Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4978
Kurtz’s Black Mistress: black woman in the jungle who wears many ornaments
A Clean-Shaved Man, Kurtz’s “Cousin,” a Journalist: three people who visit Marlow in Europe to get Kurtz’s papers
Kurtz’s Intended: Kurtz’s fiancée in Europe
Marlow looks at the Russian, whose “improbable, inexplicable, and altogether bewildering” existence fascinates him. He wonders how he had survived in the jungle. Marlow imagines he will disappear before his eyes. The Russian tells Marlow to take Kurtz away quickly. Marlow does not envy the Russian’s devotion to Kurtz because he had not “meditated over it.” He believes it is a “most dangerous thing.”
Marlow compares the Russian and Kurtz to ships “becalmed near each other.” The Russian fulfills Kurtz’s need to have an audience. He says he had talked to Kurtz many nights, especially about love. Kurtz had made him “see” things.
The Russian throws his arms up in praise of Kurtz. The headman of Marlow’s wood-cutters looks at Marlow. Frightened, for the first time he sees the jungle as a dark place without hope.
The Russian’s friendship with Kurtz had been broken, not continuous. He had nursed Kurtz through two illnesses. Often, he had waited many days for Kurtz to return from his wanderings.
He tells Marlow how Kurtz had discovered villages, a lake, and searched for ivory. It had always been worth the wait. Marlow reminds the Russian how Kurtz had run out of goods to trade for ivory. The Russian says, “There’s a good lot of cartridges left even yet.”
Marlow figures that Kurtz had raided the country. He asks if Kurtz had the natives following him. The Russian says the natives adore Kurtz, lured by his “thunder and lightning.” He says Kurtz can be terrible at times, but no one can judge him as you would an ordinary man. Once, Kurtz had tried to kill him, he says. Kurtz had wanted his ivory. The Russian had given it to him. He had to be careful, until he had reestablished his friendship with Kurtz. He had nursed him through his second illness then. Marlow says Kurtz is mad. The Russian objects. He tells Marlow he will change his mind when he hears Kurtz speak.
Marlow sees people moving in the forest through his binoculars. He compares the woods to the “closed door of a prison.” The silence disturbs him. The Russian tells Marlow that Kurtz is very ill now. Only lately had he come to the river, after an absence of many months. Marlow sees round knobs on posts near Kurtz’s house. They are “black, dried, sunken” heads. The first one in the row faces him. It seems to smile at some “dream of that eternal slumber.” Marlow believes the heads show Kurtz’s lack of restraint. The wilderness had made him mad, he figures. Marlow can only wonder if Kurtz knows of his own “deficiency.” He puts down his binoculars.
The Russian tells Marlow about Kurtz’s ascendancy, how the chiefs venerate him, and how keeping him alive has occupied all his time. Marlow does not want to hear about the ceremonies used to honor Kurtz. Marlow believes he is in a “region of subtle horrors.” The Russian justifies Kurtz’s savagery by telling Marlow the heads had belonged to rebels, Kurtz’s opposition. Kurtz’s trying life, he adds, had led him to these cruel acts. Only keeping Kurtz alive, the Russian says he had nothing to do with these killings.
A group of men carrying Kurtz on a stretcher, appears from around the house. Waist-deep in the grass, they appear to rise from the ground. Naked human beings with spears, bows, and shields follow. The bushes shake and the grass sways, but then stop in “attentive immobility,” as if everything waits for something to happen next. The Russian tells Marlow that if Kurtz does not say the right thing, they are done for.
Kurtz sits up. Marlow resents the absurd danger. Through his glasses, he sees Kurtz move his arm, talk, and nod his head. He realizes Kurtz means “short” in German, and feels the name fits, though he looks “at least seven feet long.” The cage of his ribs and bones of his arms show. He thinks of Kurtz as an “animated image of death.” Marlow hears Kurtz’s deep voice from afar.
Kurtz falls back, then the savages carry him forward again. Some savages vanish into the forest, which after breathing them out, was drawing them back in.
Some pilgrims carry Kurtz’s guns as they walk behind the stretcher. Bent over and talking, the manager walks beside him. They take Kurtz aboard the steamer and put him in a little cabin. Kurtz plays with the letters they had brought him. Marlow notices both the fire in Kurtz’s eyes and the dullness. Speaking for the first time, he says to Marlow, “I am glad.” Kurtz had received special recommendations about Marlow. The grave voice contains power. The manager appears in the doorway, and the Russian stares at the shore. Marlow follows his glance.
