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Jack London: The Stories
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“Why this longing for life?
It is a game which no man wins.”

Part VIII of a Series
by Dale L. Walker

"Nature was not kindly to the flesh," London wrote in "The Law of Life" (McClure's Magazine, March, 1900). "She had no concern for that concrete thing called the individual. Her interest lay in the species, the race. . . .But one task did Nature set the individual. Did he not perform it, he died. Did he perform it, it was all the same, he died. Nature did not care; there were plenty who were obedient, and it was only the obedience in this matter, not the obedient, which lived and lived always. . . .Nature did not care. To life she set one task, gave one law. To perpetuate was the task of life, its law was death."

In this story, London practically defined naturalism, a term later applied by literary scholars to some of his fiction. In essence, states Harry Shaw in his Concise Dictionary of Literary Terms (1972), naturalism in literature is "an attempt to achieve fidelity to nature by rejecting idealized portrayals of life. . . . Naturalistic writers hold that man's existence is shaped by heredity and environment, over which he has no control and about which he can exercise little if any choice." In novels and plays (and presumably short fiction) in this "movement," Shaw states, the emphasis is given to "the animal nature of man," and the portrayal of "characters engrossed in a brutal struggle for survival."

(While mention of Darwin or Darwinian principles are unstated in Shaw's definition of naturalism, London's naturalism is a lingering echo of his readings into Darwin and his adherence to Darwin's theories.)

“Koskoosh, of The Law of Life, is London's naturalistic exemplar.”

Among American naturalistic writers — Stephen Crane, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner — London may be the truest specimen. Like the others, only a portion of his work bore the naturalistic stamp, but a good argument could be made that his best work was thus stamped.

Koskoosh, of "The Law of Life," is London's naturalistic exemplar.

He was a chief of his people and now sits alone in the snow with a small pile of firewood as his people's lodges are packed and readied to move to a new camp. His son, now chief, comes for farewell and Koskoosh says, "It is well. I am as a last year's leaf, clinging lightly to the stem. The first breath that blows, and I fall. My voice is become like an old woman'. My eyes no longer show me the way of my feet, and my feet are heavy, and I am tired. It is well."

Koskoosh had abandoned his own father on an upper reaches of the Klondike one winter; he had seen the Great Famine, and times of plenty and of war. He ponders the days of his youth, feeding his dwindling fire, thinking of an old moose with torn flanks and bloodied sides, tossing his horns to the last as the circle of wolves close in.

Now the wolves close in on him; he drops the blazing sticks in the snow, drops is head wearily upon his knees. "What did it matter after all? Was it not the law of life?"

Franklin Walker, in his Jack London and the Klondike (1966), makes an important observation about this story in stating, ". . .London continued to dramatize his interpretation of Darwin, feeling that here the biological theory of survival of the fittest applied to the extinction of the moose and the old man just as in "The League of the Old Men" it applied to the success of the virile, imaginative races like the Anglo-Saxons, the 'salt of the earth,' as he liked to call them."

(McClure's Magazine, a literary and political periodical, was founded by Samuel McClure in June 1893, and was best known for publishing the work of such leading popular writers as Rudyard Kipling, Jack London and Arthur Conan Doyle, and for the "muckraking" journalism of Ida Tarbell, Lincoln Steffens, and Ray Stannard Baker. The last issue of McClure's appeared in March 1929.)

No such weighty matters as naturalism are to be found in "Dutch Courage" (Youth's Companion, November 29, 1900) but London may have been giving some thought to the amount of liquor he was imbibing when he wrote it. The two friends, Gus Lafee and Hazard Van Dorn, hiking and horseback riding in Yosemite Valley, see a distress signal atop the High Dome formation and decide to ascend to rescue the person above. Hazard has a flask of whiskey — "Dutch courage. . .We'll need all our nerve in this undertaking," he says.

"How they had ever come possessed of this erroneous idea, it would be hard to discover," London says, "but they were young yet, and there remained for them many uncut pages of life. Believers, also, in the efficacy of whiskey as a remedy for snake bite, they had brought with them a fair supply of medicine-chest liquor. As yet they had not touched it."

