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A Plantation Retrospect

ISSUE:  Autumn 1931

The background on which my early life in Charlotte County, Virginia—1860-1879, say—was projected, was essentially what it had been during the Slave Era, that is to say, English with a deep Negro pigmentation. Some years ago I said in an address of welcome that I was asked to deliver by, the English-Speaking Union of Baltimore, in honor of that high-minded gentleman, Sir Esme Howard, the British Ambassador to our country, and his charming wife, Lady Isabella, that I was born and bred in a community in which the lineage of every white individual went back, as straight as the flight of a bee, to some British ancestor. Go, however, in any direction you might in that community, you were certain, in the end, to come around to the Negro. For a time, in Charlotte County, after the Civil War, the Negroes had nocturnal meetings in the woods, and worked themselves up almost to the pitch of believing that the property of their former masters would be confiscated by the Federal Government, for their benefit, and that each Negro head of a family would be allotted forty acres and a mule. I remember that shortly after the Civil War a Negro woman at Staunton Hill, my father’s home, told one of my older brothers, when he was gathering some apples for the Mansion House, that he would soon be only too glad to gather apples for her; and, while disaffection among the Negroes on the Staunton Hill plantation after the Civil War was never very serious, it was at one time, just after the close of the Civil War, serious enough to make it necessary for my father to have a Federal officer come up from Charlotte Court House to Staunton Hill, and order a group of Negro hands, who had desisted from labor on the strength of their proprietary expectations, to abandon their fool’s paradise and get back to work. After that, the plantation hands at Staunton Hill settled down to their former habits of industry, and, for all practical purposes, occupied the same relations to my father that they had done when slaves, except that they received monthly wages for their labor and could leave the Staunton Hill plantation whenever they chose; something, however, which they rarely did.

That, when slavery went, it was high time for it to go, no rational or dispassionate thinker will deny. The temper of the civilized world had become too sensitively humane to tolerate any, longer the idea of man holding property in man. Moreover, the glaring contrast between the rapid and varied economic development of the North and the tardy and stereotyped economic development of the South was too manifest to admit of any explanation except one based on the profound industrial difference between alert, sanguine free-labor, and inert, listless slave-labor. But as a general proposition the idea that, both before and after the Civil War, a Virginia plantation owner was an unfeeling taskmaster, is not maintainable. Harsh task-masters there were here and there in Virginia, just as there were tyrannical fathers or husbands here and there in Virginia and other communities; and unquestionably, after the Civil War, many land-owners were too impoverished to do things for their former slaves that they would fain have done. But I have no reason to believe that the relations sustained by my father in my early life to his former slaves differed substantially from those that his landed neighbors sustained to theirs; and what his relations were I can state with confidence. Not only as a slave-holder, but as an employer of his former slaves, it was no uncommon thing for him even to visit the bedside of a Negro afflicted with some contagious or infectious disease. How many ordinary employers would do as much at the present time? Moreover, when one of these Negroes was ill, my father saw to it that he did not suffer for lack of medicine or invalid diet. And I can personally bear witness that, as far back as my retrospect goes, never during the life of my father, or of my mother after his death, or during my life since her death, did he or she or some of their children fail to support, in reasonable comfort, down to the day of his or her death, any decrepit man or woman who had been a slave of my father and had adhered to his fortunes after the Civil War. Of all these family dependents only one—an aged woman named Hannah Armistead— now survives.

And richly, in affectionate gratitude, it is but just to say, has all that my parents and their descendants ever did for any of my father’s slaves been repaid. When the country about Staunton Hill was swarming, at the close of the Civil War, with marauders from both armies, my father secretly buried his rare collection of family silver underground, at a spot remote from the Staunton Hill Mansion House; and Israel, who had been a slave of his, a coal-black, resolute, sagacious man, was the only person on the Staunton Hill plantation, with the exception of my mother, who shared his secret, unless Phoebe, Israel’s wife and my deputy-mother or “Mammy,” was another. A senile, helpless dependent, for a long time, of my father, was old Mat, a famous bateau-man on the Staunton River, who had been almost strong enough in his prime to have matched such of the twelve labors of Hercules as called for mere brute force. I recall his saying once to my father, after my father had long supplied him in his extreme old age with a house, food, clothes, and everything essential to his comfort: “Marster, you is my Jesus.” Oh, no! my father was not that. There is no Jesus save one only: the Master of Mat and my father and of all the world besides. But I have always believed that Mat’s speech, however, rash, was not an affront to his loving ear.

