Sunday, August 24, 2008

Chinese Command On The River

When Frobisher recovered consciousness he became aware of most excruciating pains in his head and his left side, and so extreme was his suffering that he could scarcely restrain a groan. To add to his discomfort he was in complete darkness, and furthermore he was being jolted and shaken about in a most agonising manner.
Sick and faint with pain, it was several minutes before he was able to recall what had happened to him; and then he remembered the last scene of the fight, when, in the hope of destroying as many of his foes as possible, he had discharged his revolver into the heap of ammunition. There must, he recollected, have been some hundreds of rounds of cartridges lying loose within a very few feet of him, and it was doubtless a bullet from one of those that had struck him in the side and, he felt pretty sure, shattered one or more of his ribs. As for the pain in his head, that was of course accounted for by the stroke which he had received across his forehead early in the fight.
He put up his hand to his aching brow, and discovered to his surprise that it had been carefully bandaged, and that the wound had evidently been cleansed, for his hair was still damp, and there was no clotted blood adhering to it. Also he found, upon further investigation, that his jacket had been removed, and that his body had been strapped up with rough wrappings. It appeared probable, therefore, that his captors had received orders to capture him alive, if possible; otherwise, knowing as he did the usual methods adopted by the Chinese and Koreans toward their wounded prisoners, he felt tolerably certain that he would have been barbarously destroyed while still unconscious--particularly as he had been the direct means of bringing a dreadful death upon so many of his assailants. As he thought of this he could only come to one conclusion--he had been kept alive in order that, upon his arrival at head-quarters, he might be examined, by torture if necessary, as to the extent of his knowledge of the plot against the Government, and as to the existence of any other schemes for bringing arms into the country.
Now, he had no intention of being submitted to the diabolically ingenious torments practised by the Korean executioners; the important thing, therefore, was to contrive, if possible, to escape while there was yet time. But before thinking about escape it was absolutely necessary that he should discover his own whereabouts, and the number of men by whom he was at present guarded. He was now entirely unarmed, having no doubt dropped his cutlass and one of his revolvers at the time when he had been struck down; while the second revolver, which had been in the side pocket of his coat, had probably been discovered and seized when the jacket was stripped off him by the individual who had attended to the wound in his side.
With a great effort and a wrench that caused him to bite his lips to bleeding-point, to keep back his groans, Frobisher contrived to raise himself to a sitting posture, and he then discovered that he was in a closed litter of some sort, or palanquin, which, he could tell by its short, jerky motion, was being borne over very rough ground.
Feeling cautiously around him, in the faint hope that his jacket might have been thrown into the palanquin, and with it, perhaps, the revolver still in the pocket, Frobisher's fingers encountered one of the curtains, and gradually gathering it up, he was presently able to pull it aside sufficiently to enable him to see out.
It was still dark, but the stars were shining brightly, and a thin slice of moon had risen just clear of the treetops that bordered the jungle, so that the young Englishman was able to make out his surroundings with comparative ease. Marching alongside the palanquin, on each side, at a distance of a few feet only, so narrow was the jungle path, was a line of Government troops, their weapons, consisting of flint-locks, match-locks, halberds, old muzzle-loaders, and, in a few cases, modern breechloaders, sloped over their shoulders; while close beside the litter, but a little in advance, so that Frobisher was unable to see the man's face, walked an officer with a drawn two-handed Chinese sword in his hand. He was evidently quite prepared to cut the prisoner down without parley, should he make the slightest attempt at escape.
Beside him walked another man, whom Frobisher had no difficulty in recognising as Ling; and he was by no means grieved to observe that the Korean had also suffered damage; for Ling's head was roughly bandaged, and his right arm hung down limp and useless, while he walked with a limp that proved he had received an injury to his leg as well. A cautious glance rearward through the open curtains disclosed the fact that the caravan of carts was coming along in the rear, escorted by a few files of troops; but there was nothing to be seen of the unfortunate Sam-riek drivers, and Frobisher was forced to the conclusion that, rather than encumber themselves with other prisoners, the soldiers had simply shot down and butchered the few who might have remained alive after the capture of the encampment.