A woman appears along the shore. She wears brass leggings to the knee, brass wire gauntlets to the elbow, and necklaces of glass beads. A “wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman,” she walks with measured steps. She wears the “value of several elephant tusks upon her.” The land, wilderness, and mysterious life seem to look at her. She approaches the steamer. Standing still, she faces them. The Russian growls, and the pilgrims murmur at Marlow’s back. She lifts up her arms, the shadows darting out. Silence hangs over the scene. She turns and walks away, looking back at the men once.
The Russian says he would have shot her if she had tried to come aboard. He had been keeping her away from Kurtz for two weeks. According to the Russian, she had created problems. Once, while pointing at the Russian, she had to talk to Kurtz for an hour. Kurtz had been ill that day, or else “there would have been mischief.” Marlow hears Kurtz yelling at the manager. He accuses him of caring only for the ivory. He says he is not as sick as the manager believes he is. The manager has interfered with his plans, and he will return to complete them. The manager walks from behind the curtain and tells Marlow how “low” Kurtz is, how he has done more harm than good for the company, and how they have done all they can for him. He agrees there is much ivory, but on the whole “the trade will suffer.” Despite Kurtz’s amazing success in obtaining ivory, the manager considers his method “unsound.” Marlow ignores the manager’s disapproval. He tells him that Kurtz is a remarkable man. The manager says Kurtz “was” a remarkable man. According to the manager, Marlow belongs to the same group as Kurtz.
Kurtz is “as good as buried,” Marlow believes. The Russian taps Marlow on the shoulder and stammers out broken sentences. Marlow implores the Russian to speak. The Russian believes the white men hold ill-will toward him. Marlow agrees, saying the manager wants him hanged. The Russian plans to leave the area for a military post three hundred miles away. He asks Marlow to keep secrets so as to save Kurtz’s reputation. Marlow promises.
He tells Marlow that Kurtz had ordered the attack to prevent them from taking him away. He is a simple man, though, and does not understand these matters. He has a canoe and three black fellows waiting for him. He asks for cartridges. Marlow hands them to him. The Russian takes some of Marlow’s good English tobacco. He asks Marlow for shoes, showing him soles tied like sandals under his bare feet. Marlow gives him an old pair. He tells Marlow how Kurtz had read his own poetry, and he will never again meet a man like him. He rolls his eyes with delight and repeats how Kurtz had enlarged his mind. With cartridges in one pocket and the seamanship book in the other, the Russian vanishes. Marlow compares him to a “phenomenon!”
Marlow wakes after midnight. A fire burns on the hill, a line of agents guards the ivory, and men chant to themselves. Where Kurtz’s “adorers” keep a vigil, red gleams waver in the forest against the intense blackness. Marlow dozes off again. When he wakes, he looks into the cabin and sees a light, but not Kurtz. An agent sleeps on a deck chair three feet from Marlow. Leaping ashore, Marlow says he will never betray Kurtz. He feels “jealous of sharing with any one the peculiar blackness of that experience.”
Marlow discovers a trail in the wet grass. Kurtz crawls on all-fours. Marlow surprises himself by thinking of one of the knitting women. He believes he will never make it back to the steamer, instead living alone in the woods to an old age. He confuses the beat of the drums with that of his heart. He overcomes Kurtz, some thirty feet from a fire. Kurtz stands “like a vapor exhaled by the earth.” He fears Kurtz will shout. A sorcerer, or witch-man, stands close behind them. Kurtz tells Marlow, “Go away—hide yourself.” When Marlow asks Kurtz if he knows what he is doing, he says, “Perfectly.”
Marlow threatens to smash Kurtz’s head, even though nothing is near to use. Kurtz says his plans have been thwarted and he “was on the threshold of great things.” Marlow assures him of success in Europe. He believes Kurtz belongs to no one, “nobody either above or below.” His common words suggest dreams and nightmares. Kurtz’s “perfectly clear” intelligence appears before Marlow. He says Kurtz’s mad soul defies description. Marlow carries him back to the couch, comparing Kurtz’s weight to a child’s. He shakes, though, as if he “had carried half a ton on my back down that hill.”
