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ALBERT DORRINGTON

MOLLY DELANEY,
THE NERVE-BREAKER

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As published in
The Chronicle, Adelaide, Australia, 22 January 1916

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2020
Version Date: 2020-05-07
Produced by Terry Walker, Gary Meller and Roy Glashan

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I.

"IT'S the last time I'll enter the ring to hit a man, Molly. Let me gather in the stakes for this one fight, and we'll buy an orange farm in the San Jose Valley. I swear to you, dear, that I'll quit bruising for good!"

Billy Madison tramped up and down the narrow strip of beach in front of his training quarters at Point Hamilton, his brain alive at the thought of his coming contest with black Jefferson. Molly Delaney walked briskly beside him, for this was one of the mornings that trainer Muldoon permitted them a few moments' conversation.

The thought of Billy meeting black Jefferson had caused her many sleepless nights. For many years the negro had lived up to his press notices as a human tornado. He had cake-walked through men's reputations as fast us the public provided gate money. In the ring he delighted in cuffing a beaten man's ears or holding him up to the gibes and insults of the crowd before administering the final blow. Jefferson had made and squandered huge fortunes and, despite the ease with which he secured his victories, his tendency to humiliate an outclassed opponent never relaxed.

Billy Madison had spent most of his young life at sea, among cargo tramps and whalers. With Billy fighting had become a necessity whenever Dago knife or Malay kris disputed his authority. He had worked in Canadian lumber camps, and had quitted before his muscles had warped and lost their flexibility. The ring had called, and he found men eager to burn money on the negro's funeral pyre. Molly's acquaintance with Billy began six months before he had signed to meet the black. He had been surf-riding on a plank, and the clean joy of the sport had fascinated her. Hitherto she had associated boxers with prehistoric types of ape-men and burglars, until Madison proved to her that modern fighting was a game of brains, and that only good-tempered, clean-living youngsters need apply.

Molly loved Billy. They met in the mornings on the open beach where the Pacific gulls drowsed and cried over the big verandaed training-house. The assistants who were preparing him for the fight with Jefferson found time to praise her sketches of him, for they knew that the bronze-haired Molly lived by selling her pictures to the magazines and newspapers. She had seen Jefferson's portrait on the hoardings, and her woman's instinct warned her that the coming event would be a life-and-death struggle for her lover. The sight of the negro's oval skull, his simian length of arm, the great muscles that twined like roots about his huge limbs, struck terror into her heart.

"Billy," she said one morning about a week before the fight, "wouldn't it he better if you started a 50-acre farm now and gave up this notion of meeting Jefferson?"

He stared at her in amazement, then patted her gloved hand tenderly.

"If the boys thought I had that notion in my head they'd shoot me out of pity. No, sweetheart, we're going to make the nigger sprint for the first time in his life."

Molly pondered his words for several moments.

"Billy, dear, you couldn't hurt him with a barrel of razors. You are going to fling yourself at a thing that is blind to pain or shock. To you, with your white man's brain and nerve, every round and blow will be a crucifixion. You know the old saying, that even the lion is as cheese in the grip of the anthropoid!"

Billy laughed loud and heartily at her earnestness, then kissed her as she prepared to go, telling her with much tenderness that his trainer, Muldoon, had ordered them not to meet again until after the fight.


MOLLY entered the railway depot at Chowder Bay, and for the first time that afternoon became conscious of a lank, grey-haired man following in her wake. In the car he sat opposite her, and as the train moved from the siding coughed once or twice to gain her attention. "You are doing pictures for the Sunday specials," he hazarded in a low-pitched voice. "I am a journalist, and like your studies of Billy Madison. They're alive, if I may say so, Miss Delaney. But it's about Jefferson I want to talk."

Molly would have withdrawn to another seat only that his voice and bearing betrayed a genuine solicitude for her cause.

"I want Billy Madison to win this fight," she admitted quietly. "What do you think of his chances?"

The old journalist smiled. "No white man's punch was ever big enough to beat Jeff. In seven years I've seen twenty Billy Madisons go joyfully into the ring after the nigger's scalp. Perhaps you've heard how most of them left their youth behind. Some got their hearts pulped and jaws broken; some had their brains affected—all to put gate-money into Jeff's bank. Why, it's nothing short of human sacrifice!"

