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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesMarzio's Crucifix - Chapter 1
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Marzio's Crucifix - Chapter 1 Post by :icetein Category :Long Stories Author :F. Marion Crawford Date :May 2011 Read :3280

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Marzio's Crucifix - Chapter 1

CHAPTER I

"The whole of this modern fabric of existence is a living lie!" cried Marzio Pandolfi, striking his little hammer upon the heavy table with an impatient rap. Then he dropped it and turning on his stool rested one elbow upon the board while he clasped his long, nervous fingers together and stared hard at his handsome apprentice. Gianbattista Bordogni looked up from his work without relinquishing his tools, nodded gravely, stared up at the high window, and then went on hammering gently upon his little chisel, guiding the point carefully among the delicate arabesques traced upon the silver.

"Yes," he said quietly, after a few seconds, "it is all a lie. But what do you expect, Maestro Marzio? You might as well talk to a stone wall as preach liberty to these cowards."

"Nevertheless, there are some--there are half a dozen--" muttered Marzio, relapsing into sullen discontent and slowly turning the body of the chalice beneath the cord stretched by the pedal on which he pressed his foot. Having brought under his hand a round boss which was to become the head of a cherub under his chisel, he rubbed his fingers over the smooth silver, mechanically, while he contemplated the red wax model before him. Then there was silence for a space, broken only by the quick, irregular striking of the two little hammers upon the heads of the chisels.

Maestro Marzio Pandolfi was a skilled workman and an artist. He was one of the last of those workers in metals who once sent their masterpieces from Rome to the great cathedrals of the world; one of the last of the artistic descendants of Caradosso, of Benvenuto Cellini, of Claude Ballin, and of all their successors; one of those men of rare talent who unite the imagination of the artist with the executive skill of the practised workman. They are hard to find nowadays. Of all the twenty chisellers of various ages who hammered from morning till night in the rooms outside, one only--Gianbattista Bordogni--had been thought worthy by his master to share the privacy of the inner studio. The lad had talent, said Maestro Marzio, and, what was more, the lad had ideas--ideas about life, about the future of Italy, about the future of the world's society. Marzio found in him a pupil, an artist and a follower of his own political creed.

It was a small room in which they worked together. Plain wooden shelves lined two of the walls from the floor to the ceiling. The third was occupied by tables and a door, and in the fourth high grated windows were situated, from which the clear light fell upon the long bench before which the two men sat upon high stools. Upon the shelves were numerous models in red wax, of chalices, monstrances, marvellous ewers and embossed basins for the ablution of the priests' hands, crucifixes, crowns, palm and olive branches--in a word, models of all those things which pertain to the service and decoration of the church, and upon which it has been the privilege of the silversmith to expend his art and labour from time immemorial until the present day. There were some few casts in plaster, but almost all were of that deep red, strong-smelling wax which is the most fit medium for the temporary expression and study of very fine and intricate designs. There is something in the very colour which, to one acquainted with the art, suggests beautiful fancies. It is the red of the Pompeian walls, and the rich tint seems to call up the matchless traceries of the ancients. Old chisellers say that no one can model anything wholly bad in red wax, and there is truth in the saying. The material is old--the older the better; it has passed under the hand of the artist again and again; it has taken form, served for the model of a lasting work, been kneaded together in a lump, been worked over and over by the boxwood tool. The workman feels that it has absorbed some of the qualities of the master's genius, and touches it with the certainty that its stiff substance will yield new forms of beauty in his fingers, rendering up some of its latent capacity of shape at each pressure and twist of the deftly-handled instrument.

At the extremities of the long bench huge iron vices were fixed by staples that ran into the ground. In one of these was fastened the long curved tool which serves to beat out the bosses of hollow and small-necked vessels. Each of the workmen had a pedal beneath his foot from which a soft cord ascended, passed through the table, and pressed the round object on which he was working upon a thick leather cushion, enabling him to hold it tightly in its place, or by lifting his foot to turn it to a new position. In pots full of sand were stuck hundreds of tiny chisels, so that the workmen could select at a glance the exact form of tool needful for the moment. Two or three half balls of heavy stone stood in leathern collars, their flat surfaces upwards and covered with a brown composition of pitch and beeswax an inch thick, in which small pieces of silver were firmly embedded in position to be chiselled.