After my father’s death my mother was left almost alone in the Staunton Hill Mansion House, and more than once, when I would visit her, I would ask her whether she had noted any inattention to her interests or wants on the part of any of the old family servants that had come down to her from my father; and invariably she would reply that she had observed none at all, but that on the contrary she was enveloped by an atmosphere of solicitous good will and attachment which left nothing to be desired. In fine, if the relations of the Staunton Hill Bruces to their Negro friends were deleted from their family history, a large part of the strength and beauty of that history would be destroyed.

Of course, that old Virginia rural life lacked much in the way of material luxury to which we are all accustomed now. Bathing facilities were, according to our present standards, limited; sanitary plumbing was rare indeed; you could not touch a button at night and fill your entire room with an instantaneous outburst of light as you can do now. Days were spent in hauling fuel from the woods, and hours in cutting it up into the proper lengths for the fire-place. Even at a comparatively luxurious home like Staunton Hill, all the water that was used for bathing or for sanitary, pantry, or laundry purposes was forced up to the house by a hydraulic ram through a leaden pipe, which rendered it unfit for drinking; and for more than forty years every drop of water that was drunk in the Staunton Hill house was brought to it by the hand, of Jonathan, our butler, or of some assistant of his, from a sweet freestone spring beside the path which led from his house to the Mansion House. As I said some years ago, in an address to a gathering of Frederick County, Maryland, men and women, I never think of that spring that the words of David do not come back to me: “Oh! that one would give me to drink of the water of the well at Bethlehem which is beside the gate.” There was, of course, no such thing as an automobile, a telephone, or a radio equipment. There were no roads but dirt roads, in which the wheels of wagons sank at times, in winter, almost to their very hubs. There was such a thing as rus in urbe then, but no such thing as urbs in rure as there is now, thanks to concrete roads, the motor car, the telephone, and the radio.

And it must be admitted that, in some respects, manners were quite primitive. For example, the habit of chewing tobacco, which my father abhorred, was very common, even among people of good social standing, and was sometimes indulged in quite a reckless way. It was, perhaps, my knowledge of this fact in my earlier years that led me, when the president of one of the trust companies of Baltimore— himself a furtive chewer—had a number of tall spittoons placed in his trust company building, to congratulate him upon adding another safe deposit feature to his institution. The manners of the time were also marked by a certain degree of rusticity in dress and deportment that intimate intercommunication between city and city and between city and country has since largely rubbed off.

But it will not do for the manners of one age to censure too severely the manners of another. It could not be more disgusting to a well-bred individual of the present era to see a man of his own social class expectorating tobacco juice than it would have been to an individual of the same class in Southern Virginia, in my youth, to have seen a young girl drink a cocktail before dinner and consume a half-dozen cigarettes or so after it. And I imagine that a well-bred Southern Virginia woman of our day would not have been more amused by the Virginia prudery of fifty or sixty years ago, which has even been charged with covering piano legs with pantalettes, than would a well-bred Southern Virginia woman of that time be shocked by the incompleteness of what women now deem “full dress.”

