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Romantic Wanderers and Cross-Dressing in Jane Porter’s The Scottish Chiefs

The Scribner’s 1991 reprint of The Scottish Chiefs

The Scottish Chiefs (1809) by Jane Porter (1776-1850) is one of the earliest historical novels and some scholars claim it to be the very first. It tells the story of Sir William Wallace and his efforts to restore Scotland’s freedom after King Edward I of England invaded the country and tried to suppress it to his rule. Porter grew up first in Durham and then in Edinburgh and from early childhood heard tales of Sir William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and other Scottish heroes from a family nurse and many others in her neighborhood. The result was that in 1809, she penned her most famous novel The Scottish Chiefs. The novel would go on to be translated into numerous foreign languages and become a bestseller in Europe. It was so popular that Napoleon had it banned because of its message of revolt against an oppressive tyrant. It is said that US President Andrew Jackson was inspired by it when fighting the British in the War of 1812. It remained popular into the twentieth century, so popular that a comic book version was made of it: http://comicbooksonline.blogspot.com/2007/08/classics-illustrated-067-scottish.html and in 1921 Charles Scribner’s and Sons decided to produce a special illustrated edition of it, complete with a foreword by Kate Douglas Wiggin (author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm) and illustrations by N. C. Wyeth, one of the greatest illustrators of the time. A 1991 reprint of that edition is the copy I own and have read.

I first heard of The Scottish Chiefs in 1992 when I found the Scribner’s illustrated edition in a bookstore. I loved the illustrations and loved British literature so I bought and read it. I admit I found it rather dull, and as the years passed, I remembered little of it, but it did make me know the name of Sir William Wallace for the first time, before I traveled to Scotland in 1993 and before the film Braveheart made his name once again famous to a wider audience in 1995.

I recently decided to reread the novel after rewatching Braveheart. I knew the film was grossly historically inaccurate in many ways, and more so, it was a very different story from that which Jane Porter told. I also wanted to reread the novel because of my interest in Gothic and historical fiction and my having recently learned that Sir Walter Scott had known Porter. Scott is, of course, arguably the father of the modern historical novel, so I wondered whether Porter had influenced him. I was also interested in rereading the novel because I had a few years before read Porter’s other well-known novel Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803) and thought it quite interesting.

While Porter does not use Gothic elements in either of her two best-known works, she does rely upon the wanderer theme. Thaddeus of Warsaw is less a historical than contemporary novel since its events take place just over a decade before its publication. Its main character is a Polish refugee. The novel tells the story of how Poland was invaded and divided up between Russia and Prussia. Thaddeus befriends a British officer and also learns he is part-British. He then travels to England where, eventually, he meets his long-lost father. He also falls in love. Once Thaddeus is in England, the novel becomes largely a novel of manners. What is interesting to me as a student of the Gothic wanderer figure is that Porter repeatedly refers to Thaddeus as a wanderer in the novel because he is an exile from his native land.

Sir William Wallace and his wife Marion,, illustrated by N. C. Wyeth.

Porter does not use the term wanderer in The Scottish Chiefs very often, but the novel is not without interest, and her prefaces do play on the wanderer theme. Unfortunately, Porter’s prefaces are hard to come by since they are not always reprinted in copies of the novel. The Scribner’s edition I own does not contain them, and the Wiggin introduction is more focused on how much Kate Douglas Wiggin and her sister enjoyed the novel as children (this edition was, after all, being marketed to children so to have a famous children’s author introduce the novel was, apparently, a better marketing strategy than to have Jane Porter herself introduce it.) I did find the prefaces online at the University of Pennsylvania’s website: http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/porter/chiefs/chiefs.html. In fact, it might be said that the prefaces are more interesting than the novel itself.

The 1831 preface contains a lot of insight into Porter’s interest in writing about Sir William Wallace. Porter describes her childhood hearing tales of Wallace from various people she knew, particularly an elderly neighbor named Luckie Forbes. Equally important, she heard from her sister’s nurse, Bel Johnston, about Bonnie Prince Charlie and how his cause was lost at the Battle of Culloden. Porter personally knew many of the widows of men who fought at Culloden. They were venerable old ladies in her childhood.

