall and Greenwich and Nonesuch; and even Francis Bacon could not quite decide what had occurred. Possibly Essex was really again in the ascendant; possibly, after the death of Burghley the star of Cecil was declining; it was most unwise to be too sure. For more than a year, gradually moving towards the Cecils, he had kept out of the Earl’s way. In repeated letters he had paid his court to the Secretary, and his efforts had at last been rewarded in a highly gratifying manner. A new assassination plot had come to light — a new Catholic conspiracy; the suspects had been seized; and Bacon was instructed to assist the Government in the unravelling of the mystery. The work suited him very well, for, while it provided an excellent opportunity for the display of intelligence, it also brought him into a closer contact with great persons than he had hitherto enjoyed. And it turned out that he was particularly in need of such support. He had been unable to set his finances in order. The Mastership of the Rolls and Lady Hatton had both eluded him; and he had been obliged to content himself with the reversion to the Clerkship of the Star Chamber — with the prospect, instead of the reality, of emolument. Yet it had seemed for a moment as if the prospect were unexpectedly close at hand. The actual Clerk was accused of peculation, and the Lord Keeper Egerton was appointed, with others, to examine into the case. If the Clerk were removed, Bacon would succeed to the office. He wrote a secret letter to Egerton; he promised, in that eventuality, to resign the office to Egerton’s son, on the understanding that the Lord Keeper on his side would do his best to obtain for him some compensating position. The project failed, for the Clerk was not removed, and Bacon did not come into his reversion for ten years. In the meantime, an alarming poverty stared him in the face. He continued to borrow — from his brother, from his mother, from Mr. Trott; the situation grew more and more serious; at last, one day, as he was returning from the Tower after an examination of the prisoners concerned in the assassination plot, he was positively arrested for debt. Robert Cecil and Egerton, however, to whom he immediately applied for assistance, were able between them to get him out of this difficulty, and his public duties were not interrupted again.

But, if the Secretary was useful, the Earl might be useful too. Now that he was back at Court, it would be well to write to him. “That your Lordship,” Bacon said, “is in statu quo primo no man taketh greater gladness than I do; the rather because I assure myself that of your eclipses, as this hath been the longest, it shall be the last.” He hoped that “upon this, experience may found more perfect knowledge, and upon knowledge more true consent . . . And therefore, as bearing unto your Lordship, after her Majesty, of all public persons the second duty, I could not but signify unto you my affectionate gratulation.”

So far so good; but now the clouds of a new, tempest were seen to be gathering on the horizon, filling the hearts of the watchers at Whitehall with perplexity and perturbation. It was absolutely necessary that someone should be made Lord Deputy of Ireland. After the shattering scene in the summer, nothing had been done; the question was urgent; upon its solution so much, so very much, depended! The Queen believed that she had found the right man — Lord Mountjoy. Besides admiring his looks intensely, she had a high opinion of his competence. He was approached on the subject, and it was found that he was willing to go. For a short time it appeared that the matter was happily settled — that Mountjoy was the deus ex machina who would bring peace not only to Ireland but to Whitehall. But again the wind shifted. Essex once more protested against the appointment of one of his own supporters; Mountjoy, he declared, was unfit for the post — he was a scholar rather than a general. It looked as if the fatal round of refusal and recrimination was about to begin all over again. Who then, Essex was asked, did he propose? Some years before, Bacon had written him a letter of advice precisely on this affair of Ireland. “I think,” said the man of policy, “if your Lordship lent your reputation in this case — that is, to pretend that you would accept the charge — I think it would help you to settle Tyrone in his seeking accord, and win you a great deal of honour gratis.” There was only one objection, Bacon thought, to this line of conduct: “Your Lordship is too quick to pass in such cases from dissimulation to verity.” We cannot trace all the moves — complicated, concealed, and fevered — that passed at the Council table; but it seems probable that Essex, when pressed to name a substitute for Mountjoy, remembered Bacon’s advice. He gave it as his opinion, Camden tells us, that “into Ireland must be sent some prime man of the nobility which was strong in power, honour, and wealth, in favour with military men, and which had before been general of an army; so as he seemed with the finger to point to himself.” The Secretary, with his face of gentle conscientiousness, sat silent at the Board. What were his thoughts? If the Earl were indeed to go to Ireland — it would be a hazardous decision; but if he himself wished it — perhaps it would be better so. He scrutinised the future, weighing the possibilities with deliberate care. It was conceivable that the Earl, after all, was dissembling, that he understood how dangerous it would be for him to leave England, and was only making a show. But Cecil knew, as well as his cousin, the weak places in that brave character — knew the magnetism of arms and action — knew the tendency “to pass from dissimulation to verity.” He thought he saw what would happen. “My Lord Mountjoy,” he told a confidential correspondent, “is named; but to you, in secret I speak of it, not as a secretary but as a friend, that I think the Earl of Essex shall go Lieutenant of the Kingdom.” He sat writing; we do not know of his other faint imperceptible movements. We only know that, in the Council, there were some who still pressed for the appointment of Mountjoy, that the Earl’s indication of himself was opposed or neglected, and that then the candidature of Sir William Knollys was suddenly revived.

