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The Professor - Chapter VII Post by :trhaffey Category :Long Stories Author :Charlotte Bronte Date :January 2011 Read :1737

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The Professor - Chapter VII

READER, perhaps you were never in Belgium? Haply you don't know
the physiognomy of the country? You have not its lineaments
defined upon your memory, as I have them on mine?

Three--nay four--pictures line the four-walled cell where are
stored for me the records of the past. First, Eton. All in that
picture is in far perspective, receding, diminutive; but freshly
coloured, green, dewy, with a spring sky, piled with glittering
yet showery clouds; for my childhood was not all sunshine--it had
its overcast, its cold, its stormy hours. Second, X----, huge,
dingy; the canvas cracked and smoked; a yellow sky, sooty clouds;
no sun, no azure; the verdure of the suburbs blighted and
sullied--a very dreary scene.

Third, Belgium; and I will pause before this landscape. As to the
fourth, a curtain covers it, which I may hereafter withdraw, or
may not, as suits my convenience and capacity. At any rate, for
the present it must hang undisturbed. Belgium! name unromantic
and unpoetic, yet name that whenever uttered has in my ear a
sound, in my heart an echo, such as no other assemblage of
syllables, however sweet or classic, can produce. Belgium! I
repeat the word, now as I sit alone near midnight. It stirs my
world of the past like a summons to resurrection; the graves
unclose, the dead are raised; thoughts, feelings, memories that
slept, are seen by me ascending from the clods--haloed most of
them--but while I gaze on their vapoury forms, and strive to
ascertain definitely their outline, the sound which wakened them
dies, and they sink, each and all, like a light wreath of mist,
absorbed in the mould, recalled to urns, resealed in monuments.
Farewell, luminous phantoms!

This is Belgium, reader. Look! don't call the picture a flat or
a dull one--it was neither flat nor dull to me when I first
beheld it. When I left Ostend on a mild February morning, and
found myself on the road to Brussels, nothing could look vapid to
me. My sense of enjoyment possessed an edge whetted to the
finest, untouched, keen, exquisite. I was young; I had good
health; pleasure and I had never met; no indulgence of hers had
enervated or sated one faculty of my nature. Liberty I clasped in
my arms for the first time, and the influence of her smile and
embrace revived my life like the sun and the west wind. Yes, at
that epoch I felt like a morning traveller who doubts not that
from the hill he is ascending he shall behold a glorious sunrise;
what if the track be strait, steep, and stony? he sees it not;
his eyes are fixed on that summit, flushed already, flushed and
gilded, and having gained it he is certain of the scene beyond.
He knows that the sun will face him, that his chariot is even now
coming over the eastern horizon, and that the herald breeze he
feels on his cheek is opening for the god's career a clear, vast
path of azure, amidst clouds soft as pearl and warm as flame.
Difficulty and toil were to be my lot, but sustained by energy,
drawn on by hopes as bright as vague, I deemed such a lot no
hardship. I mounted now the hill in shade; there were pebbles,
inequalities, briars in my path, but my eyes were fixed on the
crimson peak above; my imagination was with the refulgent
firmament beyond, and I thought nothing of the stones turning
under my feet, or of the thorns scratching my face and hands.

I gazed often, and always with delight, from the window of the
diligence (these, be it remembered, were not the days of trains
and railroads). Well! and what did I see? I will tell you
faithfully. Green, reedy swamps; fields fertile but flat,
cultivated in patches that made them look like magnified
kitchen-gardens; belts of cut trees, formal as pollard willows,
skirting the horizon; narrow canals, gliding slow by the
road-side; painted Flemish farmhouses; some very dirty hovels; a
gray, dead sky; wet road, wet fields, wet house-tops: not a
beautiful, scarcely a picturesque object met my eye along the
whole route; yet to me, all was beautiful, all was more than
picturesque. It continued fair so long as daylight lasted,
though the moisture of many preceding damp days had sodden the
whole country; as it grew dark, however, the rain recommenced,
and it was through streaming and starless darkness my eye caught
the first gleam of the lights of Brussels. I saw little of the
city but its lights that night. Having alighted from the
diligence, a fiacre conveyed me to the Hotel de ----, where I had
been advised by a fellow-traveller to put up; having eaten a
traveller's supper, I retired to bed, and slept a traveller's
sleep.