But the most striking point made in the introduction is when Porter relates how, as a child, she and her siblings were playing outside when a poor gentleman came to their home. The children begged him to come inside and rest, but he refused. He was an elderly man who explained that he had suffered from fighting with Prince Charles. Porter’s mother convinced him to come inside and let her give him something to eat once she explained that war had also made her a widow. He informs her then that he “received a wound worse than death: I shall never recover from it!” and then goes on to say, “I cannot go back…. I ought never to have come back anywhere. Sin should always be an outcast!” Porter’s mother tries to comfort him by saying Prince Charles’ followers were unfortunate, but “their fidelity could not be a sin!” What we have here is a Gothic wanderer figure—someone haunted by the past and past wrongs who has consequently become an outcast. All these widows and those who supported Prince Charles were outcasts in Porter’s childhood, some forty years after the Battle of Culloden, so Porter was very familiar with the outcast theme. Her desire later to write of Scottish history reminds me of Margaret Mitchell’s childhood being raised on stories of the Old South that eventually led to her writing Gone With the Wind (1936)—the Confederate cause was a lost one just like that of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Later, this old soldier leaves the Porter family and is referred to as “wandering along the fields towards the town.”

But what makes this particular soldier even more fascinating is that eventually it is revealed that he is really a she. Porter relates how later the soldier had an accident. Upon a doctor examining him, it’s revealed that not only is a limb fractured but also two ribs broken, and that the soldier is a woman. Knowing she’ll die from her wound, the woman says that if her relatives are contacted, they will “come to lay in a decent grave the last remains of an unhappy wanderer….” Eventually, the woman dies but her relatives reveal her identity as that of Jeannie Cameron, a woman who fought with Prince Charles as if she were a man. Many people considered Jeannie Cameron as possibly Prince Charles’ lover, and in Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones (1749), she is referenced as such. Readers can easily find out more about Jeannie Cameron, although the truth about her age and her role in Prince Charles’ service are somewhat confused. Visit Wikipedia for more information on her, including the fact that she was likely possibly a mix of several women whose identities were confused and melded together: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeanie_(Jenny)_Cameron

If Jeannie Cameron is not a historical person, or not the person legend claims she was, it is surprising that Porter mentions her as if she were a real person whom Porter knew personally. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about Porter to say whether she is being honest here, or just using what would become a standard device in historical fiction—the revelation of a stranger’s identity as being that of someone famous. (See my blog on James Malcolm Rymer’s The Black Monk, in which King Richard I keeps his identity secret; King Richard does the same thing in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), posing as the Black Knight.) What I do know is that cross-dressing happens twice in The Scottish Chiefs where women put on men’s clothing, and I suspect these instances were inspired by Jeannie Cameron’s story, whether or not Porter ever really met her.

A comic book version of The Scottish Chiefs

Sadly, a full-length biography of Porter has never been written, nor do there seem to be many scholarly articles about her. Thomas McLean, a scholar in New Zealand, has written a few articles about her and is working on a project about her and her sister and brother. Her sister Anna Marie Porter was also an author and her brother Sir Robert Ker Porter was a noted painter. Porter’s relationship with Sir Walter Scott especially needs more discussion. We know Sir Walter Scott was a regular visitor to the Porters’ home when they lived in Edinburgh. Scott, however, never acknowledged Porter as a source of influence upon his writing historical fiction, but instead said he was influenced by Maria Edgeworth, whose Castle Rackrent (1800) is also a contender for the first historical novel. In her article “Transporting Genres: Jane Porter Delivers the Historical Novel to the Victorians,” (published in Victorian Traffic: Identity, Exchange, Performance, edited by Sue Thomas), Peta Beasley discusses how Scott never acknowledged Porter’s influence on him and even wrote a scathing comment about her portrayal of Wallace in a letter to his friend James Hogg. Beasley also discusses the possible date for the commencement of Scott’s first historical novel, Waverley (1814). Scott said he began it in 1805 but then mislaid the manuscript so he did not appear to resume it until 1810 or later (by which time he had no doubt read The Scottish Chiefs). In any case, it is a shame that more isn’t known about Porter and I believe it’s time for a full-length biography of her, including a more thorough discussion of her relationship with Scott.

