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Charlotte Brontë and Her Circle by Clement King Shorter


Without the kindly assistance of Mr. Arthur Bell Nicholls, this book
could not have been written, and I might therefore be supposed to guide
my pen with appalling discretion in treating of the married life of
Charlotte Bronte. There are, however, no painful secrets to reveal, no
skeletons to lay bare. Mr. Nicholls's story is a very simple one; and
that it is entirely creditable to him, there is abundant evidence. Amid
the full discussion to which the lives of the Brontes have necessarily
been subjected through their ever-continuous fame, it was perhaps
inevitable that a contrary opinion should gain ground. Many of Mr.
Nicholls's relatives in his own country have frequently sighed over the
perverted statements which have obtained currency. 'It is cruel that
your uncle Arthur, the best of men, as we know, should be thus treated,'
was the comment of Mr. Nicholls's brother to his daughter after reading
an unfriendly article concerning Charlotte's husband. Yet it was not
unnatural that such an estimate should get abroad; and I may frankly
admit that until I met Mr. Nicholls I believed that Charlotte Bronte's
marriage had been an unhappy one--an opinion gathered partly from Mrs.
Gaskell, partly from current tradition in Yorkshire. Mrs. Gaskell, in
fact, did not like Mr. Nicholls, and there were those with whom she came
in contact while writing Miss Bronte's Life who were eager to fan that
feeling in the usually kindly biographer. Mr. Nicholls himself did not
work in the direction of conciliation. He was, as we shall see, a
Scotchman, and Scottish taciturnity brought to bear upon the genial and
jovial Yorkshire folk did not make for friendliness. Further, he would
not let Mrs. Gaskell 'edit' and change _The Professor_, and here also he
did wisely and well. He hated publicity, and above all things viewed the
attempt to pierce the veil of his married life with almost morbid
detestation. Who shall say that he was not right, and that his
retirement for more than forty years from the whole region of controversy
has not abundantly justified itself? One at least of Miss Bronte's
friends has been known in our day to complain bitterly of all the trouble
to which she has been subjected by the ill-considered zeal of Bronte
enthusiasts. Mr. Nicholls has escaped all this by a judicious silence.
Now that forty years and more have passed since his wife's death, it
cannot be inopportune to tell the public all that they can fairly ask to

Mr. Nicholls was born in Co. Antrim in 1817, but of Scottish parents on
both sides. He was left at the age of seven to the charge of an
uncle--the Rev. Alan Bell--who was headmaster of the Royal School at
Banagher, in King's Co. Mr. Nicholls afterwards entered Trinity College,
Dublin, and it was thence that he went to Haworth, his first curacy. He
succeeded a fellow countryman, Mr. Peter Augustus Smith, in 1844. The
first impression we have of the new curate in Charlotte's letters is
scarcely more favourable than that of his predecessors.


'_October_ 9_th_, 1844.

'DEAR ELLEN,--We are getting on here the same as usual, only that
Branwell has been more than ordinarily troublesome and annoying of
late; he leads papa a wretched life. Mr. Nicholls is returned just
the same. I cannot for my life see those interesting germs of
goodness in him you discovered; his narrowness of mind always strikes
me chiefly. I fear he is indebted to your imagination for his hidden

'C. B.'


'_July_ 10_th_, 1846.

'DEAR ELLEN,--Who gravely asked you whether Miss Bronte was not going
to be married to her papa's curate? I scarcely need say that never
was rumour more unfounded. A cold faraway sort of civility are the
only terms on which I have ever been with Mr. Nicholls. I could by
no means think of mentioning such a rumour to him even as a joke. It
would make me the laughing-stock of himself and his fellow curates
for half a year to come. They regard me as an old maid, and I regard
them, one and all, as highly uninteresting, narrow, and unattractive
specimens of the coarser sex.

'Write to me again soon, whether you have anything particular to say
or not. Give my sincere love to your mother and sisters.



'_November_ 17_th_, 1846.

'DEAR ELLEN,--I will just write a brief despatch to say that I
received yours and that I was very glad to get it. I do not know
when you have been so long without writing to me before. I had begun
to imagine you were gone to your brother Joshua's.