The workshop was pervaded by a smell of wax and pitch, mingled with the curious indefinable odour exhaled from steel tools in constant use, and supplemented by the fumes of Marzio's pipe. The red bricks in the portion of the floor where the two men sat were rubbed into hollows, but the dust had been allowed to accumulate freely in the rest of the room, and the dark corners were full of cobwebs which had all the air of being inhabited by spiders of formidable dimensions.

Marzio Pandolfi, who bent over his work and busily plied his little hammer during the interval of silence which followed his apprentice's last remark, was the sole owner and master of the establishment. He was forty years of age, thin and dark. His black hair was turning grey at the temples, and though not long, hung forward over his knitted eyebrows in disorderly locks. He had a strange face. His head, broad enough at the level of the eyes, rose to a high prominence towards the back, while his forehead, which projected forward at the heavy brows, sloped backwards in the direction of the summit. The large black eyes were deep and hollow, and there were broad rings of dark colour around them, so that they seemed strangely thrown into relief above the sunken, colourless cheeks. Marzio's nose was long and pointed, very straight, and descending so suddenly from the forehead as to make an angle with the latter the reverse of the one most common in human faces. Seen in profile, the brows formed the most prominent point, and the line of the head ran back above, while the line of the nose fell inward from the perpendicular down to the small curved nostrils. The short black moustache was thick enough to hide the lips, though deep furrows surrounded the mouth and terminated in a very prominent but pointed chin. The whole face expressed unusual qualities and defects; the gifts of the artist, the tenacity of the workman and the small astuteness of the plebeian were mingled with an appearance of something which was not precisely ideality, but which might easily be fanaticism.

Marzio was tall and very thin. His limbs seemed to move rather by the impulse of a nervous current within than by any development of normal force in the muscles, and his long and slender fingers, naturally yellow and discoloured by the use of tools and the handling of cements, might have been parts of a machine, for they had none of that look of humanity which one seeks in the hand, and by which one instinctively judges the character. He was dressed in a woollen blouse, which hung in odd folds about his emaciated frame, but which betrayed the roundness of his shoulders, and the extreme length of his arms. His apprentice, Gianbattista Bordogni, wore the same costume; but beyond his clothing he bore no trace of any resemblance to his master. He was not a bad type of the young Roman of his class at five-and-twenty years of age. His thick black hair curled all over his head, from his low forehead to the back of his neck, and his head was of a good shape, full and round, broad over the brows and high above the orifice of the ear. His eyes were brown and not over large, but well set, and his nose was slightly aquiline, while his delicate black moustache showed the pleasant curve of his even lips. There was colour in his cheeks, too--that rich colour which dark men sometimes have in their youth. He was of middle height, strong and compactly built, with large, well-made hands that seemed to have more power in them, if less subtle skill, than those of Maestro Marzio.

"Remember what I told you about the second indentation of the acanthus," said the elder workman, without looking round; "a light, light hand--no holes in this work!"

Gianbattista murmured a sort of assent, which showed that the warning was not wanted. He was intent upon the delicate operation he was performing. Again the hammers beat irregularly.

"The more I think of it," said Marzio after the pause, "the more I am beside myself. To think that you and I should be nailed to our stools here, weekdays and feast-days, to finish a piece of work for a scoundrelly priest--"

"A cardinal," suggested Gianbattista.

"Well! What difference is there? He is a priest, I suppose--a creature who dresses himself up like a pulcinella before his altar--to--"

"Softly!" ejaculated the young man, looking round to see whether the door was closed.

"Why softly?" asked the other angrily, though his annoyance did not seem to communicate itself to the chisel he held in his hand, and which continued its work as delicately as though its master were humming a pastoral. "Why softly? An apoplexy on your softness! The papers speak as loudly as they please--why should I hold my tongue? A dog-butcher of a priest!"

"Well," answered Gianbattista in a meditative tone, as he selected another chisel, "he has the money to pay for what he orders. If he had not, we would not work for him, I suppose."

"If we had the money, you mean," retorted Marzio. "Why the devil should he have money rather than we? Why don't you answer? Why should he wear silk stockings--red silk stockings, the animal? Why should he want a silver ewer and basin to wash his hands at his mass? Why would not an earthen one do as well, such as I use? Why don't you answer? Eh?"