It’s also time for a critical edition of The Scottish Chiefs. In her prefaces, Porter insists that she has sources for almost all the incidents in the novel and only a few characters are fictional. (She never says who those fictional characters are). She does have a few notes in her novel but they are meager and just simply tell us what she is writing is true. For example, the most interesting woman in the novel is Joanna, the Countess of Mar. After Wallace rescues her and her husband, she falls madly in love with Wallace and becomes extremely jealous of her stepdaughter Helen, whom she suspects Wallace loves. Joanna professes her love to Wallace, who instantly rejects her, knowing it isn’t honorable since she is a married woman and also he is obviously not attracted to her. Regardless, Joanna persists in believing he can love her, and she dreams and manipulates behind the scenes so that Wallace, rather than Bruce, will be offered the crown and then she can marry him and become a queen. However, even after her husband, Donald, Earl of Mar, dies, Joanna is rejected by Wallace. At one point, she even dresses in men’s clothing so that she can get close to Wallace, but when he rejects her again, she threatens him. At the end of the novel, partially through her treachery, Wallace is captured by the English. When Joanna learns he has been killed, she blames herself and goes mad. Joanna is a true Gothic wanderer figure in the moment she goes mad, finally feeling guilt for her sinful actions.

Once Wallace is in prison in London and sentenced to death, Joanna’s stepdaughter, Helen Mar, travels to be with him. She disguises herself as a man so she can get inside the prison. There she and Wallace are married just before he dies.

Perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, however, is Edwin Ruthven. He is a young boy of fifteen and a relative to Helen. He is completely enamored with Wallace and hero-worships him. Wallace treats him like a little brother, taking him under his wing. Edwin is no coward and repeatedly does brave things to the point where the English he is fighting are amazed that a boy is so strong and brave. All that said, modern readers cannot help but think Edwin is homosexual in the way he is portrayed, constantly professing his devotion to Wallace. At one point, Wallace and he are sleeping and Edwin is resting his head on Wallace’s bosom. In this scene, they are attacked and Wallace is taken prisoner, but not before Edwin tries to protect him by taking an arrow through the heart for him.

Of course, there is a fine line between a boy who worships his hero and being gay, and since Jane Porter, a female author, is writing the novel, she may have oversentimentalized the relationship between two men. Certainly, also, homophobia was not as rampant in 1809 as it has been in more recent years and the definitions of masculinity have changed since Porter’s time. Still, I suspect Porter was doing some literary crossdressing herself, projecting herself into the character of Edwin a bit too much in his speaking his admiration for Wallace. She likely projected herself into Helen as well, but in a more acceptable way because Helen’s romantic feelings for Wallace are heterosexual.

Helen descends the Glen of Stones, a scene that recalls for me the sisters in The Last of the Mohicans being taken along cliffs and forest trails as captives. Helen has just been rescued by a mysterious man in this scene.

I have been unable to find information online about most of these characters in the novel. While obviously Wallace and Robert the Bruce are historical, as is Donald, Earl of Mar, I could not find anything about Joanna Mar or Helen Mar. Helen’s sister Isabella Mar would marry Robert the Bruce so she is historical as well. Joanna’s mother was reputedly a princess of Norway so she must be historical and Porter says she was. As for Edwin, I could find nothing about him either. It is for these reasons that I think a critical edition of The Scottish Chiefs is long overdue so we can get a better sense of where Porter romanticized and where she drew from historical facts or at least from the ballads and stories she heard growing up about Sir William Wallace. Certainly, the Wallace depicted in this novel is a far cry from the one portrayed in Braveheart.