'Papa continues to do very well. He read prayers twice in the church
last Sunday. Next Sunday he will have to take the whole duty of the
three services himself, as Mr. Nicholls is in Ireland. Remember me
to your mother and sisters. Write as soon as you possibly can after
you get to Oundle. Good luck go with you.


That Scotch reticence held sway, and told against Mr. Nicholls for many a
day to come.



'_October_ 7_th_, 1847.

'DEAR ELLEN,--I have been expecting you to write to me; but as you
don't do it, and as, moreover, you may possibly think it is my turn,
and not yours, though on that point I am far from clear, I shall just
send you one of my scrubby notes for the express purpose of eliciting
a reply. Anne was very much pleased with your letter; I presume she
has answered it before now. I would fain hope that her health is a
little stronger than it was, and her spirits a little better, but she
leads much too sedentary a life, and is continually sitting stooping
either over a book or over her desk. It is with difficulty we can
prevail upon her to take a walk or induce her to converse. I look
forward to next summer with the confident intention that she shall,
if possible, make at least a brief sojourn at the sea-side.

'I am sorry I inoculated you with fears about the east wind; I did
not feel the last blast so severely as I have often done. My
sympathies were much awakened by the touching anecdote. Did you
salute your boy-messenger with a box on the ear the next time he came
across you? I think I should have been strongly tempted to have done
as much. Mr. Nicholls is not yet returned. I am sorry to say that
many of the parishioners express a desire that he should not trouble
himself to recross the Channel. This is not the feeling that ought
to exist between shepherd and flock. It is not such as is prevalent
at Birstall. It is not such as poor Mr. Weightman excited.

'Give my best love to all of them, and--Believe me, yours faithfully,


The next glimpse is more kindly.


'_January_ 28_th_, 1850.

'DEAR ELLEN,--I cannot but be concerned to hear of your mother's
illness; write again soon, if it be but a line, to tell me how she
gets on. This shadow will, I trust and believe, be but a passing
one, but it is a foretaste and warning of what _must come_ one day.
Let it prepare your mind, dear Ellen, for that great trial which, if
you live, it _must_ in the course of a few years be your lot to
undergo. That cutting asunder of the ties of nature is the pain we
most dread and which we are most certain to experience. Lewes's
letter made me laugh; I cannot respect him more for it. Sir J. K.
Shuttleworth's letter did not make me laugh; he has written again
since. I have received to-day a note from Miss Alexander, daughter,
she says, of Dr. Alexander. Do you know anything of her? Mary
Taylor seems in good health and spirits, and in the way of doing
well. I shall feel anxious to hear again soon.

'C. B.

'_P.S._--Mr. Nicholls has finished reading _Shirley_; he is delighted
with it. John Brown's wife seriously thought he had gone wrong in
the head as she heard him giving vent to roars of laughter as he sat
alone, clapping his hands and stamping on the floor. He would read
all the scenes about the curates aloud to Papa. He triumphed in his
own character. {468} What Mr. Grant will say is another thing. No


'HAWORTH, _July_ 27_th_, 1851.

'DEAR NELL,--I hope you have taken no cold from your wretched journey
home; you see you should have taken my advice and stayed till
Saturday. Didn't I tell you I had a "presentiment" it would be
better for you to do so?

'I am glad you found your mother pretty well. Is she disposed to
excuse the wretched petrified condition of the bilberry preserve, in
consideration of the intent of the donor? It seems they had high
company while you were away. You see what you lose by coming to
Haworth. No events here since your departure except a long letter
from Miss Martineau. (She did not write the article on "Woman" in
the _Westminster_; by the way, it is the production of a man, and one
of the first philosophers and political economists and metaphysicians
of the day.) {469} Item, the departure of Mr. Nicholls for Ireland,
and his inviting himself on the eve thereof to come and take a
farewell tea; good, mild, uncontentious. Item, a note from the
stiff-like chap who called about the epitaph for his cousin. I
inclose this--a finer gem in its way it would be difficult to
conceive. You need not, however, be at the trouble of returning it.
How are they at Hunsworth yet? It is no use saying whether I am
solitary or not; I drive on very well, and papa continues pretty
well.--Yours faithfully,


I print the next letter here because, although it contains no reference
to Mr. Nicholls, it has a bearing upon the letter following it. Dr.
Wheelwright shared Mr. Bronte's infirmity of defective eyesight.


'HAWORTH, _April_ 12_th_, 1852.

