The reign of Elizabeth, (1558 to 1603), falls into two parts: the thirty years that preceded the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and the fifteen that followed it. The earlier period was one of preparation; it was then that the tremendous work was accomplished which made England a coherent nation, finally independent of the Continent, and produced a state of affairs in which the whole energies of the country could find free scope. During those long years the dominating qualities of the men in power were skill and prudence. The times were so hard that anything else was out of place. For a whole generation the vast caution of Burghley was the supreme influence in England. The lesser figures followed suit; and, for that very reason, a certain indistinctness veils them from our view. Walsingham worked underground; Leicester, with all his gorgeousness, is dim to us — an uncertain personage, bending to every wind; the Lord Chancellor Hatton danced, and that is all we know of him. Then suddenly the kaleidoscope shifted; the old ways, the old actors, were swept off with the wreckage of the Armada. Burghley alone remained — a monument from the past. In the place of Leicester and Walsingham, Essex and Raleigh — young, bold, coloured, brilliantly personal — sprang forward and filled the scene of public action. It was the same in every other field of national energy: the snows of the germinating winter had melted, and the wonderful spring of Elizabethan culture burst into life.
The age — it was that of Marlowe and Spenser, of the early Shakespeare and the Francis Bacon of the Essays — needs no description: everybody knows its outward appearances and the literary expressions of its heart. More valuable than descriptions, but what perhaps is unattainable, would be some means by which the modern mind might reach to an imaginative comprehension of those beings of three centuries ago — might move with ease among their familiar essential feelings — might touch, or dream that it touches, (for such dreams are the stuff of history), the very “pulse of the machine.” But the path seems closed to us. By what art are we to worm our way into those strange spirits, those even stranger bodies? The more clearly we perceive it, the more remote that singular universe becomes. With very few exceptions — possibly with the single exception of Shakespeare — the creatures in it meet us without intimacy; they are exterior visions, which we know, but do not truly understand.
It is, above all, the contradictions of the age that baffle our imagination and perplex our intelligence. Human beings, no doubt, would cease to be human beings unless they were inconsistent; but the inconsistency of the Elizabethans exceeds the limits permitted to man. Their elements fly off from one another wildly; we seize them; we struggle hard to shake them together into a single compound, and the retort bursts. How is it possible to give a coherent account of their subtlety and their naïveté, their delicacy and their brutality, their piety and their lust? Wherever we look, it is the same. By what perverse magic were intellectual ingenuity and theological ingenuousness intertwined in John Donne? Who has ever explained Francis Bacon? How is it conceivable that the puritans were the brothers of the dramatists? What kind of mental fabric could that have been which had for its warp the habits of filth and savagery of sixteenth-century London and for its woof an impassioned familiarity with the splendour of Tamburlaine and the exquisiteness of Venus and Adonis? Who can reconstruct those iron-nerved beings who passed with rapture from some divine madrigal sung to a lute by a bewitching boy in a tavern to the spectacle of mauled dogs tearing a bear to pieces? Iron-nerved? Perhaps; yet the flaunting man of fashion, whose codpiece proclaimed an astonishing virility, was he not also, with his flowing hair and his jewelled ears, effeminate? And the curious society which loved such fantasies and delicacies - how readily would it turn and rend a random victim with hideous cruelty! A change of fortune — a spy’s word — and those same ears might be sliced off, to the laughter of the crowd, in the pillory; or, if ambition or religion made a darker embroilment, a more ghastly mutilation — amid a welter of moral platitudes fit only for the nursery and dying confessions in marvellous English — might diversify a traitor’s end.
It was the age of baroque; and perhaps it is the incongruity between their structure and their ornament that best accounts for the mystery of the Elizabethans. It is so hard to gauge, from the exuberance of their decoration, the subtle, secret lines of their inner nature. Certainly this was so in one crowning example — certainly no more baroque figure ever trod this earth than the supreme phenomenon of Elizabethanism — Elizabeth herself. From her visible aspect to the profundities of her being, every part of her was permeated by the bewildering discordances of the real and the apparent. Under the serried complexities of her raiment — the huge hoop, the stiff ruff, the swollen sleeves, the powdered pearls, the spreading, gilded gauzes — the form of the woman vanished, and men saw instead an image — magnificent, portentous, self-created — an image of regality, which yet, by a miracle, was actually alive. Posterity has suffered by a similar deceit of vision. The great Queen of its imagination, the lion-hearted heroine, who flung back the insolence of Spain and crushed the tyranny of Rome with splendid unhesitating gestures, no more resembles the Queen of fact than the clothed Elizabeth the naked one. But, after all, posterity is privileged. Let us draw nearer; we shall do no wrong now to that Majesty, if we look below the robes.