I will admit, despite my interest in the novel, that it is rather dull reading at times. I continually found my thoughts drifting away. I think the primary reason is because the characters are never fully fleshed out. They are more shadows than real people. Porter never really lets us into their minds but stands back and presents them through her sentimental and hero-worship lens. The only ones who really seem to live are Joanna, Helen, and Edwin. The rest show no real emotion. Wallace himself is one of the less memorable characters in the novel. His best scene is when he travels to England and visits Edward’s court disguised as a minstrel. At one point, Queen Margaret is rumored to have had an affair with him, but Wallace writes a letter to King Edward declaring she is virtuous, for which he is later thanked by her brother, the King of France when Wallace goes to France for support in Scotland’s cause. Wallace’s death scene is quickly brushed over—there are no explicit and gruesome details as there are in Braveheart.

The comic book version of Sir William Wallace’s death at a scaffold – no ripping out of entrails like in Braveheart.

One final interesting part of the novel is that the action begins with a box containing a secret that comes into Wallace’s possession and that he protects throughout the novel. In the end, it’s revealed that the regalia of Scotland is contained in the box. One wonders whether this mystery in the novel had any influence on Sir Walter Scott’s desire to find the regalia of Scotland, which he later located hidden away in Edinburgh Castle.

Ultimately, I have read a lot of Sir Walter Scott and I can well believe The Scottish Chiefs inspired him, but it is often as dull as James Fenimore Cooper’s novels and it reminded me a great deal of The Last of the Mohicans—especially in the scene where Helen is abducted and later rescued and led through the forest, including a dangerous journey over a bridge. One has to wonder how our ancestors could have been so taken by this novel, or even those of Scott and Cooper, but historical fiction was new then, and they had no movies to watch and no better historical novelists to read. These authors were pioneers of their time, and while I doubt anyone but literary historians are interested in them now (supposedly The Scottish Chiefs remains popular among Scottish children, but I doubt it’s any more popular than other books like Ivanhoe and The Last of the Mohicans which are also often published in children’s classics editions, but remain largely unread and not enjoyed if read. I read them as a child and found them dull and still do.) Nevertheless, Porter deserves a higher place in the history of historical fiction than she has so far been granted.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of The Children of Arthur series, beginning with Arthur’s Legacy and including Lilith’s Love, which is largely a sequel to Dracula. His scholarly nonfiction works include King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition and The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption. You can learn more about him at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com.

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The Black Monk: Gothic Wanderers and the Early Comic Book Superhero

When I saw that Valancourt Books had republished The Black Monk, or The Secret of the Grey Turret (serialized 1844-1845), I had to read it. I had previously read James Malcolm Rymer’s best-known works, Varney the Vampyre, or The Feast of Blood (serialized 1845-1847), the first full-length vampire novel in English and the precursor to Dracula (1897), and also The String of Pearls (serialized 1846-1947), which introduced Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street into English literature, so surely, I thought, The Black Monk would be an exciting Gothic novel.

The Black Monk, one of James Malcolm Rymer's first penny dreadful serials.

The Black Monk, one of James Malcolm Rymer’s first penny dreadful serials.

Written as a penny dreadful like Rymer’s other works, this work predates Rymer’s two more famous novels, if we can truly call them novels. Certainly, the plot is tighter in The Black Monk than in Varney, but it also tends to be quite wordy, a sign that Rymer continually tried to drag out the story because it was popular with Victorian readers. For the modern reader, who reads it as a novel rather than a weekly serial, it feels overly long and many of the scenes and plots feel repetitive, but that aside, it is a fascinating book in many ways.

To try to summarize the novel’s plot would make it feel ridiculous, but there are some key elements about the novel and this edition particularly that make it stand out. First of all, I have long believed that the Gothic novel with its supernatural characters is the grandfather of the modern-day comic book superhero. In my book, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, I traced how Gothic wanderer elements, such as extended life and other supernatural powers, eventually culminated in characters like Tarzan, John Carter of Mars, Superman, and Batman. There is much about The Black Monk that feels cartoonish. This edition has a back cover with little cameo drawing of the main characters which makes them look like cartoon or comic book characters. The original woodcut illustrations are included in the book, but these are far less detailed illustrations than those in Varney the Vampyre, which look like book illustrations. The Black Monk’s illustrations look in many ways more akin to comic book drawings. Finally, this edition has an introduction by Curt Herr, Ph.D. The introduction is not so much about Rymer or the novel as it is about how penny dreadfuls were the precursors of comic books in terms of being thought to have a bad influence on youths. Both were also very cost affordable publications and were produced quickly and for the lower classes. Herr even mentions comic book burnings that were held by communities in the mid-twentieth century, and while most of the comic books he mentions as being burned are of the horror and crime variety, Superman is included among them.