At noon the next day, with Kurtz aboard, Marlow steers the steamer away. Covered in dirt from head to foot, three men strut on the slope. Blacks fill the clearing, the black woman among them. They nod their horned heads, sway their bodies, and shake black feathers toward the river. The black woman puts out her hands and shouts. In chorus, the mob responds to her sounds, reminiscent of a “satanic litany.”
In the pilot-house, Marlow asks Kurtz if he understands their actions. Kurtz answers, “Do I not?” Pulling the string of the whistle, Marlow scares the natives away. The pilgrims get their rifles. Someone on deck tells him to stop. The three men fall face down on the shore. Only the black woman remains in view. She stretches her arms after them over the river. The men aboard the boat begin firing, the smoke blocking Marlow’s vision.
The steamer heads toward the sea at twice the speed it had come up the river. The manager watches Kurtz and Marlow. Kurtz is dying. The pilgrims look at Marlow with disfavor. He considers himself numbered with the dead. He accepts this “unforeseen partnership.”
Kurtz mutters of his Intended, station, career, and ideas. He speaks of wanting kings to meet him at railway stations, a childish concept to Marlow. He insists on having the “right motives.” He asks Marlow to close the shutters, and Marlow obliges.
The steamer breaks down, as Marlow had expected. One morning, Kurtz hands him papers and a photograph tied with a shoestring. He tells Marlow to keep them in his care, away from the manager, the “noxious fool.” Kurtz mutters, “Live rightly, die, die….” Marlow believes he is rehearsing for some speech, or repeating a newspaper article.
Marlow spends more time helping the engine-driver fix the boat than speaking to Kurtz. One night, Kurtz says he is waiting for death. Marlow says, “Oh, nonsense.” Marlow has never seen anything like the changes on Kurtz’s face as he approached death. Kurtz’s last words are, “The horror! The horror!”
Marlow goes to the mess-room and sits opposite the manager. He avoids his glance. Flies stream over the lamp, cloth, hands, and faces. The manager’s boy peeks in the doorway, and says, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead.” The pilgrims run to see, but Marlow stays to eat dinner. The voice is gone. The next day they bury Kurtz in a muddy hole. “And then they very nearly buried me,” Marlow adds.
Marlow cannot compare himself to Kurtz, he says, because Kurtz had something to say. “The horror” is an expression of belief, a “moral victory paid for by innumerable defeats,” he reasons. Kurtz had been able to summarize and judge with his final pronouncement. He remains loyal to Kurtz because of this conviction. Marlow returns to Europe, back to the “sepulchral city.” He resents the sight of people hurrying about, drinking beer, and eating. He feels they do not know what he now knows. He often runs a fever and “was not very well at the time.” His aunt tries to nurse him. He hears of Kurtz’s mother’s death, watched over by his Intended.
One day a company official stops by to get Kurtz’s writings. Marlow says he had two fights about them with the manager, and he still refuses to give them up. The man says the company needs the reports, adding how it would be a great loss if he could not get the papers. Marlow finally gives him the “Suppression of Savage Customs” with the postscript torn off. He wants more. “Expect nothing else,” Marlow says.
Two days later, another man, calling himself Kurtz’s “cousin,” appears. He is an organist and tells Marlow that Kurtz had been a talented musician. Marlow does not doubt this man’s opinion. Marlow adds how to this day he does not know what Kurtz’s profession was. He had been a painter, a journalist, a “universal genius.” Marlow gives him some family letters and unimportant memoranda.
Then a journalist shows up. He considers Kurtz to have been a politician, an extremist leader. He says Kurtz could not write, but “heavens! how that man could talk.” The man says Kurtz’s faith could make himself believe anything. Marlow hands him the report, the man saying he will publish it. Left with a packet of letters and a portrait of a beautiful girl, he wants to visit Kurtz’s Intended.
Kurtz’s soul, body, station, plans, ivory, and career had passed out of Marlow’s hands by now. Only his memory and this woman survive. He recalls one day when Kurtz had complained how the company would try to claim the ivory as theirs, though he had collected it himself. At her house, Marlow has a vision of Kurtz on a stretcher, as he whispers again “The horror! The horror!”