"Please, don't!" Molly gasped. "I'll try and get Billy to forego. It's horrible!"

He touched her sobbing shoulder gently, conscious that several people in the car were watching them.

"Try your own little hand at smashing the nigger's nerve," he whispered as the train neared the city terminus. "Every man in this life has his fear—kings, presidents, and pugilists. One laughs at the surgeon's knife, but shrieks at a white rag in a dark passage. Jeff got his own particular nightmare tucked away somewhere in his mind. He was nearly lynched once for one of his devilries down South. He's never quite got over his fear of the rope. They say he was hanging for eight seconds before the police broke up the lynching bee. Take it from me, little one, he's mighty scared of ropes. Think over what I've said and rot the beggar's nerve if you can!"

"Would that be fair?"

"As fair as his methods. He keeps men waiting in the ring until suspense and worry snap their patience. Then he has a gift of objurgation that fairly rattles a white man. Why his idea of the game is in line with a hyena's. Good-bye, and think it over!"

In spite of her scepticism Molly was impressed. And since Billy refused to forego meeting Jefferson she was determined to find out whether the negro had nerves to break.


JEFFERSON'S training quarters at Longreach was surrounded by a spacious verandah. The walk of the gymnasium were hung with portraits depicting Jefferson at various interesting stages of his career. There was a picture of Jefferson beating Mike Maffery at Denver City, and another of the black delivering the goods to another tried-out white.

Molly found herself standing near the bungalow entrance watching a thick-necked man promenade the verandah. Inside the doorway sat Jefferson, swathed in flannels, caressing a large bull-pup. For a millionth fraction of time her mind oscillated between doubt and dread. She had conceived the idea of interviewing the negro in the interests of her paper. Drawing a card from her pocket, she stepped lightly to the verandah, and found the thick-necked man barring her way.

"What do you want?" he demanded, abruptly. "You ought to know that this isn't a summer boarding-house."

Molly placed her card in his hand. "I'm from the Sunday Sportswoman. I reckon you've given all the man papers a look-in. Be good enough to allow a ladies' journal the privilege of interviewing Mr. Jefferson."

The guardian of the black champion's privacy grinned in sudden amusement.

"My name's Tim Doherty," he said, after a while. "You can worry Jeff for just five minutes, providing you don't talk politics. Don't you forget my name's Tim Doherty when you're writing up this interview."

Jefferson was rolling the pup under his soft sand shoes, his great hands pulping the dog's fat ribs playfully. He looked up slowly at Molly with the basking insolence of a champion in repose.

"Well," he declared genially, "what's keepin' you awake at night, missey? Do you want ma picture?"

He settled back lazily in the low cane chair, the dog held between his knees. Never had Molly looked upon such a mass of inert muscle and flesh. She felt that by the merest effort of his long black arm he could reach her, even though she ran to the verandah end.

"You are looking forward to your meeting with Madison?" she queried, with an effort. "There is no doubt in your mind concerning the result, eh, Mr. Jefferson?"

He did not reply immediately, but she noted that his fingers closed involuntarily on the dog's throat. He looked up slowly, and she saw the white teeth inside the expanding mouth.

"Billy Madison ain't got grip enough to chew candy. He's just chasin' the limelight, like all the other guys."

"Why do you hate white men, Mr. Jefferson?"

It was as though naked steel had touched him. He rose suddenly, and she saw the ophidian length of torso, the suave strength of his great body. He stared down at her thoughtfully.

"A crowd of lynchers hanged ma father down on Skeeta Valley plantation fifteen years ago, missey. He was de best hoe hand and cotton-picker in Louisiana. I kin give you ole Colonel Stratton's word for it. Dey took an' hanged ma poor ole fader becoz a white man swore a lie against him. It was 'bout a woman, missey. After ma fader had been dead nigh on a year de whole flamin' lie was exposed!"

"They say you killed a man in St. Louis," Molly interjected, softly. She was anxious now for proofs of the negro's villainies.

Jefferson hunched his great shoulders. "Frisco Joe, a blamed half-breed. Mulligan's backers squared to shoot vitriol into ma face, one night before a fight!" He paused while his big hands went out like a preachers to the young girl before him.