It surprises me that, as Herr asserts, and which I believe, despite the surprise, that comic books and especially penny dreadfuls, were seen as immoral and glamorizing crime and evil. This is probably largely due to the people who condemned them not actually reading them. I am not a reader of comic books myself, although what little knowledge I have of the ones produced in this century makes me think there may be some merit to these charges, but the penny dreadfuls like the earlier Gothic novels, despite depicting criminals and sinners, always held a highly moral tone in which those who committed crimes were ultimately punished, and usually, the virtuous were also rewarded. Certainly, a great deal of subversive behavior and undertones exist in these books, but as Herr points out, the social problems that exist in society are not from reading fiction but from the poverty that causes people to break the law, often just to survive. I would add to that a lack of education. Those who act in an immoral manner, even if influenced to do so by reading such works, do so because they lack the intelligence to understand the messages in these works or to understand simply that crime doesn’t pay. This is the same kind of lack of intelligence that causes some children to jump off roofs because they think they can fly like Superman. It is not the literature but faulty thinking and poor judgment that are to be blamed.

As for The Black Monk, I think a good argument can be made that it has within it the seeds of the modern day superhero.

I won’t go into the novel’s full plot, but in brief, it begins when Sir Rupert Brandon, owner of Brandon Castle, leaves the castle after being grief-stricken over the untimely death of his wife, Lady Alicia. He leaves the castle in the hands of Alicia’s sister and brother, Agatha and Eldred, as well as his trusty knight Hugh Wingrove and the neighboring abbot. While Sir Rupert is away, Agatha plots with Morgatani, an evil monk, to get her revenge on Sir Rupert for spurning her love and marrying her sister instead. While there is a large cast of other characters in the book, there are only four who are really of great interest in terms of understanding the development of Gothic literature and the modern-day superhero. They are:

  • Agatha
  • Morgatani
  • Nemoni
  • The Crusader

Let us look briefly at each one.

Agatha: There is nothing superhero-like about Agatha, but there is plenty that makes her an interesting Gothic wanderer. Female Gothic wanderer figures are few in number in Gothic fiction. Women tend more often to be the moral compass of the novels while the men are transgressors and guilt-ridden, a few notable exceptions being Fanny Burney’s Juliet in The Wanderer (1814) and Alice Nutter in William Ainsworth Harrison’s The Lancashire Witches (1849). Agatha is a very vile woman and intent on getting revenge on Sir Rupert because he chose her sister over her for his wife. Agatha plots to take the castle from him, and to do so, she falls into a romantic and sexual relationship with the evil monk Morgatani. However, she has moments where she feels remorse and regrets her evil deeds, but she is continually egged on by Morgatani, who displays disdain for her weaknesses and makes her false promises that he will be her lover and take her away from the castle once the revenge is completed. Agatha, unlike other Gothic wanderers of this period who show remorse, ultimately meets a bad end when she collapses in guilt and terror over her crimes.