They forego "the touch of the Dutch courage en route, depending on their gameness instead," and rescue a man whose rope had slipped down the mountainside and who had spent a cold night on the Dome. He declines the drink offered him and the two friends, when they reach the ground, conclude that "there isn't very much in Dutch courage, after all." Hazard says, "Look at what we've done without it," and he tosses the flask away.

(The Youth's Companion was published between 1892 and 1929, and had a circulation of over 500,000 in 1900. London's first story in the magazine was "Pluck and Pertinacity" in the September 22, 1899, issue.)

The title, "Grit of Women" (McClure's, August, 1900), describes a familiar theme in London's fiction — the woman as superior, certainly equal, to the man in strength of character. Sitka Charley tells this story in –68 weather, in camp with Bettles, Prince, Louis Savoy, and a young cheechako.

Charley reminisces on the time when he traveled with a man named Long Jeff and a Chilcat woman named Passuk to deliver government mail 700 miles to whale-ships on the ice-rim of the Bering Sea. Passuk was needed to feed the dogs and "lift a paddle" and Long Jeff, a big, young, muscular Yankee, turned out to be "big of talk and a mighty traveler whose big talk betokened a streak of fat."

Famine and scurvy descends upon them; Long Jeff cries like a baby and Charley has to beat him with a dogwhip; Passuk does not complain: she cooks, lashes the dogs to the sled, breaks trail in snowshoes. They lose their dogs in a break in the ice and divide the grub, but Passuk says it is wrong to waste good food on a baby, and, Charley recalls, "she snatched the pistol from my belt, quick, and. . .Long Jeff went to the bosom of Abraham before his time."

As Passuk loses her strength and dies of starvation, she tells him, "You are my man, Charley, and I have been a good woman to you. . . .you were kind to me, Charley, as a good man is kind to his dog." Charley find that she has starved herself to save enough food to allow Charley to go on to the mission, 80 miles distant, and save himself.

"Why this longing for life?" is an important glimpse into the philosophical influences swarming in the mind of young Jack London:

Why this longing for life? It is a game which no man wins. To live is to toil hard, and to suffer sore, till Old Age creeps heavily upon us and we throw down our hands on the old man gasps his last, and all his days are full of trouble and sorrow; yet he goes down to the open arms of Death, stumbling, falling, with head turned backward, fighting to the last. And Death is kind. It is only Life, and the things of Life that hurt. Yet we love Life, and we hate Death. It is very strange.

"Jan, the Unrepentant" (Outing, August 1900), is an unremarkable $25 tale set in Nome, Alaska in '97 – "the Nome of golden beaches and ruby sands" — and deals with a German miner, "Jan," about to be hanged for killing one John Gordon in an argument.

“'Vengeance is mine,' saith the lord” — a man, a rope, and something to tie the rope to.

A berserker rage, a "madness," has overcome Jan, and while he escapes momentarily from his executioners, he has no place to run, and thus faces Judge Lynch, who requires only three things to fulfill the ancient admonition, "'Vengeance is mine,' saith the lord" — a man, a rope, and something to tie the rope to. The later item seems impossible to find in a treeless place of low hills and snow until a miner named Lawson comes up with the idea of making a tripod of oars, lashings and guyropes — a "shears" (or shear-legs) in sailor lingo — to swing Jan off to his reward.

But just as they are about to hang Jan in the shears in the gathering twilight, a specter, flapping ghostly arms "titubated toward them drunkenly." It is John Gordon. Jan's bullet just creased his skull and now he wants to fight Jan to make him apologize, but Jan says, thickly (London had not learned — nor would he — how to handle dialect), "I tank not. Shust tie me loose und you see. . . .Und after as I lick you, I take der rest of der noddleheads, von after der odder, altogedder!"

One interesting tit-bit about this story is London's use of the word "titubate." It is a rare pathological word for the staggering gait of people afflicted with equilibrium problems and nervous disorders. London discovered the word and used it (as a drunken stagger) more often than any writer of his time or later. See Jerry of the Islands, chap. VI; "First Aid to Rising Authors," Michael, Brother of Jerry, chap. 3; Burning Daylight, Part 1, chap. 3, "The Passing of Marcus O'Brien," and here, in "Jan, the Unrepentant".

(Outing was a sporting magazine which began publication in 1882 as the Wheelman and had four title changes before ceasing publication in 1923. The greatest triumph of the magazine was its serial publication of London's White Fang, May-October, 1906.)