The lion heart, the splendid gestures — such heroic things were there, no doubt — visible to everybody; but their true significance in the general scheme of her character was remote and complicated. The sharp and hostile eyes of the Spanish ambassadors saw something different; in their opinion, the outstanding characteristic of Elizabeth was pusillanimity. They were wrong; but they perceived more of the truth than the idle onlooker. They had come into contact with those forces in the Queen’s mind which proved, incidentally, fatal to themselves, and brought her, in the end, her enormous triumph. That triumph was not the result of heroism. The very contrary was the case: the grand policy which dominated Elizabeth’s life was the most unheroic conceivable; and her true history remains a standing lesson for melodramatists in statecraft. In reality, she succeeded by virtue of all the qualities which every hero should be without — dissimulation, pliability, indecision, procrastination, parsimony. It might almost be said that the heroic element chiefly appeared in the unparalleled lengths to which she allowed those qualities to carry her. It needed a lion heart indeed to spend twelve years in convincing the world that she was in love with the Duke of Anjou, and to stint the victuals of the men who defeated the Armada; but in such directions she was in very truth capable of everything. She found herself a sane woman in a universe of violent maniacs, between contending forces of terrific intensity — the rival nationalisms of France and Spain, the rival religions of Rome and Calvin; for years it had seemed inevitable that she should be crushed by one or other of them, and she had survived because she had been able to meet the extremes around her with her own extremes of cunning and prevarication. It so happened that the subtlety of her intellect was exactly adapted to the complexities of her environment. The balance of power between France and Spain, the balance of factions in France and Scotland, the swaying fortunes of the Netherlands, gave scope for a tortuosity of diplomacy which has never been completely unravelled to this day. Burghley was her chosen helper, a careful steward after her own heart; and more than once Burghley gave up the puzzle of his mistress’s proceedings in despair. Nor was it only her intellect that served her; it was her temperament as well. That too — in its mixture of the masculine and the feminine, of vigour and sinuosity, of pertinacity and vacillation — was precisely what her case required. A deep instinct made it almost impossible for her to come to a fixed determination upon any subject whatever. Or, if she did, she immediately proceeded to contradict her resolution with the utmost violence, and, after that, to contradict her contradiction more violently still. Such was her nature — to float, when it was calm, in a sea of indecisions, and, when the wind rose, to tack hectically from side to side. Had it been otherwise — had she possessed, according to the approved pattern of the strong man of action, the capacity for taking a line and sticking to it — she would have been lost. She would have become inextricably entangled in the forces that surrounded her, and, almost inevitably, swiftly destroyed. Her femininity saved her. Only a woman could have shuffled so shamelessly, only a woman could have abandoned with such unscrupulous completeness the last shreds not only of consistency, but of dignity, honour, and common decency, in order to escape the appalling necessity of having, really and truly, to make up her mind. Yet it is true that a woman’s evasiveness was not enough; male courage, male energy were needed, if she were to escape the pressure that came upon her from every side. Those qualities she also possessed; but their value to her — it was the final paradox of her career — was merely that they made her strong enough to turn her back, with an indomitable persistence, upon the ways of strength.
Religious persons at the time were distressed by her conduct, and imperialist historians have wrung their hands over her since. Why could she not suppress her hesitations and chicaneries and take a noble risk? Why did she not step forth, boldly and frankly, as the leader of Protestant Europe, accept the sovereignty of Holland, and fight the good fight to destroy Catholicism and transfer the Spanish Empire to the rule of England? The answer is that she cared for none of those things. She understood her true nature and her true mission better than her critics. It was only by an accident of birth that she was a Protestant leader; at heart she was profoundly secular; and it was her destiny to be the champion, not of the Reformation, but of something greater — the Renaissance. When she had finished her strange doings, there was civilisation in England. The secret of her conduct was, after all, a simple one: she had been gaining time. And time, for her purposes, was everything. A decision meant war — war, which was the very antithesis of all she had at heart. Like no other great statesman in history, she was, not only by disposition but in practice, pacific. It was not that she was much disturbed by the cruelty of war — she was far from sentimental; she hated it for the best of all reasons — its wastefulness. Her thrift was spiritual as well as material, and the harvest that she gathered in was the great Age, to which, though its supreme glories were achieved under her successor, her name has been rightly given. For without her those particular fields could never have come to ripeness; they would have been trodden down by struggling hordes of nationalists and theologians. She kept the peace for thirty years — by dint, it is true, of one long succession of disgraceful collapses and unheard-of equivocations; but she kept it, and that was enough for Elizabeth.