'DEAR LAETITIA,--Your last letter gave me much concern. I had hoped
you were long ere this restored to your usual health, and it both
pained and surprised me to hear that you still suffer so much from
debility. I cannot help thinking your constitution is naturally
sound and healthy. Can it be the air of London which disagrees with
you? For myself, I struggled through the winter and the early part
of spring often with great difficulty. My friend stayed with me a
few days in the early part of January--she could not be spared
longer. I was better during her visit, but had a relapse soon after
she left me, which reduced my strength very much. It cannot be
denied that the solitude of my position fearfully aggravated its
other evils. Some long, stormy days and nights there were when I
felt such a craving for support and companionship as I cannot
express. Sleepless, I lay awake night after night; weak and unable
to occupy myself, I sat in my chair day after day, the saddest
memories my only company. It was a time I shall never forget, but
God sent it and it must have been for the best.

'I am better now, and very grateful do I feel for the restoration of
tolerable health; but, as if there was always to be some affliction,
papa, who enjoyed wonderful health during the whole winter, is ailing
with his spring attack of bronchitis. I earnestly trust it may pass
over in the comparatively ameliorated form in which it has hitherto
shown itself.

'Let me not forget to answer your question about the cataract. Tell
your papa my father was seventy at the time he underwent an
operation; he was most reluctant to try the experiment--could not
believe that at his age and with his want of robust strength it would
succeed. I was obliged to be very decided in the matter and to act
entirely on my own responsibility. Nearly six years have now elapsed
since the cataract was extracted (it was not merely depressed). He
has never once, during that time, regretted the step, and a day
seldom passes that he does not express gratitude and pleasure at the
restoration of that inestimable privilege of vision whose loss he
once knew.

'I hope the next tidings you hear of your brother Charles will be
satisfactory for his parents' and sisters' sake as well as his own.
Your poor mamma has had many successive trials, and her uncomplaining
resignation seems to offer us all an example worthy to be followed.
Remember me kindly to her, to your papa, and all your circle,
and--Believe me, with best wishes to yourself, yours sincerely,



'CLIFF HOUSE, FILEY, _June_ 2_nd_, 1852.

'DEAR PAPA,--Thank you for your letter, which I was so glad to get
that I think I must answer it by return of post. I had expected one
yesterday, and was perhaps a little unreasonably anxious when
disappointed, but the weather has been so very cold that I feared
either you were ill or Martha worse. I hope Martha will take care of
herself. I cannot help feeling a little uneasy about her.

'On the whole I get on very well here, but I have not bathed yet as I
am told it is much too cold and too early in the season. The sea is
very grand. Yesterday it was a somewhat unusually high tide, and I
stood about an hour on the cliffs yesterday afternoon watching the
tumbling in of great tawny turbid waves, that made the whole shore
white with foam and filled the air with a sound hollower and deeper
than thunder. There are so very few visitors at Filey yet that I and
a few sea-birds and fishing-boats have often the whole expanse of
sea, shore, and cliff to ourselves. When the tide is out the sands
are wide, long, and smooth, and very pleasant to walk on. When the
high tides are in, not a vestige of sand remains. I saw a great dog
rush into the sea yesterday, and swim and bear up against the waves
like a seal. I wonder what Flossy would say to that.

'On Sunday afternoon I went to a church which I should like Mr.
Nicholls to see. It was certainly not more than thrice the length
and breadth of our passage, floored with brick, the walls green with
mould, the pews painted white, but the paint almost all worn off with
time and decay. At one end there is a little gallery for the
singers, and when these personages stood up to perform they all
turned their backs upon the congregation, and the congregation turned
_their_ backs on the pulpit and parson. The effect of this manoeuvre
was so ludicrous, I could hardly help laughing; had Mr. Nicholls been
there he certainly would have laughed out. Looking up at the gallery
and seeing only the broad backs of the singers presented to their
audience was excessively grotesque. There is a well-meaning but
utterly inactive clergyman at Filey, and Methodists flourish.

'I cannot help enjoying Mr. Butterfield's defeat; and yet in one
sense this is a bad state of things, calculated to make working
people both discontented and insubordinate. Give my kind regards,
dear papa, to Mr. Nicholls, Tabby, and Martha. Charge Martha to
beware of draughts, and to get such help in her cleaning as she shall
need. I hope you will continue well.--Believe me, your affectionate



'_December_ 15_th_, 1852.