"For seven years men have tried to dope, kill, or poison me, missey. A blood specialist in Chicago said he could provide me wid a kind of leprosy to kill ma punch if someone would persuade me into his operatin' theatre. That's the kind of talk I get for bein' honest!"

Molly shuddered.

"Dey shut me up in a State penitentiary becos dey couldn't hang me once. But, by the Lord, I've smashed a white man's jaw for every week I slep' in jail!" he declared exultantly.

Molly sighed. "Every blow you strike goes to the heart of some woman," she said softly.

The negro's lips sagged suddenly, a soft filminess clouding the dilating pupils of his eyes.

"I nevah hurt a woman. Ef a man climbs into the ring to pinch de gate money I'm gwine to stop him, suah! Where's de woman, anyhow?"

"His wife, mother, or sweetheart!" Molly flung out desperately. "I repeat that with every blow you bruise the heart of some unoffending woman!"

"Did you come heah to preach dat to me? An'—who for?"

He stood with his feet planted apart, his huge hands resting on his narrow hips. It was as though he had just battered an opponent to the boards and was asking a question of the referee.

"Who for?" he repeated, hoarsely.

"You!" Molly assured him, with a set, white face. "Some night, in the ring, you will make a mistake. That right fist of yours will end a man's life—a white man's life. And do you know what is going to happen then?"

He stooped to pat the pup between his feet, and she noted that a gleam of moisture had come to his brow. "I reckon men have been killed in de ring before, missey. I got no time to worry over it, anyhow."

Molly's gloved hand touched his flannelled arm lightly. The contact of her fingers startled him like a whip-cut, his big, slack mouth seemed to squirm.

"In your coming fight; Mr. Jefferson, you will have the bad luck to kill Madison in the third round!"

His hands came up as though his legs had been shot away. For one terrible moment she thought the clenched fists would crush, and batter her. She bent her head slightly and closed her eyes. Then his thick, sneering voice reached her through the swooning noise in her brain.

"I reckon Doherty ought to give you a nickel foh tellin' ma fortune, missey. You don't happen to know," he went on, with a hoarse guffaw, "how I shall come off after giving Billy his passage?"

Molly walked to the door, her hand pressed to her eyes. He saw that she was trembling violently, and his blatant self-assurance received its first shock.

"Ain't you goin' to tell, missey?" he called out. "I sha'n't sleep 'till I heah de whole story."

She faced him at the end of the corridor, lips parted, a swooning mist in her eyes as though striving to visualise more clearly some startling picture in her mind. Her voiceless concentration of manner quickened the animal curiosity in his eyes.

"You're givin' me de clairvoyant touch," he leered. "Can't you answer?"

"Not to one who scoffs at his own destiny." Her voice sounded far away, but each faint word was a hammer-stroke on his wire-drawn nerves. His bulging eyes sought to follow her line of vision until the tension loosened his tongue.

"I'm takin' de guff serious," he blurted out. "I ain't de kind of guy to turn down a bit of free information. But—say, missey, you cain't see me hittin' Madison a stiffener on Friday night. Dat kind of future business won't go. Say now?"

Molly stilled the wild beatings of her heart. At all costs Billy must be preserved from this fistic monster, who had never betrayed the slightest chivalry towards an opponent. She pressed her fingers over her throbbing eyes and in the silence she heard the swift beating of the negro's heart.

"I see Madison's trainer with a doctor in the ring. They have failed to bring him round. The police are climbing over the ropes. The crowd has become a frenzied, howling mob. Seats and benches are torn up. Some more police enter the building, but they are powerless to hold back the crowd that are fighting to reach the ropes."

"Ropes!" the negro echoed sullenly. Molly's white face was thrust out as she continued her blind monologue.

"I see you now, standing in the ring centre. Tim Doherty and several of your friends are beside you as the crowd scatter the police and pour into the ring. Now—wait. It has grown dark, as though someone had switched off the light? Wait—the lights are on again, but the ring is empty! The ropes are gone!"

"Huh!" The cane chair creaked as the negro dropped into it. The dog whimpered softly between his knees. "That ain't all. What's the crowd doin', anyhow?"

"They are outside in the street, looking up at something swinging from a lamp post!"

"G'wan; who's swingin'?"

"You!"