All in black, she comes forward in her drawing room. It is more than a year after Kurtz’s death. She mourns for him, as if he had died “only yesterday.” Marlow hands her the packet. When she asks Marlow if he had known Kurtz well, he says, “I knew him as well as it is possible for one man to know another.” She had not been able to share her memories of Kurtz with anyone since his mother’s death. Marlow says he had heard how her family had disapproved of the engagement.
They promise always to remember him. She says he will live on because of his words and because “his goodness shone in every act.” She puts out her arms across the light of the window. This action reminds Marlow of the black woman’s movements in the jungle. She regrets not being with Kurtz at his death. Marlow says he had stayed with him until the end.
When she asks about Kurtz’s last words, Marlow says they were her name. She sighs, saying, “I knew it—I was sure!” Marlow believes he could not have told the truth, something too painful for her to bear. She hides her face in her hands and weeps. Marlow expects the house to collapse for telling a lie, but “the heavens do not fall for such a trifle.”
We return to the Nellie, with Marlow in the pose of a meditating Buddha. The story is over. The Director says they have lost the first of the ebb. The narrator raises his head and sees a black bank of clouds, the tranquil Thames, and an overcast sky. All “lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” The novella ends as it had begun, in darkness.
Section III opens with the Russian extolling his admiration for Kurtz, his idol. “Something like admiration—like envy” for the Russian, Marlow listens to Kurtz’s exploits—how he talks eloquently, discovers ivory and land, and receives adoration from natives.
The Russian never says anything derogatory or negative about Kurtz, even though Kurtz had tried to kill him over some ivory.
While Marlow by this time admires Kurtz, he rejects the Russian’s complete devotion. Since the Russian “had not meditated over it,” Marlow figures it to border on a “most dangerous thing.”
The Russian embraces Kurtz “with a sort of eager fatalism.” Marlow still judges him objectively. Considering Kurtz “mad,” Marlow contrasts the Russian’s unwavering idolization. This insight into Kurtz’s behavior tempers Marlow’s growing reverence. We also discover how Kurtz has suffered two illnesses, the nature of which we are not told.
By the next scene, however, when Marlow sees the heads attached to poles, we know that Kurtz suffers from mental illness. Marlow considers them “not ornamental but symbolic.” “Food for thought,” they show Kurtz’s extreme policies. His actions exceed acceptable behavior. They show no “restraint in the gratification of his lusts.” Not coincidentally, only one head faces Marlow, the rest pointing the other way. As a symbol, this represents Kurtz staring at Marlow, or Marlow coming to terms with his other half, the side similar to Kurtz, where desires dominate logic.
Marlow attributes Kurtz’s madness to the jungle. By taking a “terrible vengeance” out on him, it has forced Kurtz to abandon morality and reasonable judgment. The whispering forest echoes “loudly within” Kurtz because he is “hollow at the core….” This shatters Marlow’s earlier image of Kurtz.
At this point, Marlow compares Kurtz’s world to a “region of subtle horrors.” He denounces Kurtz, considering him “no idol of mine.” The Russian opposes Marlow’s refutation by justifying Kurtz’s savagery. Since the heads belonged to rebels, Kurtz had no choice. Marlow rejects the Russian’s explanation. A few moments later, Kurtz appears for the first time. Marlow sees him “in the gloom,” while he stands “in the sunshine.” This contrast of light and dark shows how Marlow still isolates himself from Kurtz’s world. The natives trail behind, though, as if they follow a god.
When Marlow notices Kurtz’s deep voice, he completes the idea he had established earlier—Kurtz as more of a spiritual being than a physical one. Kurtz’s “thin arm,” “bony head,” and eyes of an “apparition” de-emphasize his physicality. Marlow thinks of him as “an animated image of death carved out of old ivory.”
On the boat, Kurtz’s first words to Marlow, “I am glad,” represent an ironic acknowledgment. Since people had mentioned Marlow to Kurtz, they show the simple pleasure of meeting someone. However, we know Marlow feels the same way toward Kurtz, even with his recent doubtings. Marlow could have spoken these words, in turn.
Kurtz’s black mistress, “the wild and gorgeous apparition of a woman,” links him to a woman in Africa the way his Intended connects him to a woman in Europe. Although the pilgrims and the Russian disapprove of her, she stands immune from their censure. She is a reverse Kurtz in a female form, though more of a physical presence with her “flash of barbarous ornaments.” She never speaks, whereas Kurtz is a voice. Her “savage and superb” physical strength opposes Kurtz’s physical frailty.