To put the day of decision off — and off — and off — it seemed her only object, and her life passed in a passion of postponement. But here, too, appearances were deceitful, as her adversaries found to their cost. In the end, when the pendulum had swung to and fro for ages, and delay had grown grey, and expectation sunk down in its socket, something terrible happened. The crafty Maitland of Lethington, in whose eyes the God of his fathers was “ane bogle of the nursery,” declared with scorn that the Queen of England was inconstant, irresolute, timorous, and that before the game was played out he would “make her sit upon her tail and whine, like ane whippet hound.” Long years passed, and then suddenly the rocks of Edinburgh Castle ran down like sand at Elizabeth’s bidding, and Maitland took refuge from the impossible ruin in a Roman’s death. Mary Stuart despised her rival with a virulent French scorn; and, after eighteen years, at Fotheringay, she found she was mistaken. King Philip took thirty years to learn the same lesson. For so long had he spared his sister-in-law; but now he pronounced her doom; and he smiled to watch the misguided woman still negotiating for a universal peace, as his Armada sailed into the Channel.
Undoubtedly there was a touch of the sinister about her. One saw it in the movements of her extraordinarily long hands. But it was a touch and no more — just enough to remind one that there was Italian blood in her veins — the blood of the subtle and cruel Visconti. On the whole, she was English. On the whole, though she was infinitely subtle, she was not cruel; she was almost humane for her times; and her occasional bursts of savagery were the results of fear or temper. In spite of superficial resemblances, she was the very opposite of her most dangerous enemy — the weaving spider of the Escurial. Both were masters of dissimulation and lovers of delay; but the leaden foot of Philip was the symptom of a dying organism, while Elizabeth temporised for the contrary reason — because vitality can afford to wait. The fierce old hen sat still, brooding over the English nation, whose pullulating energies were coming swiftly to ripeness and unity under her wings. She sat still; but every feather bristled; she was tremendously alive. Her superabundant vigour was at once alarming and delightful. While the Spanish ambassador declared that ten thousand devils possessed her, the ordinary Englishman saw in King Hal’s full-blooded daughter a Queen after his own heart. She swore; she spat; she struck with her fist when she was angry; she roared with laughter when she was amused. And she was often amused. A radiant atmosphere of humour coloured and softened the harsh lines of her destiny, and buoyed her up along the zigzags of her dreadful path. Her response to every stimulus was immediate and rich: to the folly of the moment, to the clash and horror of great events, her soul leapt out with a vivacity, an abandonment, a complete awareness of the situation, which made her, which makes her still, a fascinating spectacle. She could play with life as with an equal, wrestling with it, making fun of it, admiring it, watching its drama, intimately relishing the strangeness of circumstance, the sudden freaks of fortune, the perpetual unexpectedness of things. “Per molto variare la natura è bella” was one of her favourite aphorisms.