'DEAR ELLEN,--I return the note, which is highly characteristic, and
not, I fear, of good omen for the comfort of your visit. There must
be something wrong in herself as well as in her servants. I inclose
another note which, taken in conjunction with the incident
immediately preceding it, and with a long series of indications whose
meaning I scarce ventured hitherto to interpret to myself, much less
hint to any other, has left on my mind a feeling of deep concern.
This note you will see is from Mr. Nicholls.

'I know not whether you have ever observed him specially when staying
here. Your perception is generally quick enough--_too_ quick, I have
sometimes thought; yet as you never said anything, I restrained my
own dim misgivings, which could not claim the sure guide of vision.
What papa has seen or guessed I will not inquire, though I may
conjecture. He has minutely noticed all Mr. Nicholls's low spirits,
all his threats of expatriation, all his symptoms of impaired
health--noticed them with little sympathy and much indirect sarcasm.
On Monday evening Mr. Nicholls was here to tea. I vaguely felt
without clearly seeing, as without seeing I have felt for some time,
the meaning of his constant looks, and strange, feverish restraint.
After tea I withdrew to the dining-room as usual. As usual, Mr.
Nicholls sat with papa till between eight and nine o'clock; I then
heard him open the parlour door as if going. I expected the clash of
the front door. He stopped in the passage; he tapped; like lightning
it flashed on me what was coming. He entered; he stood before me.
What his words were you can guess; his manner you can hardly realise,
nor can I forget it. Shaking from head to foot, looking deadly pale,
speaking low, vehemently, yet with difficulty, he made me for the
first time feel what it costs a man to declare affection where he
doubts response.

'The spectacle of one ordinarily so statue-like thus trembling,
stirred, and overcome, gave me a kind of strange shock. He spoke of
sufferings he had borne for months, of sufferings he could endure no
longer, and craved leave for some hope. I could only entreat him to
leave me then and promise a reply on the morrow. I asked him if he
had spoken to papa. He said he dared not. I think I half led, half
put him out of the room. When he was gone I immediately went to
papa, and told him what had taken place. Agitation and anger
disproportionate to the occasion ensued; if I had _loved_ Mr.
Nicholls, and had heard such epithets applied to him as were used, it
would have transported me past my patience; as it was, my blood
boiled with a sense of injustice. But papa worked himself into a
state not to be trifled with: the veins on his temples started up
like whip-cord, and his eyes became suddenly bloodshot. I made haste
to promise that Mr. Nicholls should on the morrow have a distinct

'I wrote yesterday and got this note. There is no need to add to
this statement any comment. Papa's vehement antipathy to the bare
thought of any one thinking of me as a wife, and Mr. Nicholls's
distress, both give me pain. Attachment to Mr. Nicholls you are
aware I never entertained, but the poignant pity inspired by his
state on Monday evening, by the hurried revelation of his sufferings
for many months, is something galling and irksome. That he cared
something for me, and wanted me to care for him, I have long
suspected, but I did not know the degree or strength of his feelings.
Dear Nell, good-bye.--Yours faithfully,


'I have letters from Sir J. K. Shuttleworth and Miss Martineau, but I
cannot talk of them now.'

With this letter we see the tragedy beginning. Mr. Bronte, with his
daughter's fame ringing in his ears, thought she should do better than
marry a curate with a hundred pounds per annum. For once, and for the
only time in his life there is reason to believe, his passions were
thoroughly aroused. It is to the honour of Mr. Nicholls, and says much
for his magnanimity, that he has always maintained that Mr. Bronte was
perfectly justified in the attitude he adopted. His present feeling for
Mr. Bronte is one of unbounded respect and reverence, and the occasional
unfriendly references to his father-in-law have pained him perhaps even
more than when he has been himself the victim.

'Attachment to Mr. Nicholls you are aware I never entertained.' A good
deal has been made of this and other casual references of Charlotte
Bronte to her slight affection for her future husband. Martha Brown, the
servant, used in her latter days to say that Charlotte would come into
the kitchen and ask her if it was right to marry a man one did not
entirely love--and Martha Brown's esteem for Mr. Nicholls was very great.
But it is possible to make too much of all this. It is a commonplace of
psychology to say that a woman's love is of slow growth. It is quite
certain that Charlotte Bronte suffered much during this period of
alienation and separation; that she alone secured Mr. Nicholls's return
to Haworth, after his temporary estrangement from Mr. Bronte; and
finally, that the months of her married life, prior to her last illness,
were the happiest she was destined to know.