Next morning I awoke from prolonged and sound repose with the
impression that I was yet in X----, and perceiving it to be
broad daylight I started up, imagining that I had overslept
myself and should be behind time at the counting-house. The
momentary and painful sense of restraint vanished before the
revived and reviving consciousness of freedom, as, throwing back
the white curtains of my bed, I looked forth into a wide, lofty
foreign chamber; how different from the small and dingy, though
not uncomfortable, apartment I had occupied for a night or two at
a respectable inn in London while waiting for the sailing of the
packet! Yet far be it from me to profane the memory of that
little dingy room! It, too, is dear to my soul; for there, as I
lay in quiet and darkness, I first heard the great bell of St.
Paul's telling London it was midnight, and well do I recall the
deep, deliberate tones, so full charged with colossal phlegm and
force. From the small, narrow window of that room, I first saw
THE dome, looming through a London mist. I suppose the
sensations, stirred by those first sounds, first sights, are felt
but once; treasure them, Memory; seal them in urns, and keep them
in safe niches! Well--I rose. Travellers talk of the apartments
in foreign dwellings being bare and uncomfortable; I thought my
chamber looked stately and cheerful. It had such large windows
--CROISEES that opened like doors, with such broad, clear panes
of glass; such a great looking-glass stood on my dressing-table
--such a fine mirror glittered over the mantelpiece--the painted
floor looked so clean and glossy; when I had dressed and was
descending the stairs, the broad marble steps almost awed me, and
so did the lofty hall into which they conducted. On the first
landing I met a Flemish housemaid: she had wooden shoes, a short
red petticoat, a printed cotton bedgown, her face was broad, her
physiognomy eminently stupid; when I spoke to her in French, she
answered me in Flemish, with an air the reverse of civil; yet I
thought her charming; if she was not pretty or polite, she was, I
conceived, very picturesque; she reminded me of the female
figures in certain Dutch paintings I had seen in other years at
Seacombe Hall.

I repaired to the public room; that, too, was very large and very
lofty, and warmed by a stove; the floor was black, and the stove
was black, and most of the furniture was black: yet I never
experienced a freer sense of exhilaration than when I sat down at
a very long, black table (covered, however, in part by a white
cloth), and, having ordered breakfast, began to pour out my
coffee from a little black coffee-pot. The stove might be
dismal-looking to some eyes, not to mine, but it was indisputably
very warm, and there were two gentlemen seated by it talking in
French; impossible to follow their rapid utterance, or comprehend
much of the purport of what they said--yet French, in the mouths
of Frenchmen, or Belgians (I was not then sensible of the horrors
of the Belgian accent) was as music to my ears. One of these
gentlemen presently discerned me to be an Englishman--no doubt
from the fashion in which I addressed the waiter; for I would
persist in speaking French in my execrable South-of-England
style, though the man understood English. The gentleman, after
looking towards me once or twice, politely accosted me in very
good English; I remember I wished to God that I could speak
French as well; his fluency and correct pronunciation impressed
me for the first time with a due notion of the cosmopolitan
character of the capital I was in; it was my first experience of
that skill in living languages I afterwards found to be so
general in Brussels.

I lingered over my breakfast as long as I could; while it was
there on the table, and while that stranger continued talking to
me, I was a free, independent traveller; but at last the things
were removed, the two gentlemen left the room; suddenly the
illusion ceased, reality and business came back. I, a bondsman
just released from the yoke, freed for one week from twenty-one
years of constraint, must, of necessity, resume the fetters of
dependency. Hardly had I tasted the delight of being without a
master when duty issued her stern mandate: "Go forth and seek
another service." I never linger over a painful and necessary
task; I never take pleasure before business, it is not in my
nature to do so; impossible to enjoy a leisurely walk over the
city, though I perceived the morning was very fine, until I had
first presented Mr. Hunsden's letter of introduction, and got
fairly on to the track of a new situation. Wrenching my mind
from liberty and delight, I seized my hat, and forced my
reluctant body out of the Hotel de ---- into the foreign street.