The manager questions Kurtz’s sanity by calling his methods “unsound.” He believes he lacks judgment. Marlow defends Kurtz, saying, “Nevertheless, I think Mr. Kurtz is a remarkable man.” Marlow sides with Kurtz for two reasons. First, he dislikes the manager, so this contradiction, he knows, annoys him. Second, when he finds himself “lumped along with Kurtz,” he takes it as a compliment.
This affinity determines the next scene, when Marlow promises the Russian that he will save Kurtz’s reputation by keeping his savagery secret. Marlow surprises himself. “I did not know how truly I spoke,” he says. When the Russian flees the area, we see a further connection with Marlow. The Russian has a “canoe and three black fellows waiting” to take him away. This parallels Marlow’s steamer and crew on a smaller level. The Russian also needs shoes, which Marlow gives him. Remember earlier, Marlow needed shoes when the helmsman’s blood had soaked into them. The Russian also says he will never meet such a man again. We know Marlow feels the same way.
The next scene turns dream-like. Marlow falls asleep, then awakes after midnight with fires burning and drums filling the air “with muffled shocks and a lingering vibration.” The natives keep “their uneasy vigil” over Kurtz’s house, a religious connotation. When Marlow chases Kurtz through the jungle to get him back to the boat, we notice how possessive of him he feels. He says he is “jealous of sharing with any one the peculiar blackness of that experience.” Yet, he shares the memory of Kurtz with us as he narrates his adventure.
Kurtz’s crawling on all-fours to escape links him to the native in Section I who had crawled on all-fours to drink from the river. They both crawl to survive, they both are near death, and they both fall victim to the jungle. And, since the natives worship Kurtz, they should share similarities.
In the fragmented conversation with Kurtz, Marlow fluctuates between wanting to kill Kurtz and assuring him of success in Europe based on his accomplishments. Marlow knows that Kurtz personifies contradictions. There is nothing “above or below him”; he is mad, yet intelligent; and, he is “alone in the wilderness,” yet Marlow “supported him, his long bony arm clasped round my neck.” During the next scene, the natives and black mistress line the jungle to watch Kurtz leave, their god being taken from them. She leads them in a “roaring chorus,” suggesting a religious response at a formal service. When Marlow asks Kurtz if he understands their actions, he smiles and says, “Do I not?” He understands their devotion, and how removing him betrays their belief.
Marlow then scares the natives, to the dismay of some people on the boat. He fears for his life, so he blows the whistle. Only the black mistress remains, her arms “stretched tragically” in the pose of a priestess. She stays devoted until the end, the same way Kurtz’s Intended, another woman, will at the end.
As they escape “out of the heart of darkness,” Marlow continues his dedication to Kurtz. The manager and pilgrims look upon him with “disfavor.” His “unforeseen partnership” with Kurtz forges his complicity. Marlow even helps Kurtz by closing the shutters to the outside, as he requests. Kurtz’s separation from the jungle unnerves him. He does not want to leave Africa and his followers the same way Marlow does not want to leave Kurtz. This explains why Marlow murmurs, “Oh, nonsense,” when Kurtz says he waits for death. “The horror! The horror!”—Kurtz’s last words—suggest many interpretations. They refer to his death, his destroyed plans, his submission to his evil side, and the pain of life. Marlow “blew the candle out” and then left the cabin. This extinguished light signifies not only Kurtz’s life, but the sanctity he embodies for Marlow.
Appropriately, a native announces Kurtz’s death. Marlow would not because he would rather deny it. Since Kurtz represents a god, his followers should pronounce his death. Ironically, Marlow appears “brutally callous” by not remaining with Kurtz; we know this is not true. His emotional closeness to Kurtz surpasses any pilgrim’s. Marlow agrees with the Russian when he proclaims Kurtz’s greatness. Kurtz “had something to say.” His judgment, as summarized in “The Horror!” expresses conviction and an “appalling face of a glimpsed truth.” Kurtz’s life extended to extremes. He “stepped over the edge,” while Marlow “had been permitted to draw back his hesitating foot.” Marlow withdraws where Kurtz advances.