Having thus discovered all that was possible at the moment, Frobisher closed the curtains again and threw himself back in the litter, a trifle relieved by his few breaths of fresh air, and determined to sleep, if he could, so that he might the sooner recover his strength, and be fit to attempt his escape should the chance occur. As he painfully twisted his body round so as to lie on his back, and thus take as much weight as possible off his broken ribs, he became aware of something hard in his hip-pocket, and thrusting in his hand, he brought out the little travelling-flask of brandy which he had used to revive Ling that very morning.
How little he had thought when he did so, that the next occasion on which he was to use it would find him a prisoner in the hands of a barbarous soldiery, on his way--he had not a shadow of doubt--to imprisonment and, only too probably, a revolting, lingering death at the end of all!
However, as he told himself, he was not dead yet--very far from it indeed; and while there was life there was always hope. So he took a good long pull at the flask, and felt so much benefited and restored thereby that a very few minutes afterward he fell into a doze which, although not exactly amounting to complete unconsciousness, yet served to mitigate to a considerable extent the pain from which he was suffering, and mercifully prevented his mind from dwelling unduly upon the horrid possibilities of the future before him. Finally, he fell into a deep and refreshing sleep.
When he awoke it was broad daylight, and the atmosphere was perceptibly cooler. This, together with the fact that the palanquin was frequently tilted to a considerable angle, and that the bearers seemed to be finding some difficulty in retaining their footing, convinced him that they must be descending the other side of the range of hills which he knew he would have had to cross if he had been allowed to continue his journey to Yong-wol. But he felt pretty certain that Yong-wol was not the objective of the party. Since they had been informed of the presence of the caravan, they must naturally also have been told that a rebel force awaited its arrival there; and they would, of course, take particular care to avoid an encounter, especially if it were known that the rebels were there in force.
It was just noon by Frobisher's watch--which he had been allowed to retain, or which had escaped the notice of his captors--when they regained level ground; and half an hour or so later the company came to a halt, the litter was set down, and all hands, as Frobisher could see by looking through the curtains, prepared to make a meal.
He was by this time beginning to suffer very severely from thirst, and had about made up his mind to call for Ling and order him to bring some water, when that individual softly pulled the curtains aside and stood looking down at the prisoner with an expression on his face that Frobisher found difficult to fathom. Then, seeing that the Englishman was conscious, Ling remarked:
"Me glad see mastel open eyes again. Me thinkee once that mastel killed dead."
"It is no fault of yours that I was not, you treacherous rascal!" returned Frobisher, so savagely that the Korean involuntarily stepped backward a pace. "If ever I get out of this and can get my hands on you, I'll make you sorry for your betrayal of me!"
"Ah, mastel," exclaimed Ling, glancing apprehensively over his shoulder; "no speak so loud. Listen. When you save my life this molning, me wish velly much that me could wain you, but me dale not then--it too late. But Ling nevel folget kindness of mastel; and me tly to savee you, if can. But to do that me must pletend me velly glad you caught; pletend me velly angly against you. Allee same, me not so leally; and me do allee can fol you on q.t."
Despite his anger and pain Frobisher could scarcely refrain from smiling at the quaint "pidgin" English, especially the phrase "q.t.", which the man had evidently picked up from some Englishman, and of which he seemed quite proud. But he sternly repressed the inclination, and looked keenly at Ling, to ascertain, if he could, whether the man were really in earnest in saying that he would help him if he could. The Korean now bore the scrutiny boldly, and did not lower his eyes; and from the expression of his face Frobisher felt almost convinced that Ling meant what he said. If the fellow could be relied upon implicitly, he would be simply invaluable, and might be the means of getting Frobisher out of the clutches of the Koreans; whereas, without assistance, escape seemed almost beyond the bounds of possibility. It was therefore in a gentler voice that the Englishman said:
"Very well, Ling; I'll believe you. And, what's more, if you prove yourself true to me, and help me to effect my escape, I'll see that you are given a reward such as you have never before dreamed of. But if you want to prove that you are in earnest, for goodness' sake bring me water, and plenty of it; I am nearly dying of thirst."
After another anxious glance round, as though he feared that, even at that distance, his and Frobisher's conversation might have been overheard, Ling turned away with a heavy scowl on his face--presumably to give the correct colour to his proposed part--and with an admirable assumption of indifference went toward the place where the soldiers were already partaking of their simple meal of boiled rice and a thin kind of soup, washed down by copious draughts of raki, a strong, pungent spirit distilled from rice.