The negro sat very still in the cane chair, sweat dripping from his brow. Dimly through the red maelstrom of ideas surging through his fear-shaken mind he heard the soft footsteps of Molly as she slipped away.

II.

THE evening specials drew attention to the fact that Jefferson was suffering slightly from the effects of over- training. But the civilised world thrilled as the hour of battle approached. Nearly all the seats at the International Club had been auctioned or syndicated at record prices.

At five o'clock in the evening, exactly four hours before Jefferson was due in the ring, Molly stepped out of a taxi a few yards from Billy's training quarters. His manager spied her from the window, and a frown of annoyance darkened his brow.

"A sweet, clever little woman," he said to an attendant, "but I'd give a new hat if she'd leave Billy alone until after the fight."

Billy was lying on a couch inside the big, airy reading-room attached to the gymnasium. At sound of Molly's voice outside he sat up, beaming and alert. A scent of violets came with her; she carried a huge bunch for the marble vase that stood, at his elbow.

"How do you feel?" she began, arranging the violets in odd cornersof the room. "I thought I'd see you just before the bombardment begins."

He laughed and touched her hands with his lips. "I feel that we're bound for the orange farm, dear. I've just had a sleep, and they were counting Jefferson out when I woke."

Molly looked eagerly at his clean, straight figure, the hard, pink flesh, the boyish elasticity of movement and poise. Yet her heart quailed at the recollection of the negro's overwhelming bulk. "They say Jefferson is sluggish," she hazarded, her face to the window.

Billy shrugged. "He'll wake up to the music; but all through the fight I shall feel you calling, dear. His black fists will never hammer the picture of you from my heart."

"Oh, Billy!" She would have flung herself on his breast but for the manager's sudden entry.

"Remember, Miss Delaney," he said; warningly, "we've got to keep our nerves for the black tiger at nine sharp. Take a rest, Billy." he added pleasantly.


TWO hours later his big car took Billy and his trainers to the International Club. From ceiling to floor the building palpitated with its close-packed audience. It was eight months since Jefferson had trounced Kid Despard in the same arena, and the savage yearning to see him at grips with the lightning-charged Madison swept over the crowd like an epidemic. Billy's entry into the ring elicited a hurricane of cheers and greetings from the rows of upturned faces.

"Keep your head, Billy; don't let him guy you."

"Give him the double-punch where he sneezes."

Jefferson's appearance roused small enthusiasm. Billy's record was too clean to permit of counter-demonstrations. Although the crowd had often laughed at the negro's antics, they had come to see Madison win.

Near the ring-side, a boy's overcoat buttoned tightly about her, a soft-hat drawn over her eyes, Molly sat through the opening formalities with the courage of a gladiator's wife. She heard the buzz of a gong, the quick patter of feet, and the suppressed grunt of joy from the gaping thousands as the two champions crossed the ring. Jefferson's grin had more nerves in it than merriment. His face bore the impress of sleepless nights, while his eyes betrayed a lack of concentration in their quick, shifting glance at the audience. But, true to the old habit of guying an adversary, he spread out his huge, spatulate hands and essayed a cake-walk across the ring.

With the dropping of his hands came Billy's lightning rush, a quick, chopping blow on the half-turned jaw that turned the Gaby glide into an ugly stumble for recovery.

"Try Billy with a hen-walk!" a jeering voice called out. Jefferson swung round, his long body swaying rhythmically to the cries of the audience. With splendid ease, his long left stabbed and coiled as though trying to catch and twist Billy's arm out of joint. His anger sharpened at the other's clever evasions, while his python body poised itself for a smashing delivery. It came and Billy endured for thirty seconds a whirlwind of savage rushes and upper-cuts.

Molly closed her eyes. Nothing human could outlive the storm of blows that fell about her lover's head and body. When the gong sounded "corners," she looked up with ashen lips at the flash of blood on Billy's cheek. The negro slouched to his chair, grinning, but out of breath.

"It's goin' to be red, suah," he guffawed.

Billy rested, and his breathing was slow and deep. At the call he left his chair lazily as the negro floated a la Tango towards him. A hoarse peal of laughter greeted the negro's gyrations. Billy appeared amused and dropped his guard, but in the millionth fraction of a thought his young body dashed in under the pirouetting arms. Molly heard two thick sounds, as though someone were battering wood with a maul. She saw Jefferson reel and recover, heard his trainer call out softly:—"Steady with that funny business. He's getting you!"