It was a fine day, but I would not look at the blue sky or at the
stately houses round me; my mind was bent on one thing, finding
out "Mr. Brown, Numero --, Rue Royale," for so my letter was
addressed. By dint of inquiry I succeeded; I stood at last at
the desired door, knocked, asked for Mr. Brown, and was admitted.

Being shown into a small breakfast-room, I found myself in the
presence of an elderly gentleman--very grave, business-like, and
respectable-looking. I presented Mr. Hunsden's letter; he
received me very civilly. After a little desultory conversation
he asked me if there was anything in which his advice or
experience could be of use. I said, " Yes," and then proceeded to
tell him that I was not a gentleman of fortune, travelling for
pleasure, but an ex-counting-house clerk, who wanted employment
of some kind, and that immediately too. He replied that as a
friend of Mr. Hunsden's he would be willing to assist me as well
as he could. After some meditation he named a place in a
mercantile house at Liege, and another in a bookseller's shop at
Louvain.

"Clerk and shopman!" murmured I to myself. "No." I shook my
head. I had tried the high stool; I hated it; I believed there
were other occupations that would suit me better; besides I did
not wish to leave Brussels.

"I know of no place in Brussels," answered Mr. Brown, "unless
indeed you were disposed to turn your attention to teaching. I
am acquainted with the director of a large establishment who is
in want of a professor of English and Latin."

I thought two minutes, then I seized the idea eagerly.

"The very thing, sir!" said I.

"But," asked he, "do you understand French well enough to teach
Belgian boys English?"

Fortunately I could answer this question in the affirmative;
having studied French under a Frenchman, I could speak the
language intelligibly though not fluently. I could also read it
well, and write it decently.

"Then," pursued Mr. Brown, "I think I can promise you the place,
for Monsieur Pelet will not refuse a professor recommended by me;
but come here again at five o'clock this afternoon, and I will
introduce you to him."

The word "professor" struck me. "I am not a professor," said I.

"Oh," returned Mr. Brown, "professor, here in Belgium, means a
teacher, that is all."

My conscience thus quieted, I thanked Mr. Brown, and, for the
present, withdrew. This time I stepped out into the street with
a relieved heart; the task I had imposed on myself for that day
was executed. I might now take some hours of holiday. I felt
free to look up. For the first time I remarked the sparkling
clearness of the air, the deep blue of the sky, the gay clean
aspect of the white-washed or painted houses; I saw what a fine
street was the Rue Royale, and, walking leisurely along its broad
pavement, I continued to survey its stately hotels, till the
palisades, the gates, and trees of the park appearing in sight,
offered to my eye a new attraction. I remember, before entering
the park, I stood awhile to contemplate the statue of General
Belliard, and then I advanced to the top of the great staircase
just beyond, and I looked down into a narrow back street, which I
afterwards learnt was called the Rue d'Isabelle. I well
recollect that my eye rested on the green door of a rather large
house opposite, where, on a brass plate, was inscribed,
"Pensionnat de Demoiselles." Pensionnat! The word excited an
uneasy sensation in my mind; it seemed to speak of restraint.
Some of the demoiselles, externats no doubt, were at that moment
issuing from the door--I looked for a pretty face amongst them,
but their close, little French bonnets hid their features; in a
moment they were gone.

I had traversed a good deal of Brussels before five o'clock
arrived, but punctually as that hour struck I was again in the
Rue Royale. Re-admitted to Mr. Brown's breakfast-room, I found
him, as before, seated at the table, and he was not alone--a
gentleman stood by the hearth. Two words of introduction
designated him as my future master. "M. Pelet, Mr. Crimsworth;
Mr. Crimsworth, M. Pelet" a bow on each side finished the
ceremony. I don't know what sort of a bow I made; an ordinary
one, I suppose, for I was in a tranquil, commonplace frame of
mind; I felt none of the agitation which had troubled my first
interview with Edward Crimsworth. M. Pelet's bow was extremely
polite, yet not theatrical, scarcely French; he and I were
presently seated opposite to each other. In a pleasing voice,
low, and, out of consideration to my foreign ears, very distinct
and deliberate, M. Pelet intimated that he had just been
receiving from "le respectable M. Brown," an account of my
attainments and character, which relieved him from all scruple as
to the propriety of engaging me as professor of English and Latin
in his establishment; nevertheless, for form's sake, he would put
a few questions to test; my powers. He did, and expressed in
flattering terms his satisfaction at my answers. The subject of
salary next came on; it was fixed at one thousand francs per
annum, besides board and lodging. "And in addition," suggested M.
Pelet, "as there will be some hours in each day during which
your services will not be required in my establishment, you may,
in time, obtain employment in other seminaries, and thus turn
your vacant moments to profitable account."