'HAWORTH, _December_ 18_th_, 1852.

'DEAR NELL,--You may well ask, how is it? for I am sure I don't know.
This business would seem to me like a dream, did not my reason tell
me it has long been brewing. It puzzles me to comprehend how and
whence comes this turbulence of feeling.

'You ask how papa demeans himself to Mr. Nicholls. I only wish you
were here to see papa in his present mood: you would know something
of him. He just treats him with a hardness not to be bent, and a
contempt not to be propitiated. The two have had no interview as
yet; all has been done by letter. Papa wrote, I must say, a most
cruel note to Mr. Nicholls on Wednesday. In his state of mind and
health (for the poor man is horrifying his landlady, Martha's mother,
by entirely rejecting his meals) I felt that the blow must be
parried, and I thought it right to accompany the pitiless despatch by
a line to the effect that, while Mr. Nicholls must never expect me to
reciprocate the feeling he had expressed, yet, at the same time, I
wished to disclaim participation in sentiments calculated to give him
pain; and I exhorted him to maintain his courage and spirits. On
receiving the two letters, he set off from home. Yesterday came the
inclosed brief epistle.

'You must understand that a good share of papa's anger arises from
the idea, not altogether groundless, that Mr. Nicholls has behaved
with disingenuousness in so long concealing his aim. I am afraid
also that papa thinks a little too much about his want of money; he
says the match would be a degradation, that I should be throwing
myself away, that he expects me, if I marry at all, to do very
differently; in short, his manner of viewing the subject is on the
whole far from being one in which I can sympathise. My own
objections arise from a sense of incongruity and uncongeniality in
feelings, tastes, principles.

'How are you getting on, dear Nell, and how are all at Brookroyd?
Remember me kindly to everybody.--Yours, wishing devoutly that papa
would resume his tranquillity, and Mr. Nicholls his beef and pudding,


'I am glad to say that the incipient inflammation in papa's eye is


'_January_ 2_nd_, 1853.

'DEAR NELL,--I thought of you on New Year's night, and hope you got
well over your formidable tea-making. I trust that Tuesday and
Wednesday will also pass pleasantly. I am busy too in my little way
preparing to go to London this week, a matter which necessitates some
little application to the needle. I find it is quite necessary I
should go to superintend the press, as Mr. Smith seems quite
determined not to let the printing get on till I come. I have
actually only received three proof-sheets since I was at Brookroyd.
Papa wants me to go too, to be out of the way, I suppose; but I am
sorry for one other person whom nobody pities but me. Martha is
bitter against him; John Brown says "he should like to shoot him."
They don't understand the nature of his feelings, but I see now what
they are. He is one of those who attach themselves to very few,
whose sensations are close and deep, like an underground stream,
running strong, but in a narrow channel. He continues restless and
ill; he carefully performs the occasional duty, but does not come
near the church, procuring a substitute every Sunday. A few days
since he wrote to papa requesting permission to withdraw his
resignation. Papa answered that he should only do so on condition of
giving his written promise never again to broach the obnoxious
subject either to him or to me. This he has evaded doing, so the
matter remains unsettled. I feel persuaded the termination will be
his departure for Australia. Dear Nell, without loving him, I don't
like to think of him suffering in solitude, and wish him anywhere so
that he were happier. He and papa have never met or spoken yet. I
am very glad to learn that your mother is pretty well, and also that
the piece of challenged work is progressing. I hope you will not be
called away to Norfolk before I come home: I should like you to pay a
visit to Haworth first. Write again soon.--Yours faithfully,



'_March_ 4_th_, 1853.