Another tale set in Nome as well as in the Y.T. is "Which Make Men Remember" (as "Uri Bram's God," San Francisco Examiner, June 24, 1900). Here, a gambler with the fortuitous gambler name of Fortune La Perle has killed a man named John Randolph and is rescued from a mob by a stranger, Uri Bram, who takes La Perle to a shack to hide until the mob quiets and forgets their errand.

Bram has "the face of one who communed much with himself, a man of shut lips that no man might know. . . .He was narrow but deep; and La Perle, his own humanity broad and shallow, could make nothing of him."

After several weeks the heat is off and the two men load a sled, harness the dogs and take the trail to a claim Bram has at Eagle, near where the British flag waved over the barracks at Fort Cudahy. There, in camp, Bram asks La Perle if he ever heard of the Dead Horse Trail and proceeds to tell the story of that nightmarish place. "Sometimes there are meetings under circumstances which make men remember," he says portentously.

They were freighting an outfit over White Pass in '97, Bram relates, where horses died like mosquitos in the first frost and from Skagway to Bennett rotted in heaps. He tells of encountering a man on the trail with whom he became "blood brothers in starving misery," a man "with the heart of a Christ and the patience," who cared for his horses, bought expensive fodder, used his bedding to blanket their raw backs, and spent his last dollar on nails to shoe their raw and bleeding feet. This exemplary gentleman was John Randolph, the man Fortune La Perle has killed.

At the end of the trail, Bram says, when he and Randolph were broke and ruined, a man, who had killed 50 horses on the trail out of callousness, offered $5,000 for their animals. But, while the man with the money cursed them till his throat cracked, the two miners divided the string and shot them to the last one.

Bram says, "I have had faith in God all the days of my life. I believe He loves justice. I believe He is looking down upon us now, choosing between us. I believe He waits to work His will through my own right arm. And such is my belief, that we will take equal chance and let Him speak His own judgment." They have but one gun and La Perle wins a hand of cards to get the first shot. "Where is your God now?" he taunts as they pace off like duelists. But Bram whirls as the bullet strikes him and Fortune knows the wound is not mortal.

Now La Perle faces the pistol, certain that "Chance would not desert him now," but Uri Bram's shot is true: "Fortune did not whirl, but gay San Francisco dimmed and faded, and as the sun-bright snow turned black and blacker, he breathed his last malediction on the chance he had misplayed."

This story, sold to a penny-a-word newspaper for $40, is notable for its heartrending description of the infamous Dead Horse Trail:

They died at the Rocks, they were poisoned at the Summit, and they starved at the Lakes; they fell off the trail, what there was of it, or they went through it; in the river they drowned under their loads, or were smashed to pieces against the boulders; they snapped their legs in the crevices and broke their backs falling backwards with their packs; in the sloughs they sank from sight or smothered in the slime, and they were disemboweled in the bogs where corduroy logs turned end up in the mud; men shot them, worked them to death, and when they were gone, went back to the beach and bought more. Some did not bother to shoot them,--stripping the saddles off and the shoes and leaving them where they fell. Their hearts turned to stone--those which did not break--and they became beasts, the men on the Dead Horse Trail.

(The San Francisco Examiner has been published continuously since 1865. London's association with the paper occurred during its ownership by William Randolph Hearst who took over the struggling paper in 1887.)

"A Relic of the Pliocene" (Collier's Weekly, January 12, 1901) and "A Hyperborean Brew" (Metropolitan Magazine, July 14, 1901) are near twins: submitted to the magazines on the same day, published six months apart, each a Northland tall tale involving the adventures of the mighty hunter Thomas Stevens, "a homely, freckle-faced, blue-eyed man" who can be found "anywhere between 53 north latitude and the Pole, and, on the other hand, the likeliest hunting grounds that lie between the east coast of Siberia and farthermost Labrador.

Stevens wanders into the Yukon camp of a fellow nimrod, makes room for himself by the fire, and begins talking of his animal-slaughtering triumphs. He tells how he killed Siberian wolf in westernmost Alaska and chamois in the Rockies, how he knew where the last buffalo roamed and how he had slept in the Great Barrens on the musk ox's trail.