I thought this very kind, and indeed I found afterwards that the
terms on which M. Pelet had engaged me were really liberal for
Brussels; instruction being extremely cheap there on account of
the number of teachers. It was further arranged that I should be
installed in my new post the very next day, after which M. Pelet
and I parted.

Well, and what was he like? and what were my impressions
concerning him? He was a man of about forty years of age, of
middle size, and rather emaciated figure; his face was pale, his
cheeks were sunk, and his eyes hollow; his features were pleasing
and regular, they had a French turn (for M. Pelet was no Fleming,
but a Frenchman both by birth and parentage), yet the degree of
harshness inseparable from Gallic lineaments was, in his case,
softened by a mild blue eye, and a melancholy, almost suffering,
expression of countenance; his physiognomy was "fine et
spirituelle." I use two French words because they define better
than any English terms the species of intelligence with which his
features were imbued. He was altogether an interesting and
prepossessing personage. I wondered only at the utter absence of
all the ordinary characteristics of his profession, and almost
feared he could not be stern and resolute enough for a
schoolmaster. Externally at least M. Pelet presented an absolute
contrast to my late master, Edward Crimsworth.

Influenced by the impression I had received of his gentleness, I
was a good deal surprised when, on arriving the next day at my
new employer's house, and being admitted to a first view of what
was to be the sphere of my future labours, namely the large,
lofty, and well lighted schoolrooms, I beheld a numerous
assemblage of pupils, boys of course, whose collective appearance
showed all the signs of a full, flourishing, and well-disciplined
seminary. As I traversed the classes in company with M. Pelet, a
profound silence reigned on all sides, and if by chance a murmur
or a whisper arose, one glance from the pensive eye of this most
gentle pedagogue stilled it instantly. It was astonishing, I
thought, how so mild a check could prove so effectual. When I
had perambulated the length and breadth of the classes, M. Pelet
turned and said to me--

"Would you object to taking the boys as they are, and testing
their proficiency in English?"

The proposal was unexpected. I had thought I should have been
allowed at least 3 days to prepare; but it is a bad omen to
commence any career by hesitation, so I just stepped to the
professor's desk near which we stood, and faced the circle of my
pupils. I took a moment to collect my thoughts, and likewise to
frame in French the sentence by which I proposed to open
business. I made it as short as possible:--

"Messieurs, prenez vos livres de lecture."

"Anglais ou Francais, monsieur?" demanded a thickset, moon-faced
young Flamand in a blouse. The answer was fortunately easy:--

"Anglais."

I determined to give myself as little trouble as possible in this
lesson; it would not do yet to trust my unpractised tongue with
the delivery of explanations; my accent and idiom would be too
open to the criticisms of the young gentlemen before me, relative
to whom I felt already it would be necessary at once to take up
an advantageous position, and I proceeded to employ means
accordingly.

"Commencez!" cried I, when they had all produced their books.
The moon-faced youth (by name Jules Vanderkelkov, as I afterwards
learnt) took the first sentence. The "livre de lecture" was the
"Vicar of Wakefield," much used in foreign schools because it is
supposed to contain prime samples of conversational English; it
might, however, have been a Runic scroll for any resemblance the
words, as enunciated by Jules, bore to the language in ordinary
use amongst the natives of Great Britain. My God! how he did
snuffle, snort, and wheeze! All he said was said in his throat
and nose, for it is thus the Flamands speak, but I heard him to
the end of his paragraph without proffering a word of correction,
whereat he looked vastly self-complacent, convinced, no doubt,
that he had acquitted himself like a real born and bred
"Anglais." In the same unmoved silence I listened to a dozen in
rotation, and when the twelfth had concluded with splutter, hiss,
and mumble, I solemnly laid down the book.