Nor was the Southern Virginia of my youth free from infirmities which were distinctly referable to the quasi-aristocratic conditions created by slavery. One of the shortcomings of the ruling class, bred by those conditions, was indifference to the education of the less fortunate members of society. It is a fact, though a fact not generally realized, that before the Civil War academic and collegiate education was more common in Virginia than in any of the other states of the Union. But elementary education—the only kind of education which the great mass of men can even yet hope to enjoy—lagged far behind the noble system of general popular education which Massachusetts early adopted, and which the great, open mind of Jefferson vainly endeavored to establish in Virginia. The result was a degree of illiteracy among the poorer Virginia whites which was reproachfully noted by foreign observers, before the Civil War, in the same breath with their encomiums on the educated intelligence, knowledge of the world, and attractive manners of the Virginia landed aristocracy; and it was not until after the Civil War that any real effort was made to bring this illiteracy to an end. Then, if for no other reason, the humbler whites had in every respect to be taken more fully into account than formerly because it was only by the closest union between all elements of the white population of Virginia that they could all be protected against the deadly menace of Negro suffrage. This fact, along with the direct blow to caste, in every degree, given by the very emancipation of the Negro itself, and the general disruption in other respects of the foundations of the old Southern plantation system worked by the Civil War, gradually, diminished the political ascendancy of the upper planter class in Virginia and enhanced the political influence of all the whites who had been subject to its sway. These changes, in the long reckoning, were, in my judgment, salutary changes; but it would have been a fortunate thing indeed if some of the other Southern States could have had the rich reserve of conservative traditions that enabled Virginia to tide over them without the grave measure of political demoralization which those other Southern States have undergone. This demoralization will never be fully corrected until their systems of public education shall have been brought up to a level of efficiency sufficient to produce something fit to take the place of the talents and honorable spirit of the pre-Civil War oligarchy by which they were once controlled. Even such an irreclaimable Democrat as myself might well ask, but for his feeling of certainty that time will finally bring those systems of public education up to that level, whether a small ruling class that produced in South Carolina, for example, such a shining group of public men as Calhoun, Lowndes, McDuffie, Cheves, William C. Preston, General Wade Hampton and General M. C. Butler, can be wisely exchanged for a general electorate which seems to be almost as willing to be represented by a rampant demagogue or a grotesque mountebank as by a true representative of all that is best in the mind and soul of a people.

Another infirmity which lurked in the quasi-aristocratic conditions of which I have spoken, was the excessive sensitiveness to every point of personal honor or dignity that they engendered. Within proper limits, of course, this was a fine thing; and it was the root of much that was most admirable in the Southern character. That chastity of honor which feels a stain like a wound, to use Burke’s phrase, is an attribute as indispensable to public representation in its highest manifestations as the chastity of the body is to womanhood in its perfection; and there is something that commands at least our momentary approval in the utterance of the ante-Civil War Virginia magistrate who dismissed a charge of assault and battery with the observation: “A man who calls another a liar strikes the first blow.” The fact that under such conditions an individual was quickly held to personal responsibility for an affront had something to do perhaps with the courteous spirit which was so characteristic of social intercourse in Southern Virginia in my youth, and which is reflected to a noteworthy extent, in student manners at the University of Virginia, for instance, even today. It undoubtedly, I am sorry as a biographer to say, had not a little to do with the habit of destroying familiar letters which was so common in Virginia households. Undeniably, human pride in the Virginia of my youth was too hair-triggered.

My knowledge of its plantation life, however, was not such as to make me agree, except quite cautiously, with the familiar statements of Jefferson in his “Notes on Virginia”: “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism, on the one hand, and degrading submission on the other. Our children see this and learn to imitate.” I can truly say that in my youth, though th*1 Negro in Southern Virginia was still almost as servile as when he was a slave, I never saw a Negro made the subject of any “boisterous passions” or “unremitting despotism” that might not have been visited on any one else by a white rowdy or skinflint. All that the poorer whites asked of the Negro was to be let alone, and the upper-class whites, like persons of the same social training in other American communities, had as a rule too much good breeding and good feeling to tyrannize grossly over any underling, whatever the color of his skin. Nor can I recollect that, as a child, I learned to imitate any bad treatment inflicted by my parents or any other older persons upon Negroes. As far as my parents were concerned, there was none to imitate, as the cordial and lasting ties which existed between them and their former slaves, after the Civil War, abundantly evidenced. I was certainly not held in too much awe for a young Negro, with whom I had just been “washing” in Turnip Creek on the Staunton Hill plantation, when I was a boy, not to say to me, as we were sunning our naked bodies on the creek bank, “You’se jes’ as po’ as a snake.” And many a husk and stone battle did I wage with young Negroes on the Staunton Hill plantation without their ever exhibiting, so far as I can recollect, the slightest reverence for the person of which that particular young Negro bather had such a mean opinion. Yes, in many respects the young master and his Negro companions were far removed from each other by, insurmountable barriers of race, but then in not a few important respects they were very close to each other indeed.