"Why should Prince Borghese live in a palace and keep scores of horses?" inquired the young man calmly.

"Ay--why should he? Is there any known reason why he should? Am I not a man as well as he? Are you not a man--you young donkey? I hate to think that we, who are artists, who can work when we are put to it, have to slave for such fellows as that--mumbling priests, bloated princes, a pack of fools who are incapable of an idea! An idea! What am I saying? Who have not the common intelligence of a cabbage-seller in the street! And look at the work we give them--the creation of our minds, the labour of our hands--"

"They give us their money in return," observed Gianbattista. "The ancients, whom you are so fond of talking about, used to get their work done by slaves chained to the bench--"

"Yes! And it has taken us two thousand years to get to the point we have reached! Two thousand years--and what is it? Are we any better than slaves, except that we work better?"

"I doubt whether we work better."

"What is the matter with you this morning?" cried Marzio. "Have you been sneaking into some church on your way here? Pah! You smell of the sacristy! Has Paolo been here? Oh, to think that a brother of mine should be a priest! It is not to be believed!"

"It is the irony of fate. Moreover, he gets you plenty of orders."

"Yes, and no doubt he takes his percentage on the price. He had a new cloak last month, and he asked me to make him a pair of silver buckles for his shoes. Pretty, that--an artist's brother with silver buckles! I told him to go to the devil, his father, for his ornaments. Why does he not steal an old pair from the cardinal, his bondmaster? Not good enough, I suppose--beast!"

Marzio laid aside his hammer and chisel, and lit the earthen pipe with the rough wooden stem that lay beside him. Then he examined the beautiful head of the angel he had been making upon the body of the ewer. He touched it lovingly, loosed the cord, and lifted the piece from the pad, turning it towards the light and searching critically for any defect in the modelling of the little face. He replaced it on the table, and selecting a very fine-pointed punch, laid down his pipe for a moment and set about putting the tiny pupils into the eyes. Two touches were enough. He began smoking again, and contemplated what he had done. It was the body of a large silver ewer of which Gianbattista was ornamenting the neck and mouth, which were of a separate piece. Amongst the intricate arabesques little angels'-heads were embossed, and on one side a group of cherubs was bearing a "monstrance" with the sacred Host through silver clouds. A hackneyed subject on church vessels, but which had taken wonderful beauty under the skilled fingers of the artist, who sat cursing the priest who was to use it, while expending his best talents on its perfections.

"It is not bad," he said rather doubtfully. "Come and look at it, Tista," he added. The young man left his place and came and bent over his master's shoulder, examining the piece with admiration. It was characteristic of Marzio that he asked his apprentice's opinion. He was an artist, and had the chief peculiarities of artists--namely, diffidence concerning what he had done, and impatience of the criticism of others, together with a strong desire to show his work as soon as it was presentable.

"It is a masterpiece!" exclaimed Gianbattista. "What detail! I shall never be able to finish anything like that cherub's face!"

"Do you think it is as good as the one I made last year, Tista?"

"Better," returned the young man confidently. "It is the best you have ever made. I am quite sure of it. You should always work when you are in a bad humour; you are so successful!"

"Bad humour! I am always in a bad humour," grumbled Marzio, rising and walking about the brick floor, while he puffed clouds of acrid smoke from his coarse pipe. "There is enough in this world to keep a man in a bad humour all his life."

"I might say that," answered Gianbattista, turning round on his stool and watching his master's angular movements as he rapidly paced the room. "I might abuse fate--but you! You are rich, married, a father, a great artist!"

"What stuff!" interrupted Marzio, standing still with his long legs apart, and folding his arms as he spoke through his teeth, between which he still held his pipe. "Rich? Yes--able to have a good coat for feast-days, meat when I want it, and my brother's company when I don't want it--for a luxury, you know! Able to take my wife to Frascati on the last Thursday of October as a great holiday. My wife, too! A creature of beads and saints and little books with crosses on them--who would leer at a friar through the grating of a confessional, and who makes the house hideous with her howling if I choose to eat a bit of pork on a Friday! A good wife indeed! A jewel of a wife, and an apoplexy on all such jewels! A nice wife, who has a face like a head from a tombstone in the Campo Varano for her husband, and who has brought up her daughter to believe that her father is condemned to everlasting flames because he hates cod-fish--salt cod-fish soaked in water! A wife who sticks images in the lining of my hat to convert me, and sprinkles holy water on me Then she thinks I am asleep, but I caught her at that the other night--"

"Indeed, they say the devil does not like holy water," remarked Gianbattista, laughing.