A man seated beside her said—"Two on the jaw and heart. Jeff will be growing daisies under his feet shortly!"

Jefferson steadied himself and shook sweat from his brow. For the first time in his career he had been caught in his fooling. He was now compelled to follow about the ring a man whose science and footwork were greater than his own.

Molly's courage vaulted high at sight of the negro limping to the offensive. Yet something in the electric stillness warned her that her lover's fate lay in a false step, or the ill-timed swing of an arm.


IT came like a thunder-clap. The negro seemed to cover Billy with his whirling hands. For an instant both clinched and then leaped apart, at the referee's warning, only to meet in the ring-centre, Billy's right fist slamming with trip-hammer force against the slanting chin. Jefferson half-turned, and Molly saw his black elbow crash into her lover's face.

The effect was instantaneous. Billy pitched forward into a huddled heap almost at the referee's feet. Pandemonium followed. Cries of "Foul!" and "Beast!" seemed to shred Molly's nerves. A thousand faces and fists shouted and threatened the stiff-limbed negro. A struggling, swaying mass of human beings sought to clear the barriers and chairs which separated them from the ring.

"Pulp the brute! Give him a bullet!"

Jefferson stared at the huddled-up white man, his knees trembling violently. Then he turned to the yelling avalanche of men, sweeping in hundreds to the ropes, and big eyes seemed to whiten in his rage and apprehension.

Snatching a chair from a near assistant, he leaped at the line of heads and shoulders clambering over the ropes. The chair was of seasoned hickory, built to bear the strain of exhausted heavy-weights, and it rose and brained the ring-rushers where they hung from the ropes.

With lunatic ease the negro sprang like a tiger at the encircling mob. Sticks and hands sought to trip his feet, but the flailing chair smote and scattered them in dozens.

A couple of firemen cleared the ropes and charged boldly at his legs and throat. Jefferson pivoted with the ease of a schoolboy, and the chair fell with a whoop on the near fireman's neck. The second invader gripped the chair-legs with both hands, calling on the crowd to close in.

The negro's bared teeth were visible for an instant. Dropping the chair, he struck savagely at the fireman's shouting face. In the turn of a foot he was back again in the ring-centre, fighting with both hands, the blood-mist of insanity in his eyes, a slaver of foam on his drawn lips.

Molly prayed for strength to keep her from the fainting fit that would put her under the heels of the stampeding audience. Men crawled from the ropes with gashed heads and broken limbs. A sudden quiet fell upon the hall; for a breath giving pause the negro stood over the inanimate Billy Madison, the chair swung high.

Molly staggered blindly to the ring steps, her arms outstretched. "Don't—Mr. Jefferson! He fought straight. He's my boy. Don't, oh, don't strike him, for pity's sake!"

The negro glared, white-eyed, a big crucified grin on his slavering mouth. "Huh! You told me dis stunt! You shewed me de blood an' de rope! An' ye tink I'm goin' to let 'em hang me!"

A long-limbed Westerner had crawled unseen under the ropes, a coiled lariat on his arm. Soundless as a bird it looped the air above the swinging chair. It fell and was jerked tight about Jefferson's body. A short, quick heave brought him with a flying run to his knees. A second later the ring was filled with police and trainers, while the negro strained and cursed the fatal loop that gripped his arms and chest. The swift-moving Molly was first to raise Billy's head from the floor and press her warm fingers to his faintly beating heart.

III.

THE MORNING after the fight Billy Madison sat up in his bungalow chair and yawned with great deliberation.

"I thought someone had straightened my chin with a gun-butt," he announced pleasantly. "I'll never forgive myself for letting it happen."

"It really looked as though the brute had finished you," his manager intimated thoughtfully. "It was the worst case of fouling ever put up. Anyway, we get the winner's share of the gate—about thirty thousand dollars in all—to say nothing of the picture rights, which will prove a Golconda. The movies, showing Jeff batting Gehenna out of the crowd, will pay big divvies for a year or more."