Here he picked up an empty cooking-pot, washed it out in the little brook by the side of which they were encamped, filled it with water, and then sauntered back to Frobisher with it, dashing it down on the ground so violently that at least half the contents were spilt. This did not greatly matter, however, since there was still sufficient left for the Englishman's requirements, and the effect of the action was good. If there was one man among them who appeared to hate and despise the Englishman more thoroughly than the others, that man was Ling; and Frobisher could scarcely bring himself to believe, even after Ling's assurance, that the feeling was not genuine, so excellent was the man's acting--if acting it were.
Much refreshed by the water, Frobisher was able to swallow a little of the rice which the Korean officer brought to him on a fibre mat, and immediately felt benefited by it. With the cessation of the jarring movement of the litter, too, the pain of his wounds became considerably less acute, and altogether he was soon feeling much stronger and better. All the same, he decided that it would be wise policy on his part to feign a continuance of extreme weakness and pain for some time longer, in order to throw the enemy off their guard. Naturally, they would not be likely to watch him so closely if they believed him to be too feeble and too seriously injured to be capable of making any attempt at escape; and perhaps before long a favourable opportunity might present itself.
The soldiers did not linger very long over their meal, and the caravan was soon in motion again; but Frobisher observed that this time their course was almost parallel with the hills, instead of leaving them directly behind. It was therefore now certain that they were going to avoid Yong-wol, and consequently there would be little or no chance of rescue by the rebels.
Frobisher hoped that by keeping his ears open he might be able to gain some idea as to the place which they were making for; and a little later, by hearing the constant repetition of a certain name, he came to the conclusion that they were bound for some place called Chhung-ju-- though where it was situated, and even whether it was really the name of a place, he could not be at all certain.
Shortly after nightfall of the third day after crossing the hills, they entered a walled town of some size, situated on a river; and Ling contrived an opportunity to inform Frobisher that the name of the place was indeed Chhungju, and that the river was a branch or tributary of the river Han. He also stated that news had been brought by a Government spy that the rebels at Yong-wol had somehow obtained knowledge of the capture of the caravan, and that they had rapidly collected their forces with the object of starting in pursuit of the party for the purpose of recovering the arms and ammunition before they could be delivered to the authorities in Seoul. The rebels, reported Ling, were only some twenty-four hours' journey behind; and, as it would be quite possible for them to cut off the troops by making direct for the capital, the commander of the present force had determined to remain but a few hours in Chhung-ju, in order to rest his men, and then to transfer the whole party, cargo and all, to boats or barges, and so proceed down the river Han as far as Yo-ju. There the river would be left, and they would proceed by road to Su-won, and so to the port of Asan, where there were enough Korean troops to enable the two parties combined to keep the rebels at bay until reinforcements could arrive from Seoul.
Accordingly Frobisher was not at all surprised when, at midnight, the palanquin bearers arrived at the house where he had been confined under guard, and made signs for him to step into the litter. He did so, affecting great debility and pain, and was soon being carried at a rapid rate through the narrow, evil-smelling streets, strewn with garbage and the putrefying carcasses of dogs, cats, and rats, down to the bamboo wharf where the force was to embark. Several barges, equipped with large, square sails made of matting, could be dimly made out by the starlight riding in mid-stream, and in these the cargo had been placed, while two large flat-bottomed boats were moored alongside the landing, ready for the conveyance of the men.
Great haste was displayed in getting the troops on board, which rather surprised Frobisher, until, under cover of the shadow cast by one of the sails, Ling found time to whisper that the rebels had made a forced march, and were even then close to the town. Another spy in the service of the Government had brought the news an hour previously, and no time had been lost in arranging to beat an immediate retreat. The northern gates had been shut and barricaded, so as to delay the pursuit as long as possible; and the commander of the force had already begun to sink the remainder of the craft lying in the river, that they might not be used by the rebels.
Frobisher was watching the process of sinking one of these, when suddenly he became aware of a commotion in the distance, gradually becoming louder and more insistent until he recognised it for what it was--the clatter and tramp and shouting of a large body of men.