"And you want to many my daughter, you young fool," continued Marzio, not heeding the interruption. "You do. I will tell you what she is like. My daughter--yes!--she has fine eyes, but she has the tongue of the--"

"Of her father," suggested Gianbattista, suddenly frowning.

"Yes--of her father, without her father's sense," cried Marzio angrily. "With her eyes, those fine eyes!--those eyes!--you want to marry her. If you wish to take her away, you may, and good riddance. I want no daughter; there are too many women in the world already. They and the priests do all the harm between them, because the priests know how to think too well, and women never think at all. I wish you good luck of your marriage and of your wife. If you were my son you would never have thought of getting married. The mere idea of it made you send your chisel through a cherub's eye last week and cost an hoax's time for repairing. Is that the way to look at the great question of humanity? Ah! if I were only a deputy in the Chambers, I would teach you the philosophy of all that rubbish!"

"I thought you said the other day that you would not have any deputies at all," observed the apprentice, playing with his hammer.

"Such as these are--no! A few of them I would put into the acid bath, as I would a casting, to clean them before chiselling them down. They might be good for something then. You must begin by knocking down, boy, if you want to build up. You must knock down everything, raze the existing system to the ground, and upon the place where it stood shall rise the mighty temple of immortal liberty."

"And who will buy your chalices and monstrances under the new order of things?" inquired Gianbattista coldly.

"The foreign market," returned Marzio. "Italy shall be herself again, as she was in the days of Michael Angelo; of Leonardo, who died in the arms of a king; of Cellini, who shot a prince from the walls of Saint Angelo. Italy shall be great, shall monopolise the trade, the art, the greatness of all creation!"

"A lucrative monopoly!" exclaimed the young man.

"Monopolies! There shall be no monopolies! The free artisan shall sell what he can make and buy what he pleases. The priests shall be turned out in chain gangs and build roads for our convenience, and the superfluous females shall all be deported to the glorious colony of Massowah! If I could but be absolute master of this country for a week I could do much."

"I have no doubt of it," answered Gianbattista, with a quiet smile.

"I should think not," assented Marzio proudly; then catching sight of the expression on the young man's face, he turned sharply upon him. "You are mocking me, you good-for-nothing!" he cried angrily. "You are laughing at me, at your master, you villain you wretch, you sickly hound, you priest-ridden worm! It is intolerable! It is the first time you have ever dared; do you think I am going to allow you to think for yourself after all the pains I have taken to educate you, to teach you my art, you ungrateful reptile?"

"If you were not such a great artist I would have left you long ago," answered the apprentice. "Besides, I believe in your principles. It is your expression of them that makes me laugh now and then; I think you go too far sometimes!"

"As if any one had ever gone far enough" exclaimed Marzio, somewhat pacified, for his moods were very quick. "Since there are still men who are richer than others, it is a sign that we have not gone to the end--to the great end in which we believe. I am sure you believe in it too, Tista, don't you?"

"Oh yes--in the end--certainly. Do not let us quarrel about the means, Maestro Marzio. I must do another leaf before dinner."

"I will get in another cherub's nose," said his master, preparing to relight his pipe for a whiff before going to work again. "Body of a dog, these priests!" he grumbled, as he attacked the next angel on the ewer with matchless dexterity and steadiness. A long pause followed the animated discourse of the chiseller. Both men were intent upon their work, alternately holding their breath for the delicate strokes, and breathing more freely as the chisel reached the end of each tiny curve.

"I think you said a little while ago that I might marry Lucia," observed Gianbattista, without looking up, "that is, if I would take her away!"

"And if you take her away," retorted the other, "where will you get bread?"

"Where I get it now. I could live somewhere else and come here to work; it seems simple enough."

"It seems simple, but it is not," replied Marzio. "Perhaps you could try and get Paolo's commissions away from me, and then set up a studio for yourself; but I doubt whether you could succeed. I am not old yet, nor blind, nor shaky, thank God!"