'DEAR ELLEN,--We had the parsons to supper as well as to tea. Mr. N.
demeaned himself not quite pleasantly. I thought he made no effort
to struggle with his dejection but gave way to it in a manner to draw
notice; the Bishop was obviously puzzled by it. Mr. Nicholls also
showed temper once or twice in speaking to papa. Martha was
beginning to tell me of certain "flaysome" looks also, but I desired
not to hear of them. The fact is, I shall be most thankful when he
is well away. I pity him, but I don't like that dark gloom of his.
He dogged me up the lane after the evening service in no pleasant
manner. He stopped also in the passage after the Bishop and the
other clergy were gone into the room, and it was because I drew away
and went upstairs that he gave that look which filled Martha's soul
with horror. She, it seems, meantime, was making it her business to
watch him from the kitchen door. If Mr. Nicholls be a good man at
bottom, it is a sad thing that nature has not given him the faculty
to put goodness into a more attractive form. Into the bargain of all
the rest he managed to get up a most pertinacious and needless
dispute with the Inspector, in listening to which all my old
unfavourable impressions revived so strongly, I fear my countenance
could not but shew them.

'Dear Nell, I consider that on the whole it is a mercy you have been
at home and not at Norfolk during the late cold weather. Love to all
at Brookroyd.--Yours faithfully,



'_March_ 9_th_, 1853.

'DEAR ELLEN,--I am sure Miss Wooler would enjoy her visit to you, as
much as you her company. Dear Nell, I thank you sincerely for your
discreet and friendly silence on the point alluded to. I had feared
it would be discussed between you two, and had an inexpressible
shrinking at the thought; now less than ever does it seem a matter
open to discussion. I hear nothing, and you must quite understand
that if I feel any uneasiness it is not that of confirmed and fixed
regard, but that anxiety which is inseparable from a state of
absolute uncertainty about a somewhat momentous matter. I do not
know, I am not sure myself, that any other termination would be
better than lasting estrangement and unbroken silence. Yet a good
deal of pain has been and must be gone through in that case.
However, to each his burden.

'I have not yet read the papers; D.V. I will send them
to-morrow.--Yours faithfully,


'Understand that in whatever I have said above, it was not for pity
or sympathy. I hardly pity myself. Only I wish that in all matters
in this world there was fair and open dealing, and no underhand


'HAWORTH, _April_ 6_th_, 1853.

'DEAR ELLEN,--My visit to Manchester is for the present put off by
Mr. Morgan having written to say that since papa will not go to
Buckingham to see him he will come to Yorkshire to see papa; when, I
don't yet know, and I trust in goodness he will not stay long, as
papa really cannot bear putting out of his way. I must wait,
however, till the infliction is over.

'You ask about Mr. Nicholls. I hear he has got a curacy, but do not
yet know where. I trust the news is true. He and papa never speak.
He seems to pass a desolate life. He has allowed late circumstances
so to act on him as to freeze up his manner and overcast his
countenance not only to those immediately concerned but to every one.
He sits drearily in his rooms. If Mr. Grant or any other clergyman
calls to see, and as they think, to cheer him, he scarcely speaks. I
find he tells them nothing, seeks no confidant, rebuffs all attempts
to penetrate his mind. I own I respect him for this. He still lets
Flossy go to his rooms, and takes him to walk. He still goes over to
see Mr. Sowden sometimes, and, poor fellow, that is all. He looks
ill and miserable. I think and trust in Heaven that he will be
better as soon as he fairly gets away from Haworth. I pity him
inexpressibly. We never meet nor speak, nor dare I look at him;
silent pity is just all that I can give him, and as he knows nothing
about that, it does not comfort. He is now grown so gloomy and
reserved that nobody seems to like him. His fellow-curates shun
trouble in that shape; the lower orders dislike it. Papa has a
perfect antipathy to him, and he, I fear, to papa. Martha hates him.
I think he might almost be _dying_ and they would not speak a
friendly word to or of him. How much of all this he deserves I can't
tell; certainly he never was agreeable or amiable, and is less so now
than ever, and alas! I do not know him well enough to be sure that
there is truth and true affection, or only rancour and corroding
disappointment at the bottom of his chagrin. In this state of things
I must be, and I am, _entirely passive_. I may be losing the purest
gem, and to me far the most precious, life can give--genuine
attachment--or I may be escaping the yoke of a morose temper. In
this doubt conscience will not suffer me to take one step in
opposition to papa's will, blended as that will is with the most
bitter and unreasonable prejudices. So I just leave the matter where
we must leave all important matters.

'Remember me kindly to all at Brookroyd, and--Believe me, yours


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