All the same, one of the moral effects of slavery was, as I have intimated, to breed to a certain extent a too high-strung, imperious, and resentful spirit. Men and women nursed scratches and pin-pricks that should have been allowed to heal without comment. Boys came to blows over hasty utterances that might well have been safely left for redress, if worthy of notice at all, to the general sense of social decency; and even after the Civil War, and long after the English people and the inhabitants of the Northern States of the Union had given up the duello as a wicked and senseless practice, Virginians and other Southern adults stiU resorted to it, at times, as a salve for wounded honor. In other words, the temperament of the Virginian of my youth was too choleric, too mettlesome, too disposed to see slight, indignity, or affront, where none was really intended. And this, of course, in the case of a people as essentially English as the Virginia people were, could not have sprung from anything but the spirit of caste begotten by slavery.

Neither, in concluding what I have) to say, about life in Southern Virginia in my youth, can I overlook the fact that it was discredited to some extent, too, by the opportunities that it afforded for sensual intercourse between lewd white men and degraded black or mulatto women. After the emancipation of the Negro there was not so much of this kind of intercourse as there had been before, for the simple reason that white men could no longer indulge in it without more or less surrendering their general racial reservations; but even during my youth it was quite common. Indeed, it was naturally so because, for all practical purposes, it entirely took the place of the illicit commerce between immoral men and immoral women which is practiced covertly in every community in the world to fully as great, or to an even greater extent, without regard to race. In my opinion, the sexual morals of young unmarried men in the Virginia of my youth were no better or worse than those of young unmarried men in other parts of the United States today; but I also believe that the sexual morals of married men were far better; though I can recall at least one married landowner, in the vicinage of Staunton Hill, who forgot his nuptial vow in the arms of a Negro concubine. However, in his case his neighbors of his own class refused to cancel the sentence of social excommunication which they had passed upon him because of his marital infidelity, until he had confessed his sin and craved absolution in facie ecclesim. This reminds me of the fact that the pariah of the region in which I was born and bred was another white land-owner who had quite a group of illegitimate mulatto children, with whom he lived on very familiar terms. But one of the most pathetic features of the irregular connections between white men and black or mulatto women in Southern Virginia, before and after the emancipation of the Negro, is found in the fact that the extraordinarily high standard of chastity which prevailed among white women during that period, in that region—a standard as high, in my opinion, as any that has ever existed anywhere in the world—,was unquestionably to some degree due to the facility with which lascivious white men could gratify lust by resort to women of another race whose youthful chastity had never been informed by the same educational precepts or been safeguarded by the same austere penalties as that of the white women about them.

But weak, in some respects, as was the economic structure of the old Virginia society, in my youth, prominent as were some of its social, educational, and moral defects, it was uncommonly sound at the core. The land-owner of the higher planter class may have had more acreage than ready cash; but, so far as the primary wants of human beings are concerned, he lived, to use a good old phrase, in abundance. His fields, his garden, his flocks, and his barnyard furnished him with almost everything in the way of food, and many black hands performed almost everything in the way of personal or mechanical service that those wants require. If he had some of the shortcomings of the privileged slave-holding order to which he belonged, he had, as I affirm in my biography of John Randolph of Roanoke, many of its virtues too — “pride of character, a nice sense of honor, courage, freedom from sordid passions and vulgar propensities, courtesy and chivalrous deference for womanhood.” His healthful open-air pursuits and remoteness from the vanities and dissipations of city life, if nothing else, kept him clear, to a great extent, of most forms of sensual indulgence and enervation, In other words, the ideal of the class to which such a planter belonged, was simple, upright, courageous manhood in men, and gentleness and unblemished fair fame in women. If a Southside Virginian of the dominant race showed the white feather in a moment of peril, the fact was not forgotten as long as he lived. If a Southside Virginia woman of the dominant race became involved in scandal, the fact was not forgotten as long as she lived. In my early fife, people in Southern Virginia were still talking about the hundred-year-old fauw pas of Nancy Randolph, the cousin of John Randolph of Roanoke, as if she were the only woman of the gentry class in that part of Virginia who had ever stooped to folly. And it is but just to say that, relatively restricted as were the educational and social opportunities of the poorer whites of Southern Virginia in my youth, they possessed to a remarkable degree many of the leading virtues of their social superiors. However landless or illiterate, they were, as a rule, independent and self-respecting in spirit, brave and honest, and prized virtuous womanhood quite as highly as the upper classes.