In a moment the air was vibrant with shouted orders, warnings, and instructions. The men who had been told off to sink the river boats were instantly recalled; and the little fleet hastily pushed off and got under way at the precise moment that the rebels reached the northern gate and, finding it shut, proceeded to attempt to batter it down. Frobisher, lying in his palanquin, listened to the tumult with feelings of the utmost joy and relief. There were plenty of boats still uninjured and afloat in the stream; and if the pursuers could but break down the gate quickly enough, secure the remaining craft, and come in pursuit, it was quite on the cards that he would be rescued, and thus avoid making acquaintance with that torture chamber, the idea of which persistently haunted him.
The Korean officer was clearly a man of considerable courage and resource, for in the face of this sudden new danger he remained perfectly cool, giving his orders clearly and concisely; and before a favouring slant of wind the little fleet drew away in good order from the shore, and began to glide quickly downstream before wind and current.
Looking behind--for he was placed in the high stern of one of the boats, where his view was unimpeded--Frobisher saw a glimmer of light spring up from the direction of the gate, which presently brightened to a lurid glare as the wind fanned the flames. Unable to batter down the stout gate as quickly as they desired, their pursuers had evidently collected a quantity of combustibles, and had started to burn it down; and a few minutes later their yells of triumph, floating down the wind, indicated that they had succeeded in the attempt, and that they had entered the town. It would therefore be now only a matter of minutes before they discovered that their prey had escaped them by the skin of his teeth; and unless the rebels were content to leave matters at this juncture, they would soon secure possession of the remaining boats and start down the river in pursuit.
The officer in command of the Government troops was evidently fully alive to the danger of the situation, for he continually shouted orders and exhortations for speed to the various boats comprising the little squadron. And presently Frobisher observed that, finding their progress unsatisfactory, the crews had got out the long oars customarily used for forcing the craft upstream against the current, and were employing them as sweeps. With this additional power the boats began to slide through the water more rapidly, and Frobisher began to fear that, unless the pursuers were very quick indeed, they would fail to overtake them, even now.
By this time, however, he could plainly perceive the flicker of torches moving about the wharves and piers of Chhung-ju, and presently a few of those same lights appeared on the bosom of the river. The rebels had evidently rowed out in small boats, and were towing the barges left anchored in mid-stream to the shore. A moment before a sharp bend in the river shut off his view of the town, the Englishman saw, to his great satisfaction, the dark loom of matting sails, as the pursuing force drew away from the banks.
It was now a race of Korean against Korean; and it remained to see which party would win it. The troops, with their prisoner and the captured arms and ammunition, had managed to secure nearly an hour's start, and what with wind, current, and sweeps, were making downstream toward the main channel of the river at a speed of about four knots an hour; and of course, as soon as the main stream of the Han was entered, the current would become stronger and would sweep them along still more rapidly. Also, the fleet arriving first in the river would obtain the advantage of the increased rapidity, and might very easily be out of sight before the pursuers arrived there; and, if that happened, it was not unlikely that the latter might abandon the chase as hopeless.
It soon became evident, however, that the rebels were not going to be thrown off so easily; for, as the fleet emerged upon the broad bosom of the Han and began to turn westward, Frobisher perceived that the pursuing squadron was not a very long distance behind, and was undoubtedly overhauling them rapidly. He was at first at a loss to understand how this could be, but a few minutes later his quick ear caught a certain sound floating down the breeze--a steady, monotonous, throbbing sound, something like--Ah, he had it now! Could it be possible?
Yes, undoubtedly it was the throbbing of machinery and the quick, muffled puffing of exhaust-steam. Evidently the rebels had discovered something that the troops had overlooked--a small steamer, or pinnace; had promptly raised steam in her, probably by firing up with plenty of oil and wood so as to obtain power quickly; and were utilising the craft to tow their squadron downstream, which, when once the boats had been put in motion, would be a much quicker method of progression than the use of sails and sweeps alone.
In any case, the rebels were quickly overhauling them; and before another hour had passed, Frobisher, continuing to watch the race with absorbed interest, saw a streak of flame cut the rearward darkness, and almost immediately he heard a vicious hum close above his head, followed shortly afterwards by the whiplike crack of a distant report. They were well within range, then; and it was clear that the pursuers must be armed with modern rifles, for a smooth-bore would not have sent a bullet nearly so far.