Opposition always tended to make Essex lose his head. He grew angry; the Mountjoy proposal seriously vexed him, and the renewal of Knollys’ name was the last straw. He fulminated against such notions, and, as he did so, slipped — after what he had himself said, it was an easy, an almost inevitable transition — into an assertion of his own claims. Some councillors supported him, declaring that all would be well if the Earl went; the Queen was impressed; Essex had embarked on a heated struggle — he had pitted himself against Knollys and Mountjoy, and he would win. Francis Bacon had prophesied all too truly — the reckless man had indeed “passed from dissimulation to verity.” Win he did. The Queen, bringing the discussion to a close, announced her decision: since Essex was convinced that he could pacify Ireland, and since he was so anxious for the office, he should have it; she would make him her Lord Deputy. With long elated strides and flashing glances he left the room in triumph; and so — with shuffling gait and looks of mild urbanity — did Robert Cecil.

It was long before Essex began to realise fully what had happened. The sense of victory, both at the moment and in anticipation — both at home and in Ireland — buoyed him up and carried him forward. “I have beaten Knollys and Mountjoy in the Council,” he wrote to his friend and follower, John Harington, “and by God I will beat Tyrone in the field; for nothing worthy her Majesty’s honour hath yet been achieved.”

Naturally enough the old story was repeated, and the long, accustomed train of difficulties, disappointments, and delays dragged itself out. Elizabeth chaffered over every detail, changed from day to day the size and nature of the armament that she was fitting out, and disputed fiercely upon the scope of the authority with which the new Lord Deputy was to be invested. As the weeks passed in angry bickering Essex sank slowly downwards from elation to gloom. Perhaps he had acted unwisely; regrets attacked him; the future was dark and difficult; what was he heading for? He was overwhelmed by miserable sensations; but it was too late now to draw back, and he must face the inevitable with courage. “Into Ireland I go,” he told the young Earl of Southampton, who had become his devoted disciple; “the Queen hath irrevocably decreed it, the Council do passionately urge it, and I am tied in my own reputation to use no tergiversation; and, as it were indecorum to slip collar now, so would it also be minime tutum; for Ireland would be lost, and though it perished by destiny I should only be accused of it, because I saw the fire burn and was called to quench it, but gave no help.” He was well aware, he said, of the disadvantages of absence —“the opportunities of practising enemies” and “the construction of Princes, under whom magnafama is more dangerous than mala.” He realised and enumerated the difficulties of an Irish campaign. “All these things,” he declared, “which I am like to see, I do now foresee.” Yet to every objection he did his best to summon up an answer. “‘Too ill success will be dangerous’— let them fear that who allow excuses, or can be content to overlive their honour. ‘Too great will be envious’— I will never foreswear virtue for fear of ostracism. ‘The Court is the centre.’— But methinks it is the fairer choice to command armies than humours.” . . . “These are the very private problems,” he concluded, “and nightly disputations, which from your Lordship, whom I account another myself, I cannot hide.”