"I did not catch the last words," said Gianbattista, hiding his smile over his work.

"I said I was not old, nor broken down yet, thanks to my strength," growled the chiseller; "you will not steal my commissions yet awhile. What is the matter with you to-day? You find fault with half I say, and the other half you do not hear at all. You seem to have lost your head, Tista. Be steady over those acanthus leaves; everybody thinks an acanthus leaf is the easiest thing in the world, whereas it is one of the most difficult before you get to figures. Most chisellers seem to copy their acanthus leaves from the cabbage in their soup. They work as though they had never seen the plant growing. When the Greeks began to carve Corinthian capitals, they must have worked from real leaves, as I taught you to model when you were a boy. Few things are harder than a good acanthus leaf."

"I should think women could do the delicate part of our work very well," said the apprentice, returning to the subject from which Marzio was evidently trying to lead him. "Lucia has such very clever fingers."

"Idiot!" muttered Marzio between his teeth, not deigning to make any further answer.

The distant boom of a gun broke upon the silence that followed, and immediately the bells of all the neighbouring churches rang out in quick succession. It was midday.

"I did not expect to finish that nose," said Marzio, rising from his stool. He was a punctual man, who exacted punctuality in others, and in spite of his thin frame and nervous ways, he loved his dinner. In five minutes all the men had left the workshop, and Marzio and his apprentice stood in the street, the former locking the heavy door with a lettered padlock, while the younger man sniffed the fresh spring air that blew from the west out of the square of San Carlo a Catenari down the Via dei Falegnami in which the establishment of the silver-chiseller was situated.

As Marzio fumbled with the fastenings of the door, two women came up and stopped. Marzio had his back turned, and Gianbattista touched his hat in silence. The younger of the two was a stout, black-haired woman of eight-and-thirty years, dressed in a costume of dark green cloth, which fitted very closely to her exuberantly-developed bust, and was somewhat too elaborately trimmed with imitation of jet and black ribands. A high bonnet, decorated with a bunch of purple glass grapes and dark green leaves, surmounted the lady's massive head, and though carefully put on and neatly tied, seemed too small for the wearer. Her ears were adorned by long gold earrings, in each of which were three large garnets, and these trinkets dangled outside and over the riband of the bonnet, which passed under her chin. In her large hands, covered with tight black gloves, she carried a dark red parasol and a somewhat shabby little black leather bag with steel fastenings. The stout lady's face was of the type common among the Roman women of the lower class--very broad and heavy, of a creamy white complexion, the upper lip shaded by a dark fringe of down, and the deep sleepy eyes surmounted by heavy straight eyebrows. Her hair, brought forward from under her bonnet, made smooth waves upon her low forehead and reappeared in thick coils at the back of her neck. Her nose was relatively small, but too thick and broad at the nostrils, although it departed but little from the straight line of the classic model. Altogether the Signora Pandolfi, christened Maria Luisa, and wife to Marzio the silver-chiseller, was a portly and pompous-looking person, who wore an air of knowing her position, and of being sure to maintain it. Nevertheless, there was a kindly expression in her fat face, and if her eyes looked sleepy they did not look dishonest.

Signora Pandolfi's companion was her old maid-of-all-work, Assunta, commonly called Suntarella, without whom she rarely stirred abroad--a little old woman, in neat but dingy-coloured garments, with a grey woollen shawl drawn over her head like a cowl, instead of a bonnet.

Marzio finished fastening the door, and then turned round. On seeing his wife he remained silent for a moment, looking at her with an expression of dissatisfied inquiry. He had not expected her.

"Well?" he ejaculated at last.

"It is dinner time," remarked the stout lady.

"Yes, I heard the gun," answered Marzio drily. "It is the same as if you had told me," he added ironically, as he turned and led the way across the street.

"A pretty answer!" exclaimed Maria Luisa, tossing her large head as she followed her lord and master to the door of their house. Meanwhile Assunta, the old servant, glanced at Gianbattista, rolled up her eyes with an air of resignation, and spread out her withered hands for a moment with a gesture of despair, instantly drawing them in again beneath the folds of her grey woollen shawl.