While his camp companion (narrator of the tale) tells the amusing, unbloody tale of the bear that hugs the slopes of St. Elias, a bear who has legs on one side a foot longer than the other. [See "Bald-Face," The High School Aegis, September 6, 1901, in Part VI of this series]. Stevens sniffs and shows Narrator his footgear. It is a mucluc of Innuit pattern made of a coarse, dirty, black hide with long tufts of hair — which, Stevens says, came from a mammoth.

He and his great dog Klooch were in camp, Stevens says, when a "hairy mountain of flesh" crashed into the place, stomped and killed the dog and her litter of seven pups, and ruined his rifle as well. The beast was 30 foot long and 20 high. The adventurer, armed only with a hand-ax, trails the beast and traps it in a small valley like a hippodrome, perhaps five miles around, and runs the beast for two months, not allowing it to eat, drink or sleep, until it "fell to whimpering and crying like a baby."

The prehistoric creature, his spirit broken, Stevens says proudly and with the sensitivity of a stone, is rendered a "whimpering jelly-mountain of misery" and that it "lay down, broken-winded, broken-hearted, hungry and thirsty," whereupon our noble adventurer fell upon the mammoth, hamstrung it, killed it, and ate parts of him, attesting that the four mammoth feet, roasted whole, would have lasted a man a twelvemonth.

Stevens gives his camp friend the mammoth muclucs for a supply of tobacco and in the end Narrator bids the skeptical reader to visit the Smithsonian Institution and ask for Prof. Dolvidson who will attest they were made from the hide of a mammoth.

(Collier's Weekly was founded in 1888 and advertised as a magazine of "fiction, fact, sensation, wit, humour, news." By 1892 it had a circulation of over 250,000 and was one of largest selling magazines in the United States. Norman Hapgood, who became editor of Collier's in 1903, developed a reputation of employing the country's leading writers and in May, 1906, commissioned Jack London to report on the San Francisco earthquake and fire. Like McClure's, Collier's published such important muckraking writers Ida Tarbell Samuel Hopkins Adams, and Ray Stannard Baker. The magazine reached its zenith in circulation — 2,500,000 weekly — during WW2 and closed down in January, 1957.)

London's anti-hero, the reprehensible Thomas Stevens, returns in "A Hyperborean Brew," "The story of a scheming white man among the strange people who live on the rim of the Arctic Sea." This traveler of countless trails from a Labrador factory, Dutch Harbor, the outer Aleutians, the mouth of the Mackenzie, this time tells his tale at John O'Brien's Dawson saloon wreathed in fifty-cent cigar smoke. ("His quest for tobacco was perennial and untiring.")

He tells of "a little brew I had up Tattarat way," this being on the rim of the Arctic Sea, when he and "his Indian" Moosu, a Chippewayan, lost their dogs and outfits crossing a divide in a blizzard. Starving, they crawled into a native village and there Stevens began scheming to improve his lot, particularly to get better food, and tobacco, known to be hidden in the village.

Our hero makes a still and mulcts from the chief shaman and others molasses, flour, a kerosene can and other implements to make a "hooch" (presumably from berries), invites the villagers in and gets them drunk.

The mammoth killer gets his tobacco and food and also teaches a lesson to Moosu, who has set himself up as a shaman. Stevens exposes Moosu, then, when the villagers are about to fall on the fake shaman, Stevens arranges to have Moosu rescued and brought to him, gives him a whipping, and extracts a promise that the Chippewayan will be faithful ever after.

(Metropolitan Magazine first appeared in 1895 as a sophisticated monthly aimed at New York City theater-goers, evolved into a political-literary periodical in the WW1 era, and in the 1920s was sold to entrepreneur Bernarr McFadden who changed the title, unfortunately, to McFadden's Fiction-Lovers Magazine.)

“...London revives a favored theme: the Kiplingesque conflict...”

In "Where the Trail Forks" (Outing, December, 1900), London revives a favored theme: the Kiplingesque conflict between between Anglo-Saxon mores and Indian religions and folkways. Four white men in a camp near an Indian village in the Yukon face a dilemma. The village is starving; the famine, so says the shaman, due to the advent of these uninvited strangers. To appease the tribal gods, Sipsu, the chief's daughter, is chosen to be sacrificed and while three of the four men chose not to interfere, one of them, named Hitchcock ("there was a certain chivalric thrill of warm blood in him, despite his Yankee ancestry and New England upbringing"), determines that he will not to let Sipsu die.