There was instantly an outburst of excitement among the soldiers; muskets and rifles were hastily unslung and loaded, and a sharp fire was opened over the sterns of the various craft. But apparently only very few of the weapons employed were equal to the range, for Frobisher could distinctly see that the missiles were falling short, by the little spirts of foam which shone white in the moonlight where the bullets struck the water and ricochetted off. A moment later a much bigger flash burst from the bow of the little steamer, which could now be plainly made out as a small craft driven by a screw, and had the appearance of a launch that might have at one time belonged to a battleship; and the next moment a perfect storm of bullets came hurtling close overhead.
Things were beginning to get rather too warm for the prisoner where he was, he felt; especially as certain screams and cries from those about him indicated that the volley had been excellently directed. He therefore determined to seek shelter without further delay--for he had no wish to be killed by his own party--and hastily dragged himself into the shelter of the lighter's low bulwark.
The soldiers, encouraged by their officer, responded gamely to the attack upon them, and opened a well-sustained fire on their opponents, who by now had drawn within range, even of the muskets. From his new position Frobisher could see the splinters flying aboard several of the pursuing boats, while an occasional yell or scream showed that some at least of the Korean bullets were finding their billets; but several stark, motionless forms lying about the deck of the lighter showed the superior marksmanship and weapons of the rebels.
The latter were now beginning to steal up alongside, though about a hundred yards still separated the combatants, and the firing became general on both sides. Indeed, so determined and persistent was the fusillade, that there was a continuous roar and rattle of sound; while the silvery sheen of the moonlit night was reddened by the glare of the rifle-flashes.
Before coming to the East, Frobisher had believed, in common with many other people, that the Koreans were a cowardly and effeminate race, always more eager to avoid than to engage in a conflict--a race which brought about its ends by cunning and treachery rather than by force of arms. But, whatever the characteristics of the nation as a whole might be, he could not fail to admire the vigour and energy with which both sides were conducting this already sanguinary little battle on the waters of the Han.
To ensure that there should be no lack of ammunition the soldiers had adopted the same expedient as Frobisher's at the camp. They had opened up several of the captured cases of ammunition, and had thrown their contents into one big heap in the middle of the lighter's deck, so that every man might the more easily help himself; and the prisoner congratulated himself that he was at some distance from the pile, for he had no desire to repeat his experience of a few days previously.
The two squadrons were soon running downstream level with each other, the steam pinnace having reduced speed so that she might not pass the Koreans; and both fleets were gradually edging closer and still closer together. As they did so, the volleys of musketry became ever fiercer and fiercer, until the air fairly vibrated with the sound, threaded with the shrieks and groans of the wounded and dying.
Scattered everywhere about the decks could be seen the forms of men who had been struck down; and the splintered, chipped decks were already deeply stained with blood. And although the action was general throughout the two fleets, it appeared as though the hottest part of the fire was being directed against the particular boat in which the young Englishman lay a prisoner.
Frobisher soon found that, at such close range, his position under the lee of the low bulwark was anything but secure, since the nickel-jacketed bullets which the rebels were using were already drilling holes clean through the thick planking and passing out through the opposite bulwark. He therefore again painfully removed himself, taking up a new position with his back against the stout mast of the barge, with it between himself and the point from which the volleys were coming. From this new position he made a fresh survey of his surroundings, and assured himself that if matters went on like this much longer, there would be none left alive on board to defend the craft, and her capture would be certain. He rubbed his hands with satisfaction at the thought that, perhaps, another hour might see him safely aboard the rebel squadron.
But where, meanwhile, he wondered, was Ling? If he were really sincere in his desire to show his gratitude, the time was at hand for him to do so. The number of able-bodied men on board was growing less every moment; and if Ling could only be persuaded to bring the Englishman his two revolvers, loaded, he and the Korean might be able to obtain possession of the craft, and steer her over to the shelter of the other squadron. But alas! Frobisher had not far to look in order to discover the whereabouts of the man he was thinking of.
Ling was close at hand, reclining in a half-sitting posture with his back against the bulwark. His hands were spread open on the deck, his musket having fallen from the nerveless fingers; his head was tilted back until his high, conical hat had fallen off; and there, plainly visible in the moonshine, was a great patch of coagulating blood on his throat, showing where a bullet had drilled him clean through the neck. Ling would never speak again in this world, and his career, whether for good or for evil, was closed for ever.