A silence fell between manager and pugilist that was broken only by the low thunder of surf on the beach outside. Muldoon cleared his throat and continued:

"I know that Miss Delaney wants you to quit the ring, Billy, especially after what happened last night. But between you and me there's half a million of money for you to pick up at the game. Jefferson is in hospital, and his recovery is doubtful. Anyhow, he'll never climb into another ring if the police know it. I had an offer from Mallahan's backers this morning. If you care to meet him in three months time there's another thirty thousand guaranteed. What do you say?"

Billy squirmed in his seat and then turned with a suppressed cry to a white sun-bonnet crossing the bungalow verandah.

In a flash he was outside, his hands holding Molly's, his slightly bruised face turned away. She touched it gently with her gloved finger, a little sympathetic shudder passing over her. A moment later he detected a malicious smile gathering about the corners of her mouth. Instinctively his glance turned to her left hand. A big red orange lay in her palm. He flushed and his eyes dropped under her searching scrutiny.

"Billy," she said gently, "your manager has been swelling your head this morning. He's been relating, how the world is a ball at your feet, and that it's yours to kick whenever you want a sackful of money."

Billy flushed a deeper scarlet.

"He's got an offer for me to meet Mallahan. And I must say, dear," he went on, hesitatingly, "it looks like throwing money away to quit the game now."

In a fraction of time Molly had made up her mind. With her usual insight she divined what life would be for her if his growing ambitions were fostered. Fresh contests would be engineered in his and Muldoon's interests, while she would be placed in a new hell of torment and suspense each time he entered the ring. She could not live to see him broken and battered, his mind affected, probably, by the savage aftermath of each encounter. No, she had learned something of her power in her interview with Jefferson, if Billy was to be saved from the lure of the ring she must correct the pride of prowess that was hourly destroying him.

"Billy," she began, softly, "do you know why Jefferson went to pieces in the second round?"

His shoulders flinched.

"You saw the fight, dear, and you know that my rush took him unawares."

"Billy"—she patted his bruised cheek affectionately and drew him cleverly out of Muldoon's hearing—"a week ago I set out to break Jefferson's nerve so that you'd have a chance!"

"Molly!" His hand closed on hers, and the pain of his grip almost made her cry out.

She held herself bravely, her eyes staring into his soul-depths.

"I interviewed Jefferson at some risk to my own sensibilities. As a girl," she went on, with a tremor in her voice, "I used to earn four dollars a week in a lady clairvoyant's flat. I saw at once that Jefferson was just a big heap of muscle and superstitions. I gave him a mental picture of the fight with you. I told him that he would kill you in the third round with a blow from the right arm. Of course, it was pure guess-work on my part!"

Billy groaned and covered his face; a dry sob seemed to shake and rend him. Molly held to her task.

"I had to break him to save you, Billy. And I came near to the ghastly truth when I predicted that Jefferson would be hanged from a lamp-post. I left him in a sweat of terror, and the terror stayed with him until he entered the ring. I thought, of course, that it would be my first and last attempt to save you from the clutches of a human beast against whom you had no possible chance. But I find," she added, with a touch of bitterness, "that it has only served to keep you in the business!"

"Heavens, Molly, is all this true?" he flung out.

"As true as Jefferson is a babbling nerve-wreck. Moreover, my dear Billy, I've just received a special assignment on the Morning Star at a hundred dollars a week. And I'm not inclined to turn it down for the mere privilege of becoming a bruiser's wife!"

Billy Madison took three steps along the bungalow verandah, and in the turn of an eye she saw how she had rent and crucified his vanity. He turned slowly and held out both hands, his voice quivering and broken.

"Molly, let me meet Mallahan. Just to prove—?"

"That you are the best white man living! No, Billy, my assignment won't wait. Good-bye, Billy. I must return to town at once."

She tripped lightly down the verandah steps, a tiny bunch of half-dead violets pressed to her lips. Madison caught his breath as though a big white wave had smothered him.

"Molly!" He ran down the steps and caught her fiercely in his arms. "I was a coward to think of breaking my word. I'll quit the game, dear—I'll quit. Please let's go on the beach now, and—and—"

"What, Billy?"

"Eat that big red orange in your hand. We'll go farm-hunting to-morrow."

"The Billy boy has a lot of sense for his years. But he must not kiss me again, because there's a crowd of reporters coming this way."


THE END


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