"Arretez!" said I. There was a pause, during which I regarded
them all with a steady and somewhat stern gaze; a dog, if stared
at hard enough and long enough, will show symptoms of
embarrassment, and so at length did my bench of Belgians.
Perceiving that some of the faces before me were beginning to
look sullen, and others ashamed, I slowly joined my hands, and
ejaculated in a deep "voix de poitrine"--

"Comme c'est affreux!"

They looked at each other, pouted, coloured, swung their heels;
they were not pleased, I saw, but they were impressed, and in the
way I wished them to be. Having thus taken them down a peg in
their self-conceit, the next step was to raise myself in their
estimation; not a very easy thing, considering that I hardly
dared to speak for fear of betraying my own deficiencies.

"Ecoutez, messieurs!" said I, and I endeavoured to throw into my
accents the compassionate tone of a superior being, who, touched
by the extremity of the helplessness, which at first only excited
his scorn, deigns at length to bestow aid. I then began at the
very beginning of the "Vicar of Wakefield," and read, in a slow,
distinct voice, some twenty pages, they all the while sitting
mute and listening with fixed attention; by the time I had done
nearly an hour had elapsed. I then rose and said:--

"C'est assez pour aujourd'hui, messieurs; demain nous
recommencerons, et j'espere que tout ira bien."

With this oracular sentence I bowed, and in company with M. Pelet
quitted the school-room.

"C'est bien! c'est tres bien!" said my principal as we entered
his parlour. "Je vois que monsieur a de l'adresse; cela, me
plait, car, dans l'instruction, l'adresse fait tout autant que le
savoir."

>From the parlour M. Pelet conducted me to my apartment, my
"chambre," as Monsieur said with a certain air of complacency.
It was a very small room, with an excessively small bed, but M.
Pelet gave me to understand that I was to occupy it quite alone,
which was of course a great comfort. Yet, though so limited in
dimensions, it had two windows. Light not being taxed in
Belgium, the people never grudge its admission into their houses;
just here, however, this observation is not very APROPOS, for one
of these windows was boarded up; the open windows looked into the
boys' playground. I glanced at the other, as wondering what
aspect it would present if disencumbered of the boards. M. Pelet
read, I suppose, the expression of my eye; he explained:--

"La fenetre fermee donne sur un jardin appartenant a un
pensionnat de demoiselles," said he, "et les convenances exigent
--enfin, vous comprenez--n'est-ce pas, monsieur?"

"Oui, oui," was my reply, and I looked of course quite satisfied;
but when M. Pelet had retired and closed the door after him, the
first thing I did was to scrutinize closely the nailed boards,
hoping to find some chink or crevice which I might enlarge, and
so get a peep at the consecrated ground. My researches were
vain, for the boards were well joined and strongly nailed. It is
astonishing how disappointed I felt. I thought it would have
been so pleasant to have looked out upon a garden planted with
flowers and trees, so amusing to have watched the demoiselles at
their play; to have studied female character in a variety of
phases, myself the while sheltered from view by a modest muslin
curtain, whereas, owing doubtless to the absurd scruples of some
old duenna of a directress, I had now only the option of looking
at a bare gravelled court, with an enormous "pas de geant" in the
middle, and the monotonous walls and windows of a boys'
school-house round. Not only then, but many a time after,
especially in moments of weariness and low spirits, did I look
with dissatisfied eyes on that most tantalizing board, longing to
tear it away and get a glimpse of the green region which I
imagined to lie beyond. I knew a tree grew close up to the
window, for though there were as yet no leaves to rustle, I often
heard at night the tapping of branches against the panes. In the
daytime, when I listened attentively, I could hear, even through
the boards, the voices of the demoiselles in their hours of
recreation, and, to speak the honest truth, my sentimental
reflections were occasionally a trifle disarranged by the not
quite silvery, in fact the too often brazen sounds, which, rising
from the unseen paradise below, penetrated clamorously into my
solitude. Not to mince matters, it really seemed to me a
doubtful case whether the lungs of Mdlle. Reuter's girls or those
of M. Pelet's boys were the strongest, and when it came to
shrieking the girls indisputably beat the boys hollow. I forgot
to say, by-the-by, that Reuter was the name of the old lady who
had had my window bearded up. I say old, for such I, of course,
concluded her to be, judging from her cautious, chaperon-like
proceedings; besides, nobody ever spoke of her as young. I
remember I was very much amused when I first heard her Christian
name; it was Zoraide--Mademoiselle Zoraide Reuter. But the
continental nations do allow themselves vagaries in the choice of
names, such as we sober English never run into. I think, indeed,
we have too limited a list to choose from.