He packs his gear, takes his quarter share of grub and four dogs and leaves the camp, saying nothing of his plans. He returns, crawling through the snow to the chief's lodge where he rescues Sipsu. As they escape, yelping dogs wake the Indian village. Hitchcock takes his rifle butt to one attacker and Sipsu fetches the shaman a blow with her whip: "Thus is was when this primitive theologian got back to the chief's lodge, that his wisdom had been increased in so far as concerns the efficacy of the white man's fist. . ."

Hitchcock's three partners are killed in the melee and the shaman is honored for his wisdom.

NOTE: The end of this story contains a passage that seems to anticipate the denouement of another, immortal, story, published in 1903:

. . .the shepherd dog crept back to the deserted camp, and all night long and a day it wailed the dead. After that it disappeared, though the years were not many before the Indian hunters noted a change in the breed of timber wolves, and there were dashes of bright color and variegated markings, such as no wolf bore before.

A story of far greater racial implications — racism, at least as seen in the 21st century — is "The Great Interrogation" (Ainslee's Magazine, December 6, 1900), telling of the advent in the Yukon country of Karen Sayther who arrived in the spring with dog sleds and voyageurs, "blazed gloriously for a brief month, and departed up the river as soon as it was free of ice."

She was pretty, charming, the widow of Col. Sayther, great mining man, and was received wide-armed by Eldorado Kings although none could figure why she would come to the northland. One of her boatmen, Pierre Fontaine, tells of taking her to an island below the Stuart River where a man named David Payne had a cabin. Payne (now prospecting on Henderson Creek) and Karen, as it happens, once had a "relationship," but she elected to marry Col. Sayther, a man Payne says was "A great, gross, material creature, deaf to song, blind to beauty, dead to the spirit. He was fat with laziness, and flabby-cheeked. . ." These somewhat uncharming traits notwithstanding, Karen married him, perhaps enticed by the Colonel's proven talent for making huge sums of money.

Payne marries a Koyokuk Indian girl named Winapie, a creature London describes lustily (. . .her close-fitting blouse of moose skin, fantastically beaded, outlined faithfully the well-rounded lines of her body. . .). While Karen has written to David, apparently hoping to rekindle their romance, he has not responded; indeed has read her letters to Winapie "to impress upon her the wickedness of her white sisters."

When she learns of Winapie, Karen insists that the girl is but "a marriage of the country," that Winapie was born savage and will die such: "But we — you and I — the dominant, evolved race — the salt of the earth and the masters thereof!. . . You cannot escape the generations behind you. . . .The race is mightier than you."

Payne is moved by this rhetoric. His bleak life rises before him — "the vain struggle with pitiless forces; the dreary years of frost and famine; the harsh and jarring contact with elemental life; the aching void which mere animal existence could not fill. And there, seduction by his side, whispering of brighter, warmer lands, of music, light, and joy. . ."

Even so, he remembers Winapie in the forest when a crippled grizzly attacks and kills their dogs, thinks of "Winapie, at the last, in the thick of the frightful muddle, hair flying, eyes flashing, fury incarnate, passing the long hunting knife again and again. . ."

Karen sees that David will not leave and orders her voyageurs to Dyea where she will depart for the Outside and "the men, like a row of ghosts in the dim starlight, bent their backs to the tow line; the steering oar cut the black current sharply, and the boat swept out into the night."

(Ainslee's Magazine, launched in 1898, was originally a general monthly magazine but adopted an all-fiction policy in 1902 and published many important authors — including Bret Harte, Anthony Hope, Stephen Crane, Jack London, O. Henry, and Albert Payson Terhune. It survived until 1926.)

"Thanksgiving on Slav Creek" (Harper's Bazar, November 24, 1900) is a Klondike trifle concerning Nella and George Tichborne who join a stampede to Slav Creek in –65 degree weather, arriving there on Thanksgiving Day (thus enabling the title of the story!) while many of the other stampeders have mistakenly gone to Swede Creek.