Morgatani: Morgatani is a true Gothic villain. He has Gothic wanderer elements in terms of his supernatural abilities, but he never presents himself as in any way sympathetic to the reader. He is firmly in the Gothic tradition, his Italian background making him reminiscent of Mrs. Radcliffe’s Schedoni in The Italian (1797). He is also an anachronism because the novel is set in the twelfth century but he is a Jesuit, and the Jesuits did not exist until the sixteenth century. The novel itself is somewhat anachronistic, beginning in 1204 in the time of King John, but then later telling us it is the time of King Richard I (1189-1199) and that Richard is a prisoner on the continent during the Crusades so John is trying to take his throne. This plot has some similarities to the Robin Hood legend and also causes Herr, in his introduction to the novel, to suggest it is a revision of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819). I would not go so far as to call it a revision of that novel, but it certainly does share some similar elements and themes. The Jesuits are frequently depicted as villains in Gothic novels, most famously perhaps in The Wandering Jew (1846) by Eugene Sue; they are considered highly knowledgeable and know secrets or are involved in conspiracies, using their knowledge to manipulate society and political events. Repeatedly in the novel, Morgatani suggests that he knows things most people don’t because he is a Jesuit. Despite his religious connections (or perhaps because of them since the Gothic is notoriously anti-Catholic), he denies the existence of God, and while his origins are never made clear, he tells Agatha he is not immortal, but neither is he human. When he finally dies, the mystery of his origins remain unclear. That said, he clearly has supernatural abilities, at the very least, he possesses superhuman strength. This is significant because characters like the devils in Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) also have great strength, making them able to rip up trees. However, strength is also something that will later be associated with superheroes. The mid-nineteenth century is transitional in how Gothic wanderers are morphing into heroes. For example, Jean Valjean has superhuman strength in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables (1862), a novel that is not supernatural but still has many Gothic elements in it, including that Valjean is a wanderer, and a transgressor, a fugitive from the law; he is a villain/criminal in the eyes of society, yet the novel’s hero. Morgatani also leads a charmed life—an arrow fails to kill him early in the novel. He will only die as a result of his own alchemy when the turret explodes and crumbles; alchemy is another activity Gothic wanderers tend to indulge in—a transgression because it is against God’s natural laws to try to change the elements.

Nemoni: Nemoni is one of the most interesting characters in the novel. He is considered a madman, and he lives like a wild man in the forest; others believe him to be a wizard. This suggests that he is also supernatural in some way, although there is no evidence in the novel that he has any supernatural abilities. He is mostly insane with only a few lucid moments. His insanity comes from his desire for revenge upon Morgatani after having seen Morgatani cause the woman Nemoni loved (or his sister; the novel contradicts itself) to be destroyed. This woman was in a convent in Italy, and Morgatani tried to seduce her sexually. When she refused, he accused her of immoral behavior, resulting in her being buried alive in a wall of the convent. Nemoni is also a nod to the Arthurian tradition. Sir Lancelot becomes an insane wild man who lives in the forest, his love for Guinevere driving him to madness. Merlin also has a period in early life of being a madman in the forest, which is a parallel to Nemoni being called a wizard. Eventually, Nemoni does get his revenge, though he dies in the end, but not before he gives Sir Rupert the information that he has two children he didn’t know existed, which thereby restores the social order for the novel. No matter how scary a Gothic novel might be, the social order is always restored in the end.

The Crusader: This last character is the real superhero of the novel. He arrives at the castle while Sir Rupert is away and attempts to put things to rights. All the while, his identity is kept hidden because he wears a velvet mask. He is described by Eldred as “a whopper,” meaning he is large and strong, true heroic elements, yet his mask is more reminiscent of the Gothic. It is interesting that his name in the book is “The crusader”—he is the masked crusader, but that is not such a far cry from the “caped crusader,” Batman. In the end, it amounts to the same thing—he is fighting crime to see the castle saved and returned to its rightful owner. The astute reader will guess his identity before the novel is over—he is King Richard, and his return restores the social order to not only the castle but also to England.

The Black Monk is a curious blend of Gothic and medieval pseudo-history, as well as a blend of heroes and villains. It shows early comic book elements in its pictures and its action adventure style plot. While I would not call it a seminal Gothic text, it certainly shows how the Gothic was evolving in the nineteenth century, showing us both a repentant Gothic wanderer in Agatha, not yet ready to be redeemed—I would argue that Varney the Vampire is probably the first true Gothic wanderer to be allowed redemption—and heroes who disguise their identity to fight crime—something that will eventually lead to characters like The Scarlet Pimpernel, Zorro, the Lone Ranger, and yes, Batman.

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Tyler Tichelaar, Ph.D., is the author of King Arthur’s Children: A Study in Fiction and Tradition, The Gothic Wanderer: From Transgression to Redemption, and The Children of Arthur novel series. Visit Tyler at www.ChildrenofArthur.com and www.GothicWanderer.com

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