Meantime my path was gradually growing smooth before me. I, in a
few weeks, conquered the teasing difficulties inseparable from
the commencement of almost every career. Ere long I had acquired
as much facility in speaking French as set me at my ease with my
pupils; and as I had encountered them on a right footing at the
very beginning, and continued tenaciously to retain the advantage
I had early gained, they never attempted mutiny, which
circumstance, all who are in any degree acquainted with the
ongoings of Belgian schools, and who know the relation in which
professors and pupils too frequently stand towards each other in
those establishments, will consider an important and uncommon
one. Before concluding this chapter I will say a word on the
system I pursued with regard to my classes: my experience may
possibly be of use to others.

It did not require very keen observation to detect the character
of the youth of Brabant, but it needed a certain degree of tact
to adopt one's measures to their capacity. Their intellectual
faculties were generally weak, their animal propensities strong;
thus there was at once an impotence and a kind of inert force in
their natures; they were dull, but they were also singularly
stubborn, heavy as lead and, like lead, most difficult to move.
Such being the case, it would have been truly absurd to exact
from them much in the way of mental exertion; having short
memories, dense intelligence, feeble reflective powers, they
recoiled with repugnance from any occupation that demanded close
study or deep thought. Had the abhorred effort been extorted
from them by injudicious and arbitrary measures on the part of
the Professor, they would have resisted as obstinately, as
clamorously, as desperate swine; and though not brave singly,
they were relentless acting EN MASSE.

I understood that before my arrival in M. Pelet's establishment,
the combined insubordination of the pupils had effected the
dismissal of more than one English master. It was necessary then
to exact only the most moderate application from natures so
little qualified to apply--to assist, in every practicable way,
understandings so opaque and contracted--to be ever gentle,
considerate, yielding even, to a certain point, with dispositions
so irrationally perverse; but, having reached that culminating
point of indulgence, you must fix your foot, plant it, root it in
rock--become immutable as the towers of Ste. Gudule; for a step
--but half a step farther, and you would plunge headlong into the
gulf of imbecility; there lodged, you would speedily receive
proofs of Flemish gratitude and magnanimity in showers of Brabant
saliva and handfuls of Low Country mud. You might smooth to the
utmost the path of learning, remove every pebble from the track;
but then you must finally insist with decision on the pupil
taking your arm and allowing himself to be led quietly along the
prepared road. When I had brought down my lesson to the lowest
level of my dullest pupil's capacity--when I had shown myself the
mildest, the most tolerant of masters--a word of impertinence, a
movement of disobedience, changed me at once into a despot. I
offered then but one alternative--submission and acknowledgment
of error, or ignominious expulsion. This system answered, and my
influence, by degrees, became established on a firm basis. "The
boy is father to the man," it is said; and so I often thought
when looked at my boys and remembered the political history of
their ancestors. Pelet's school was merely an epitome of the
Belgian nation.

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AND Pelet himself? How did I continue to like him? Oh,extremely well! Nothing could be more smooth, gentlemanlike,and even friendly, than his demeanour to me. I had to endurefrom him neither cold neglect, irritating interference, norpretentious assumption of superiority. I fear, however, twopoor, hard-worked Belgian ushers in the establishment could nothave said as much; to them the director's manner was invariablydry, stern, and cool. I believe he perceived once or twice thatI was a little shocked at the difference he made between them andme, and accounted for it by saying, with a quiet sarcasticsmile--"Ce ne
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I RE-ENTERED the town a hungry man; the dinner I had forgottenrecurred seductively to my recollection; and it was with a quickstep and sharp appetite I ascended the narrow street leading tomy lodgings. It was dark when I opened the front door and walkedinto the house. I wondered how my fire would be; the night wascold, and I shuddered at the prospect of a grate full ofsparkless cinders. To my joyful surprise, I found, on enteringmy sitting-room, a good fire and a clean hearth. I had hardlynoticed this phenomenon, when I became aware of another subjectfor wonderment;
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