At moments the gloom lifted, and hope returned. The Queen smiled; disagreements vanished; something like the old happy confidence was in the air once more. On Twelfth Night, 1599, there was a grand party for the Danish ambassador, and the Queen and the Earl danced hand in hand before the assembled Court. Visions of that other Twelfth Night, five short years before — that apogee of happiness — must have flitted through many memories. Five short years — what a crowded gulf between then and now! And yet, now as then, those two figures were together in their passion and their mystery, while the viols played their beautiful tunes and the jewels glittered in the torchlight. What was passing? Perhaps, in that strange companionship, there was delight, as of old . . . and for the last time.

Elizabeth had much to trouble her — Ireland, Essex, the eternal question of War and Peace — but she brushed it all aside, and sat for hours translating the “Ars Poetica” into English prose. As for Ireland, she had grown accustomed to that; and Essex, though fretful, seemed only anxious to cut a figure as Lord Deputy — she could ignore those uncomfortable suspicions of a few months ago. There remained the Spanish War; but that too seemed to have solved itself very satisfactorily. It drifted on, in complete ambiguity, while peace was indefinitely talked of, with no fighting and no expense; a war that was no war, in fact — precisely what was most to her liking.

One day, however, she had a shock. A book fell into her hands — a History of Henry the Fourth — she looked at it — there was a Latin dedication to Essex. “To the most illustrious and honoured Robert Earl of Essex and Ewe, Earl Marshal of England, Viscount of Hereford and Bourchier, Baron Ferrars of Chartley, Lord Bourchier and Louen”— what was all this? She glanced through the volume, and found that it contained an elaborate account of the defeat and deposition of Richard the Second — a subject, implying as it did the possibility of the removal of a sovereign from the throne of England, to which she particularly objected. It, was true, no doubt, that the Bishop of Carlisle was made to deliver an elaborate speech against the King’s deposition; but why bring the matter before the public at all? What could be the purpose of this wretched book? She looked again at the dedication, and as she looked the blood rushed to her head. The tone was one of gross adulation, but that was by no means all; there was a phrase upon which a most disgraceful construction might be put. “Most illustrious Earl, with your name adorning the front of our Henry, he may go forth to the public happier and safer.”1 The man would, no doubt, pretend that “our Henry” referred to the book; but was there not another very possible interpretation? — that if Henry IV had possessed the name and titles of Essex his right to the throne would have been better and more generally recognised. It was treason! She sent for Francis Bacon. “Cannot this man — this John Hayward — be prosecuted for treason?” she asked. “Not, I think, for treason, Madam,” was the reply, “but for felony.”

“How so?”

“He has stolen so many passages from Tacitus . . . ”

“I suspect the worst. I shall force the truth from him. The rack.” Bacon did what he could to calm her; but she was only partially pacified; and the unfortunate Hayward, though he was spared the rack, was sent to the Tower, where he remained for the rest of the reign.

Her suspicions, having flamed up in this unexpected manner, sank down again, and, after a slight scene with Essex, she finally signed his appointment as Lord Deputy. He departed at the end of March, passing through the streets of London amid the acclamations of the citizens. In the popular expectation, all would be well in Ireland, now that the Protestant Earl had gone there to put things to rights. But, at Court, there were those whose view of the future was different. Among them was Bacon. He had followed the fluctuations of the Irish appointment with interest and astonishment. Was it really possible that, with his eyes open, that rash man had fallen into such a trap? When he found that it was indeed the case, and that Essex was actually going, he wrote him a quiet, encouraging letter, giving no expression to his fears or his doubts. There was nothing else to be done; the very intensity of his private conviction made a warning useless and impossible. “I did as plainly see,” he afterwards wrote, “his overthrow chained, as it were, by destiny to that journey as it is possible for a man to ground a judgment upon future contingents.”

1. Illustrissime comes, cujus nomen si Henrici nostri fronti radiaret, ipse et laetior et tutior in vulgus prodiret.


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