The variations in her own behaviour were hardly less frequent than nature’s. The rough hectoring dame with her practical jokes, her out-of-doors manners, her passion for hunting, would suddenly become a stern-faced woman of business, closeted for long hours with secretaries, reading and dictating despatches, and examining with sharp exactitude the minutiae of accounts. Then, as suddenly, the cultivated lady of the Renaissance would shine forth. For Elizabeth’s accomplishments were many and dazzling. She was mistress of six languages besides her own, a student of Greek, a superb calligraphist, an excellent musician. She was a connoisseur of painting and poetry. She danced, after the Florentine style, with a high magnificence that astonished beholders. Her conversation, full, not only of humour, but of elegance and wit, revealed an unerring social sense, a charming delicacy of personal perception. It was this spiritual versatility which made her one of the supreme diplomatists of history. Her protean mind, projecting itself with extreme rapidity into every sinuous shape conceivable, perplexed the most clear-sighted of her antagonists and deluded the most wary. But her crowning virtuosity was her command over the resources of words. When she wished, she could drive in her meaning up to the hilt with hammer blows of speech, and no one ever surpassed her in the elaborate confection of studied ambiguities. Her letters she composed in a regal mode of her own, full of apophthegm and insinuation. In private talk she could win a heart by some quick felicitous brusquerie; but her greatest moments came when, in public audience, she made known her wishes, her opinions, and her meditations to the world. Then the splendid sentences, following one another in a steady volubility, proclaimed the curious workings of her intellect with enthralling force; while the woman’s inward passion vibrated magically through the loud high uncompromising utterance and the perfect rhythms of her speech.
Nor was it only in her mind that these complicated contrasts were apparent; they dominated her physical being too. The tall and bony frame was subject to strange weaknesses. Rheumatisms racked her; intolerable headaches laid her prone in agony; a hideous ulcer poisoned her existence for years. Though her serious illnesses were few, a long succession of minor maladies, a host of morbid symptoms, held her contemporaries in alarmed suspense, and have led some modern searchers to suspect that she received from her father an hereditary taint. Our knowledge, both of the laws of medicine and of the actual details of her disorders, is too limited to allow a definite conclusion; but at least it seems certain that, in spite of her prolonged and varied sufferings, Elizabeth was fundamentally strong. She lived to be seventy — a great age in those days — discharging to the end the laborious duties of government; throughout her life she was capable of unusual bodily exertion; she hunted and danced indefatigably; and — a significant fact, which is hardly compatible with any pronounced weakness of physique — she took a particular pleasure in standing up, so that more than one unfortunate ambassador tottered from her presence, after an audience of hours, bitterly complaining of his exhaustion. Probably the solution of the riddle — suggested at the time by various onlookers, and accepted by learned authorities since — was that most of her ailments were of an hysterical origin. That iron structure was a prey to nerves. The hazards and anxieties in which she passed her life would have been enough in themselves to shake the health of the most vigorous; but it so happened that, in Elizabeth’s case, there was a special cause for a neurotic condition: her sexual organisation was seriously warped.
From its very beginning her emotional life had been subjected to extraordinary strains. The intensely impressionable years of her early childhood had been for her a period of excitement, terror, and tragedy. It is possible that she could just remember the day when, to celebrate the death of Katherine of Aragon, her father, dressed from top to toe in yellow, save for one white plume in his bonnet, led her to Mass in a triumph of trumpets, and then, taking her in his arms, showed her to one after another of his courtiers, in high delight. But it is also possible that her very earliest memory was of a different kind: when she was two years and eight months old, her father cut off her mother’s head. Whether remembered or no, the reactions of such an event upon her infant spirit must have been profound. The years that followed were full of trouble and dubiety. Her fate varied incessantly with the complex changes of her father’s politics and marriages; alternately caressed and neglected, she was the heir to England at one moment and a bastard outcast the next. And then, when the old King was dead, a new and dangerous agitation almost overwhelmed her. She was not yet fifteen, and was living in the house of her stepmother, Katherine Parr, who had married the Lord Admiral Seymour, brother of Somerset, the Protector. The Admiral was handsome, fascinating and reckless; he amused himself with the Princess. Bounding into her room in the early morning, he would fall upon her, while she was in her bed or just out of it, with peals of laughter, would seize her in his arms and tickle her, and slap her buttocks, and crack a ribald joke. These proceedings continued for several weeks, when Katherine Parr, getting wind of them, sent Elizabeth to live elsewhere. A few months later Katherine died, and the Admiral proposed marriage to Elizabeth. The ambitious charmer, aiming at the supreme power, hoped to strengthen himself against his brother by a union with the royal blood. His plots were discovered; he was flung into the Tower, and the Protector sought to inculpate Elizabeth in the conspiracy. The agonised girl kept her head. The looks and the ways of Thomas Seymour had delighted her; but she firmly denied that she had ever contemplated marriage without the Protector’s consent. In a masterly letter, written in an exquisite hand, she rebutted Somerset’s charges. It was rumoured, she told him, that she was “with child by my Lord Admiral”; this was a “shameful schandler”; and she begged to be allowed to go to Court, where all would see that it was so. The Protector found that he could do nothing with his fifteen-year-old antagonist; but he ordered the Admiral to be beheaded.