This distinction represents the Freudian psychological terms ego and id. The id is man’s instinctual impulses and the satisfaction of primal needs. This is Kurtz, the man who satisfies his needs by returning to the primitive forest. He lets loose his urges, no matter how excessive or deviant they are. Conversely, Marlow is the ego—the part of the personality that controls behavior and external reality. He questions the savagery, killing, and abandonment of laws for pleasure.
Marlow never relinquishes his rational side for Kurtz’s irrational one. Marlow is the way Kurtz once was, and Kurtz is what Marlow does not want to be. When Marlow returns to Europe, the daily routine of working, eating, and drinking bores him. His experience has taught him things these people can never know. He feels like “laughing in their faces so full of stupid importance.”
He runs a fever, fulfilling the doctor’s predictions in Section I, when he had said that the changes take place inside. Like Kurtz, Marlow is mentally, not physically, ill. His “inexcusable behavior” proves the jungle’s influence.
The visits by the company official, Kurtz’s “cousin,” and the journalist illustrate their impersonal concern for Kurtz’s life, unlike Marlow’s deeply personal one. They want his papers for official and public reasons. Marlow gives them only unimportant papers, saving the personal letters and photographs for Kurtz’s Intended. Marlow finds the seamanship book and Kurtz’s writings. He gives the book to the Russian because he knows he values it, and Kurtz’s letters to his Intended because she values them.
Marlow’s last act—his visit to Kurtz’s Intended more than a year after his death—completes Marlow’s journey. She constitutes the European version of Kurtz’s black mistress in Africa. Her “fair hair,” “pale visage,” and “pure brow” oppose the black woman’s ornamental excesses. She speaks of her loss to Marlow. The black woman had expressed it through physical movements. They talk of intimacy, knowing Kurtz, and love. Ironically, she says she “knew him best.” In many ways, Marlow knows Kurtz on a deeper level than she does. She also is unaware of his black mistress, barbaric actions, and mental illness. She says he “drew men towards him.” For Marlow, nothing could be more true. Mesmerized by Kurtz, he remains loyal to his memory. Marlow avoids breaking the “illusion that shone with an unearthly glow” in Kurtz’s Intended. He believes she is not capable of dealing with the truth, a force too powerful to oppose. Her misconception shows when she says Kurtz’s “goodness shone in every act.” Marlow agrees, furthering the deception. He connects Kurtz’s Intended to the black mistress. These women show their love for Kurtz by cherishing their image of him—each mirroring their culture’s ways.
Let’s return for a moment to the oil painting Marlow had seen in Section I. We now recognize a reference to the black mistress and his Intended in the picture. The blindfold and torch reflect his Intended, her delusion toward Kurtz and her light of love in his dark world. The somber, black background and stately movement reflect his black mistress, the African jungle and her measured gestures. With only Kurtz’s words left to them, Marlow and the woman talk of his verbal gifts. When she wants to know Kurtz’s last words, Marlow lies and tells her they had been her name, not “The horror! The horror!”
Earlier, in Section I, Marlow had said he detested a lie because there is a “taint of death” in it. He lies to Kurtz’s Intended to shield her from the truth. He has seen the truth in the jungle, but knows the lie here is better. Kurtz’s Intended cries, and, in so doing, comforts herself. It would have been “too dark altogether” for her. Marlow finalizes his idea of “how out of touch with truth women are,” which he had announced in Section II. He also atones, in a way, for his attitude toward his aunt for helping him secure his job. There he had belittled a woman, here he protects a woman.
The framed narrative ends. We return to the Nellie and Marlow’s “pose of a meditating Buddha.” As we had asked in Section I, what has he learned and suffered? Now we can answer these questions. He has learned of man’s darker side, his attraction toward evil, through Kurtz. He has discovered how the heart of darkness is not only a physical place (Africa), but a place within all men. He has suffered from seeing that darker side. Few people can claim this, which explains why Marlow “sat apart” from the others on the boat. Finally, the Director says, “We have lost the first of the ebb.” He ignores Marlow’s tale. Nothing reaches him, none of the philosophy and insights into human nature. The narrator lifts his head and sees “the heart of an immense darkness” in the distance. Marlow’s story has enlightened him. If we have listened, it has done the same for us.
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