Nella falls down in exhaustion and has dreams of their old home down in the States and the mortgage that is due. She laughs and babbles in the cold, faint with hunger.

George find a place to stake a claim and takes a pan of gravel from the creek bed and finds gold streaks the black sand at the bottom of the pan. "We've struck it at last, Nella," he cries. "The home is safe!"

(Harper's Bazar made its debut in 1867 as America's first fashion magazine. In 1929 its title was changed to Harper's Bazaar, and it remains a successful magazine in publication today.)

There seems to be no explanation why "A Northland Miracle" (Youth's Companion, November 4, 1926) was not published until ten years after London's death. He originally submitted it to Youth's Companion in October, 1900, and received $50 for it a month later. The fate of the manscript appears to be its gathering dust in the editorial offices in Boston.

"A Northland Miracle," the author says, is about the "eternal core of goodness in the hearts of all men." (The story is also notable for its introduction of John Thornton, a character London immortalized in The Call of the Wild.)

Bertram Cornell, a thoughtless, uncaring, and callous man, departs his home in England, "leaving behind a disgrace on his own name for his people to bear," serves as a sailor on many seas, a sheepherder in Australia, a cowboy in Dakota, and a private in the Mounted Police of the Northwest Territory, from which, with the gold discovery in the Klondike, he deserts with two other men and a pack train of horses, he journeys to an unexplored country near the headwaters of the Tanana and White rivers, and in a sheltered valley, the party is joined by miner John Thornton. The four men mine more gold than they can carry and cache all of it save five pounds for each man then begin a terrible journey to the Klondike River.

After ten days, food is rationed, they abandon their blankets and Cornell steals and eats a chunk of bacon, intended to be saved for the last when the need would be greatest. When the theft is discovered, John Thornton is blamed but Cornell intervenes and prevents the others from killing Thornton.

At an Indian village the starving little party is attacked and as they escape to the river, Thornton is speared in the hips and Cornell forces the others to take the wounded partner to the canoes while he holds the Indians at bay.

Bertram Cornell, the indurate, cold-blooded Englishman, is struck by many arrows but remains upright and still as a statue as his comrades make their way to safety.

"Though he lived without honor, thus he died, like a man, brave and repentant, and rectifying evil," the author says, and tells that the Indians buried Cornell with honor as a warrior and "were wont to speak of him as the seasons passed, as 'the strange god who came down out of the sky to die.'"

London's 1894 voyage before the mast on the Sophia Sutherland is the source for "Chris Farrington: Able Seaman" (Youth's Companion, May 23, 1901) and to some degree may be considered autobiographical fiction.

The "Sophie" Sutherland, a newly-built, three-masted, full-rigged schooner, out of San Francisco, is hunting seals along the Japanese coast north to the Bering Sea and Chris Farrington and a Swedish boat-puller named Emil Johansen, argue over protocol. The older man, with 20 years at sea, says youngsters like Chris need to show proper respect. The Swedes, Norwegians and Danes aboard side with Emil; the Brits, Canadians and Americans siding with young Chris.

Chris does a man's work but hopes for a chance to show the Scandinavians he is also an able seaman. The opportunity arrives when a typhoon strikes while the boats and crew are away and Chris must reefs sails and take the wheel when the ship rears in gigantic waves and the sailing master is injured, the Chinese cook washed overboard.

"So, a boy of one hundred and forty pounds, he clung to his herculean task of guiding the two hundred straining tons of fabric amid the chaos of the great storm forces."

By noon the storm is spent and Chris is able to lash the wheel and on the third day a Canadian schooner on her maiden voyage hoves to, the Sophie's crew aboard and Emil Johansen comes forward to say in his barely understandable Swedish accent, "Chris, I gif in. You vas yoost so good a sailorman as I. You vas a bully boy und able seaman, und I pe proud of you!" He tells Chris "From dis time always you call me 'Emil' mitout der 'Mister!'"

NOTE: a line in this story, "After interminable hours of toil, day broke cold and gray," presages the opening of London's most famous Northland tale.

Note: To read any or all stories named in this series, see the "Read stories" link which provides an alphabetized list. Click on any story and read the entire text.
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Jack London: The Stories
Part 9:  "And must I. . .who am weary, travel always your trail until I die?"
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