It was useless, therefore, for Frobisher to look for help in that direction; so if he were to escape at all he had only himself to rely upon. Unfortunately he was still much too weak from the effects of his wound to be able to deal with the situation singlehanded; and there were, as yet, quite enough of the barge's men remaining alive to overpower and murder him in a moment if he were foolish enough to attempt any such thing.
At this instant there occurred a fresh outburst of firing from the Korean boats, followed, a second later, by a loud booming report in the direction of the rebel squadron that caused the very atmosphere to vibrate and the barge to quiver as though she had struck a rock. Frobisher painfully hauled himself to his feet and staggered to the bulwarks to ascertain what had happened, and a sufficiently disheartening spectacle met his eyes. Several shots from the last volley had evidently penetrated the plating of the steam launch's boiler, causing it to explode, blowing the frail sides of the little craft asunder and killing nearly every man of her crew. The Englishman was just in time to see her disappear below the surface of the river in a great cloud of steam, and to hear the shrieks of her wounded and dying people as the engulfing waters swirled about them, the cries of execration from the rebels, and the exultant shouts of the Koreans; and he realised that his last hope of escape was slipping away from him.
Thrown into confusion by the loss of the steamer, the entire rebel fleet came to a standstill, involuntarily brought to an anchor by the sunken launch, which rested on the river bottom, still attached to the hawser by which the squadron was being towed. And as the hawser happened to consist of chain cable instead of rope, and as it had been made fast with a complicated system of hitches, that it might not slip, it was likely to be some time before it could be cast off and the boats set free to pursue once more.
But the troops were not to escape without further punishment, after all. Maddened by this sudden wreckage of their hopes, the rebels again seized their rifles and poured a concentrated fire into the nearest vessel of the enemy, which chanced to be the boat containing Frobisher and his fortunes, she being last in the line; and that parting volley did more damage than had been sustained during the whole of the fight. The aim was good, and the bullets swept the decks of the barge like a tempest of hail, sending every man who was not under cover into eternity. Once again, also, the folly of leaving loose piles of ammunition exposed was demonstrated; for, penetrating the thin bulwarks as though they were so much paper, several of the shots ploughed into the heap of cartridges, exploding it and scattering death and mutilation all round.
When the smoke of the explosion cleared away, it was seen that there were scarcely half a dozen men left alive; and if the boat next in line had not very promptly responded to the frenzied hails of the survivors, and at once put back to take them on board, with their prisoner, every man would have been lost; for they had scarcely transferred themselves to the deck of the other craft before Frobisher's barge, with a large hole blown in her bottom by the explosion, heeled over and sank, taking her dead and wounded to the bottom with her.
The fight was now virtually over, and only a few more long-distance shots were exchanged before the Korean fleet was out of range, leaving the rebel squadron behind them in a state of hopeless confusion. Late that same afternoon the town of Yo-ju was reached, and the men and cargo were disembarked without any signs of the reappearance of the rebels. In fact, the latter had given up the chase, thoroughly disheartened, after the destruction of the steamer, and had reconciled themselves to the loss of the arms.
Fortunately for them, the Englishman, Drake, had not been paid in advance, and the money was therefore still intact and available for the purchase of another consignment; so, with true Oriental submission to fate, they retraced their steps to Yong-wol, and subsequently sent a messenger to Drake, informing him that the convoy had been attacked and overpowered, the whole of the cargo captured, and the young white man in command either slain or made prisoner.
Frobisher, very much alive, but still weak from his wounds, arrived in due time at Asan, closely guarded by a file of soldiery, and was carried direct to the fort at the mouth of the river.
Here he was immediately haled before the officer in command of the garrison and closely questioned, through an interpreter, as to his connection with the matter of bringing arms to the rebels. But he had already foreseen that this would happen, and had decided upon his line of conduct; so he steadfastly refused to supply the required information, even when threatened with the naked sword which the official, in a towering rage, drew and flashed before his eyes.
Seeing that this demonstration produced no effect upon the intrepid young Englishman, Sung-wan--for so the officer was named--gave a few curt orders to the men who were guarding him, and Frobisher was hurried from the room, conducted down several long, gloomy corridors, and finally thrust into a large cell. This, as soon as his eyes became accustomed to the semi-darkness, he could see was furnished with several instruments of a horribly suggestive character; and it did not take a man of his intelligence long to realise that he had at last made the acquaintance of that supremely diabolic institution--a Korean torture-chamber.

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