During my ownership, after the death of my parents, of the Staunton Hill Mansion House and a great part of the Staunton Hill estate — an ownership which lasted for many years—I had a large number of white tenants, and it affords me pleasure to testify that never did I have any reason to believe that any one of them had ever stolen anything from me or attempted to cheat me in any business transactions, or that the conduct of the wife or daughter of any one of them, as a woman, had ever been drawn into question. I have been familiar with the Staunton Hill plantation for some fifty-five years of mature observation, and during that time no grave crime has ever been committed on it, though it has had, at times, a population of between three and four hundred people on it; that is to say, no murder, no rape, no arson, no offense worse than petty Negro pilferings from the Mansion House, store-room, or pantry, or from orchards, cornfields, or hen-houses. I know from the testimony of my parents that during the Slave Era it was a matter of little concern to them whether the doors and first-floor windows of the Mansion House were fastened at night or not; and even during my, youth, fear of nocturnal thieves was so slight that no interior precautions were taken to protect the family silver against them. As late as 1907, J. Cullen Carrington, the County Clerk of Charlotte County, stated in his valuable hand-book relating to that county that, though it had a population of 15,355 persons, it was no uncommon occurrence for its county jail to be totally without inmates, and that in 1906 the number of inmates in its county poor-house averaged only eleven. Those figures, of course, were a tribute not only to the good behavior and thrift of the white population of Charlotte County, but to the good behavior and thrift of its Negro population likewise.

The splendid material luxury of the present time is not a thing to be lightly disparaged. The delights of pastoral simplicity, it must be confessed, reside mainly in the idyllic visions of the poet; and the general advance of material civilization in recent decades has at least been attended by, a striking improvement in the lot of the manual worker, with which no fault can possibly be found, from any point of view. Highly satisfactory, too, is the extent to which the human intellect has widened the boundaries of scientific knowledge, and general popular education has softened the artificial distinctions which formerly did so much to keep human beings coldly apart. Equally gratifying is the degree to which wealth and philanthrophy have clasped hands for the purpose of promoting every form of human well-being, educational or otherwise. Nevertheless, it is my belief that, religiously and morally speaking, the old Virginia social life of my youth (I know no other except by hearsay) was decidedly superior, in many leading respects, to the social life of Virginia or any other part of our common country at the present day. In other words, I think that it was truer to “the kindred points of Heaven and Home,” more responsive to “Pure Religion breathing household laws,” to borrow some august lines from Wordsworth. It is my conviction that in point of purity of life and integrity of character the Presbyterian clergy in Southern Virginia, with which I was so familiar in my youth, has never been excelled. They were, as a rule, thoroughly qualified by education, at the Hampden-Sydney Theological Seminary or some other kindred institution, for the academic side of their exalted function. I can not recall a serious reproach that ever attached to any one of them as a man. At times, one of them would borrow a sum of money, for the purpose of furnishing his home or improving the small parcel of arable land about it, from my father, who, though no moneylender, usually had a little more surplus income than his neighbors; and more than once have I heard him say that nothing could be more nicely punctilious than the promptitude with which every such loan, principal and interest, was met. One of the ministers at Roanoke Presbyterian Church, which my parents attended, the Reverend Mr. Alexander Martin, an admirable man in every respect, was so attached to his flock that when some of its members, who were either too old or too young for ordinary military, service, were suddenly called into the field during the Civil War to repel a Federal cavalry raid near Randolph Station, in Charlotte County, he went off with them and shared all their perils. Of him, as of all the other good men who were ministers at Roanoke Church during my early life, it could aptly be said in the words of “The Deserted Village”:

He tried each art, reprov’d each dull delay, Allur’d to brighter worlds, and led the way.