Such were the circumstances — both horrible and singular — in which her childhood and her puberty were passed. Who can wonder that her maturity should have been marked by signs of nervous infirmity? No sooner was she on the throne than a strange temperamental anomaly declared itself. Since the Catholic Mary Stuart was the next heir, the Protestant cause in England hung suspended, so long as Elizabeth remained unmarried, by the feeble thread of her life. The obvious, the natural, the inevitable conclusion was that the Queen’s marriage must immediately take place. But the Queen was of a different opinion. Marriage was distasteful to her, and marry she would not. For more than twenty years, until age freed her from the controversy, she resisted, through an incredible series of delays, ambiguities, perfidies, and tergiversations, the incessant pressure of her ministers, her parliaments, and her people. Considerations of her own personal safety were of no weight with her. Her childlessness put a premium upon her murder; she knew it, and she smiled. The world was confounded by such unparalleled conduct. It was not as if an icy chastity possessed the heart of Elizabeth. Far from it; the very opposite seemed to be the case. Nature had implanted in her an amorousness so irrepressible as to be always obvious and sometimes scandalous. She was filled with delicious agitation by the glorious figures of men. Her passion for Leicester dominated her existence from the moment when her sister’s tyranny had brought them together in the Tower of London till the last hour of his life; and Leicester had virile beauty, and only virile beauty, to recommend him. Nor was Leicester alone in her firmament: there were other stars which, at moments, almost outshone him. There was the stately Hatton, so comely in a galliard; there was handsome Heneage; there was De Vere, the dashing king of the tiltyard; there was young Blount, with “his brown hair, a sweet face, a most neat composure, and tall in his person,” and the colour that, when the eye of Majesty was fixed upon him, came and went so beautifully in his cheeks.
She loved them all; so it might be said by friends and enemies; for love is a word of questionable import; and over the doings of Elizabeth there hovered indeed a vast interrogation. Her Catholic adversaries roundly declared that she was Leicester’s mistress, and had had by him a child, who had been smuggled away into hiding — a story that is certainly untrue. But there were also entirely contrary rumours afloat. Ben Jonson told Drummond, at Hawthornden, after dinner, that “she had a membrana on her, which made her uncapable of man, though for her delight she tryed many.” Ben’s loose talk, of course, has no authority; it merely indicates the gossip of the time; what is more important is the considered opinion of one who had good means of discovering the truth — Feria, the Spanish ambassador. After making careful inquiries, Feria had come to the conclusion, he told King Philip, that Elizabeth would have no children: “entiendo que ella no terna hijos,” were his words. If this was the case, or if Elizabeth believed it to be so, her refusal to marry becomes at once comprehensible. To have a husband and no child would be merely to lose her personal preponderance and gain no counterbalancing advantages; the Protestant succession would be no nearer safety, and she herself would be eternally vexed by a master. The crude story of a physical malformation may well have had its origin in a subtler, and yet no less vital, fact. In such matters the mind is as potent as the body. A deeply seated repugnance to the crucial act of intercourse may produce, when the possibility of it approaches, a condition of hysterical convulsion, accompanied, in certain cases, by intense pain. Everything points to the conclusion that such — the result of the profound psychological disturbances of her childhood — was the state of Elizabeth. “I hate the idea of marriage,” she told Lord Sussex, “for reasons that I would not divulge to a twin soul.” Yes; she hated it; but she would play with it nevertheless. Her intellectual detachment and her supreme instinct for the opportunities of political chicanery led her on to dangle the promise of her marriage before the eyes of the coveting world. Spain, France, and the Empire — for years she held them, lured by that impossible bait, in the meshes of her diplomacy. For years she made her mysterious organism the pivot upon which the fate of Europe turned. And it so happened that a contributing circumstance enabled her to give a remarkable verisimilitude to her game. Though, at the centre of her being, desire had turned to repulsion, it had not vanished altogether; on the contrary, the compensating forces of nature had redoubled its vigour elsewhere. Though the precious citadel itself was never to be violated, there were surrounding territories, there were outworks and bastions over which exciting battles might be fought, and which might even, at moments, be allowed to fall into the bold hands of an assailant. Inevitably, strange rumours flew. The princely suitors multiplied their assiduities; and the Virgin Queen alternately frowned and smiled over her secret:
The ambiguous years passed, and the time came at length when there could be no longer a purpose in marriage. But the Queen’s curious temperament remained. With the approach of old age her emotional excitements did not diminish. Perhaps, indeed, they actually increased; though here too there was a mystification. Elizabeth had been attractive as a girl; she remained for many years a handsome woman; but at last the traces of beauty were replaced by hard lines, borrowed colours, and a certain grotesque intensity. Yet, as her charms grew less, her insistence on their presence grew greater. She had been content with the devoted homage of her contemporaries; but from the young men who surrounded her in her old age she required — and received — the expressions of romantic passion. The affairs of State went on in a fandango of sighs, ecstasies, and protestations. Her prestige, which success had made enormous, was still further magnified by this transcendental atmosphere of personal worship. Men felt, when they came near her, that they were in a superhuman presence. No reverence was too great for such a divinity. A splendid young nobleman — so the story went — while bowing low before her, had given vent to an unfortunate sound, and thereupon, such was his horrified embarrassment, he had gone abroad and travelled for seven years before venturing to return to the presence of his Mistress. The policy of such a system was obvious; and yet it was by no means all policy. Her clear-sightedness, so tremendous in her dealings with outward circumstances, stopped short when she turned her eyes within. There her vision grew artificial and confused. It seemed as if, in obedience to a subtle instinct, she had succeeded in becoming one of the greatest of worldly realists by dint of concentrating the whole romance of her nature upon herself. The result was unusual. The wisest of rulers, obsessed by a preposterous vanity, existed in a universe that was composed entirely either of absurd, rose-tinted fantasies or the coldest and hardest of facts. There were no transitions — only opposites, juxtaposed. The extraordinary spirit was all steel one moment and all flutters the next. Once more her beauty had conquered, once more her fascinations had evoked the inevitable response. She eagerly absorbed the elaborate adorations of her lovers, and, in the same instant, by a final stroke of luck and cunning, converted them — like everything else she had anything to do with — into a paying concern.
That strange Court was the abode of paradox and uncertainty. The goddess of it, moving in a nimbus of golden glory, was an old creature, fantastically dressed, still tall, though bent, with hair dyed red above her pale visage, long blackening teeth, a high domineering nose, and eyes that were at once deep-set and starting forward — fierce, terrifying eyes, in whose dark blue depths something frantic lurked — something almost maniacal. She passed on — the peculiar embodiment of a supreme energy; and Fate and Fortune went with her. When the inner door was closed, men knew that the brain behind the eyes was at work there, with the consummate dexterity of long-practised genius, upon the infinite complexities of European statecraft and the arduous government of a nation. From time to time a raucous sound was heard — a high voice, rating: an ambassador was being admonished, an expedition to the Indies forbidden, something determined about the constitution of the Church of England. The indefatigable figure emerged at last, to leap upon a horse, to gallop through the glades, and to return, well satisfied, for an hour with the virginals. After a frugal meal — the wing of a fowl, washed down with a little wine and water — Gloriana danced. While the viols sounded, the young men, grouped about her, awaited what their destiny might bring forth. Sometimes the Earl was absent, and then what might not be hoped for, from that quick susceptibility, that imperious caprice? The excited deity would jest roughly with one and another, and would end by summoning some strong-limbed youth to talk with her in an embrasure. Her heart melted with his flatteries, and, as she struck him lightly on the neck with her long fingers, her whole being was suffused with a lasciviousness that could hardly be defined. She was a woman — ah, yes! a fascinating woman! — but then, was she not also a virgin, and old? But immediately another flood of feeling swept upwards and engulfed her; she towered; she was something more — she knew it; what was it? Was she a man? She gazed at the little beings around her, and smiled to think that, though she might be their Mistress in one sense, in another it could never be so — that the very reverse might almost be said to be the case. She had read of Hercules and Hylas, and she might have fancied herself, in some half-conscious day-dream, possessed of something of that pagan masculinity. Hylas was a page — he was before her, but her reflections were disturbed by a sudden hush. Looking round, she saw that Essex had come in. He went swiftly towards her; and the Queen had forgotten everything, as he knelt at her feet.
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