"Gadding!" muttered Marzio, as he entered the narrow door from which the dark steps led abruptly upwards. "Gadding--always gadding! And who minds the soup-kettle when you are gadding, I should like to know? The cat, I suppose! Oh, these women and their priests! These priests and these women!"

"Lucia is minding the soup-kettle," gasped Maria Luisa, as she puffed up stairs behind her thin and active husband.

"Lucia!" cried Marzio angrily, a flight of steps higher. "I suppose you will bring her up to be woman of all work? Well, she could earn her living then, which is more than you do! After all, it is better to mind a soup-kettle than to thump a piano and to squeal so that I can hear her in the shop opposite, and it is better than hanging about the church all the morning, or listening to Paolo's drivelling talk. By all means keep her in the kitchen."

It was hard to say whether Signora Pandolfi was puffing or sighing as she paused for breath upon the landing, but there was probably something of both in the labour of her lungs. She was used to Marzio. She had lived with him for twenty years, and she knew his moods and his ways, and detected the coming storm from afar. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, for her, there was little variety in the sequence of his ideas. She was accustomed to his beginning at the grumbling stage before dinner, and proceeding by a crescendo movement to the pitch of rage, which was rarely reached until he had finished his meal, when he generally seized his hat and dragged Gianbattista away with him, declaring loudly that women were not fit for human society. The daily excitement of this comedy had long lost its power to elicit anything more than a sigh from the stout Maria Luisa, who generally bore Marzio's unreasonable anger with considerable equanimity, waiting for his departure to eat her boiled beef and salad in peace with Lucia, while old Assunta sat by the table with the cat in her lap, putting in a word of commiseration alternately with a word of gossip about the lodgers on the other side of the landing. The latter were a young and happy pair: the husband, a chorus singer at the Apollo, who worked at glove cleaning during the day time; his wife, a sempstress, who did repairs upon the costumes of the theatre. Their apartments consisted of two rooms and a kitchen, while Marzio and his family occupied the rest of the floor, and entered their lodging by the opposite door.

Maria Luisa envied the couple in her sleepy fashion. Her husband was indeed comparatively rich, and though economical in his domestic arrangements, he had money in the bank enough to keep him comfortably for the rest of his days. His violence did not extend beyond words and black looks, and he was not miserly about a few francs for dress, or a dinner at the Falcone two or three times a year. But in the matter of domestic peace his conduct left much to be desired. He was a sober man, but his hours were irregular, for he attended the meetings of a certain club which Maria Luisa held in abhorrence, and brought back opinions which made her cross herself with her fat fingers, shuddering at the things he said. As for Gianbattista Bordogni, who lived with them, and consequently received most of his wages in the shape of board and lodging, he loved Lucia Pandolfi, his master's daughter, and though he shared Marzio's opinions, he held his tongue in the house. He understood how necessary to him the mother's sympathy must be, and, with subtle intelligence, he knew how to create a contrast between himself and his master by being reticent at the right moment.

Lucia opened the door in answer to the bell her father had rung, and stood aside in the narrow way to let members of the household pass by, one by one. Lucia was seventeen years old, and probably resembled her mother as the latter had looked at the same age. She was slight, and tall, and dark, with a quantity of glossy black hair coiled behind her head. Her black eyes had not yet acquired that sleepy look which advancing life and stoutness had put into her mother's, as a sort of sign of the difficulty of quick motion. Her figure was lithe, though she was not a very active girl, and one might have predicted that at forty she, too, would pay her debt to time in pounds of flesh. There are thin people who look as though they could never grow stout, and there are others whose leisurely motion and deliberate step foretells increase of weight. But Gianbattista had not studied these matters of physiological horoscopy. It sufficed him that Lucia Pandolfi was at present a very pretty girl, even beautiful, according to some standards. Her thick hair, low forehead, straight classic features, and severe mouth fascinated the handsome apprentice, and the intimacy which had developed between the two during the years of his residence under Marzio's roof, from the time when Lucia was a little girl to the present day, had rendered the transition from friendship to love almost imperceptible to them both. Gianbattista was the last of the party to enter the lodging, and as he paused to shut the door, Lucia was still lingering at the threshold.

"Hist! They will see!" she protested under her breath.

"What do I care!" whispered the apprentice, as he kissed her cheek in the dusky passage. Then they followed the rest.

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