And it is a great pleasure to me to remember that, even during the Reconstruction Period after the Civil War, when the night that enveloped the South was so black that a man could scarcely see his hand before him, I never once heard the slightest reference made to politics in the pulpit of Roanoke Church, or to anything but Christ crucified and the supreme beauty of a life at peace with God and His ordinances. If one had been made, I am certain that it would have been an offense to the profound spiritual instincts of the Roanoke Church congregation. And these Presbyterian ministers, who were so successful in reconciling their small salaries with human dignity and rectitude in their very, highest forms, were esteemed as they deserved. When a church convocation of any kind was held in the Roanoke Church, every Presbyterian landholder in its vicinity considered it an honor to have one or more of them under his roof; and the first thought that my father and mother had, when an especially fine beef or sheep had been butchered on the Staunton Hill plantation, was to send a choice part of it to the Roanoke parsonage as an offering of their respect and attachment. And yet, in that intensely religious community, narrow sectarian prejudices were kept well within bounds. There were no Catholics or Jews in it —only Protestants; but the kindest feelings existed between the members of the different Protestant sects. When a new Baptist Church was built near Coles Ferry, though an Episcopalian by birth and a Presbyterian by marriage, my father was one of the largest contributors to the cost of building it; and for quite a time, until they, became strong enough to erect a church of their own near Staunton Hill, the Episcopalians in the Staunton Hill neighborhood, with the consent of their Presbyterian brothers, held their services every Sunday afternoon in Roanoke Church. The only thing in the way of sectarian criticism that I can recall was a good-natured disposition on the part of the Presbyterians and other evangelical religionists to regard the Episcopal Church as a formal, luke-warm sort of institution. When Dr. J. L. M. Curry, a former member of Congress, who was at one time a Baptist minister, was making a series of public speeches in Virginia, insisting upon the troth that the State of Virginia had plighted to her creditors, and the Reverend William S, Rainsford, the Episcopalian rector was, at the same time, delivering a series of evangelistic sermons in Richmond, an old Virginia Presbyterian is said to have asked: “What is the world coming to anyhow? Here are the Baptists tampering with politics and the Episcopalians with religion.” Another story was told in my youth of a Presbyterian who, when under ecclesiastical fire for some form of misconduct, blubbered out: “I am going to give up religion and go over to the Episcopals.” But of course sectarian bigotry that did not get any further than stories of this kind was not very, deeply rooted.

At that day religion was a truly vital thing. Heaven did not seem so far up in the ether; Hell did not seem so far down in the dark core of the earth. The ineffable joys of the one and the penal terrors of the other were incontestable actualities then. Religion stood like some visible presence beside the infant at the baptismal font, the maid at the marriage altar, the mature man or woman in his or her daily struggles with the passions, the temptations, and the trials of practical life, and the human soul taking its flight from its tenement of shattered clay. Thousands of human beings in the Southern Virginia of my youth realized the meaning of Christ and his word as intensely as any of the Christian saints, martyrs, or pilgrims of the Old World ever did. I once heard a pulpit orator of that day describe the sufferings of our Lord, his stripes, his crown of thorns, his drink of vinegar, his bleeding hands and feet, his place between two crucified thieves, in a word, all the details of his physical and mental agony in his last hours, with such pathos that I, sinner as I was, almost felt that I could have endured an eternity of suffering to have given him even momentary surcease of pain.

But, so far as this world is concerned, it was “pure religion, breathing household laws” that gave to religion in that old Southern Virginia life its chief worth. “Once a wife, always a wife” was one of the cardinal maxims of that life. Then, marriage was indeed “an honorable estate, instituted of God.” Divorce was practically, unknown; and so was domestic scandal. There may have been white married couples in the vicinity of Staunton Hill during my early life who wished to escape from the bonds of wedlock, but they never let any one know that they did. If any there were, they kept their griefs to themselves; and contrived by mutual consideration and forbearance to go along together, if not hand in hand, yet side by side, until the end. Divorce itself was deemed as disgraceful as almost any cause for it.

The only married unhappiness ever brought to my attention in my youth was due to excessive drink on the part of the husband, and that was not so frequent after all. I never saw a drunken woman, white or black, until I was some twenty-five or -six years of age, and then it was not in Virginia that I saw her. And so steadily did intemperance, even on the part of men, decline in Charlotte County between my boyhood and the beginning of the present century, that before even state prohibition was adopted by the State of Virginia, to say nothing of the Federal Prohibition that followed it, there was not a country store in many miles of Staunton Hill at which a drop of intoxicating liquor could be bought. And this state of things was brought about by public opinion entirely without the aid of law. The Southside Virginia of my early, life was by no means an Elysium, blessed with all that “poets feign or feel of bliss °r joy,” but its white inhabitants can justly be declared to have been distinguished by all that was best in the social, moral, and religious characteristics of the race oversea from which they almost exclusively derived their descent.


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