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Ballads of a Bohemian

by
Robert W. Service


Contents


Book Four

Winter

  I

                                        The Somme Front,
                                          January 1915.

There is an avenue of noble beeches leading to the Chateau,
and in the shadow of each glimmers the pale oblong of an ambulance.
We have to keep them thus concealed, for only yesterday morning
a Taube flew over. The beggars are rather partial to Red Cross cars.
One of our chaps, taking in a load of wounded, was chased and pelted
the other day.

The Chateau seems all spires and towers, the glorified dream
of a Parisian pastrycook. On its terrace figures in khaki are lounging.
They are the volunteers, the owner-drivers of the Corps,
many of them men of wealth and title. Curious to see
one who owns all the coal in two counties proudly signing for his sou a day;
or another, who lives in a Fifth Avenue palace, contentedly sleeping
on the straw-strewn floor of a hovel.

Here is a rhyme I have made of such an one:

Priscilla


Jerry MacMullen, the millionaire,
Driving a red-meat bus out there --
How did he win his Croix de Guerre?
Bless you, that's all old stuff:
Beast of a night on the Verdun road,
Jerry stuck with a woeful load,
Stalled in the mud where the red lights glowed,
Prospect devilish tough.

"Little Priscilla" he called his car,
Best of our battered bunch by far,
Branded with many a bullet scar,
Yet running so sweet and true.
Jerry he loved her, knew her tricks;
Swore: "She's the beat of the best big six,
And if ever I get in a deuce of a fix
Priscilla will pull me through."

"Looks pretty rotten right now," says he;
"Hanged if the devil himself could see.
Priscilla, it's up to you and me
To show 'em what we can do."
Seemed that Priscilla just took the word;
Up with a leap like a horse that's spurred,
On with the joy of a homing bird,
Swift as the wind she flew.

Shell-holes shoot at them out of the night;
A lurch to the left, a wrench to the right,
Hands grim-gripping and teeth clenched tight,
Eyes that glare through the dark.
"Priscilla, you're doing me proud this day;
Hospital's only a league away,
And, honey, I'm longing to hit the hay,
So hurry, old girl. . . . But hark!"

Howl of a shell, harsh, sudden, dread;
Another . . . another. . . . "Strike me dead
If the Huns ain't strafing the road ahead
So the convoy can't get through!
A barrage of shrap, and us alone;
Four rush-cases -- you hear 'em moan?
Fierce old messes of blood and bone. . . .
Priscilla, what shall we do?"

Again it seems that Priscilla hears.
With a rush and a roar her way she clears,
Straight at the hell of flame she steers,
Full at its heart of wrath.
Fury of death and dust and din!
Havoc and horror! She's in, she's in;
She's almost over, she'll win, she'll win!
Woof! Crump! right in the path.

Little Priscilla skids and stops,
Jerry MacMullen sways and flops;
Bang in his map the crash he cops;
Shriek from the car: "Mon Dieu!"
One of the blesse/s hears him say,
Just at the moment he faints away:
"Reckon this isn't my lucky day,
Priscilla, it's up to you."

Sergeant raps on the doctor's door;
"Car in the court with couche/s four;
Driver dead on the dashboard floor;
Strange how the bunch got here."
"No," says the Doc, "this chap's alive;
But tell me, how could a man contrive
With both arms broken, a car to drive?
Thunder of God! it's queer."

Same little blesse/ makes a spiel;
Says he: "When I saw our driver reel,
A Strange Shape leapt to the driving wheel
And sped us safe through the night."
But Jerry, he says in his drawling tone:
"Rats! Why, Priscilla came in on her own.
Bless her, she did it alone, alone. . . ."
Hanged if I know who's right.

As I am sitting down to my midday meal an orderly gives me a telegram:

        Hill 71. Two couche/s. Send car at once.

The uptilted country-side is a checker-board of green and gray, and,
except where groves of trees rise like islands, cultivated to the last acre.
But as we near the firing-line all efforts to till the land cease,
and the ungathered beets of last year have grown to seed.
Amid rank unkempt fields I race over a road that is pitted with obus-holes;
I pass a line of guns painted like snakes, and drawn by horses
dyed khaki-color; then soldiers coming from the trenches,
mud-caked and ineffably weary; then a race over a bit of road that is exposed;
then, buried in the hill-side, the dressing station.

The two wounded are put into my car. From hip to heel
one is swathed in bandages; the other has a great white turban on his head,
with a red patch on it that spreads and spreads. They stare dully, but make
no sound. As I crank the car there is a shrill screaming noise. . . .
About thirty yards away I hear an explosion like a mine-blast,
followed by a sudden belch of coal-black smoke. I stare at it in a dazed way.
Then the doctor says: "Don't trouble to analyze your sensations.
Better get off. You're only drawing their fire."

Here is one of my experiences:

A Casualty


That boy I took in the car last night,
With the body that awfully sagged away,
And the lips blood-crisped, and the eyes flame-bright,
And the poor hands folded and cold as clay --
Oh, I've thought and I've thought of him all the day.

For the weary old doctor says to me:
"He'll only last for an hour or so.
Both of his legs below the knee
Blown off by a bomb. . . . So, lad, go slow,
And please remember, he doesn't know."

So I tried to drive with never a jar;
And there was I cursing the road like mad,
When I hears a ghost of a voice from the car:
"Tell me, old chap, have I `copped it' bad?"
So I answers "No," and he says, "I'm glad."

"Glad," says he, "for at twenty-two
Life's so splendid, I hate to go.
There's so much good that a chap might do,
And I've fought from the start and I've suffered so.
'Twould be hard to get knocked out now, you know."

"Forget it," says I; then I drove awhile,
And I passed him a cheery word or two;
But he didn't answer for many a mile,
So just as the hospital hove in view,
Says I: "Is there nothing that I can do?"

Then he opens his eyes and he smiles at me;
And he takes my hand in his trembling hold;
"Thank you -- you're far too kind," says he:
"I'm awfully comfy -- stay . . . let's see:
I fancy my blanket's come unrolled --
My feet, please wrap 'em -- they're cold . . . they're cold."

There is a city that glitters on the plain. Afar off we can see
its tall cathedral spire, and there we often take our wounded
from the little village hospitals to the rail-head. Tragic little buildings,
these emergency hospitals -- town-halls, churches, schools;
their cots are never empty, their surgeons never still.

So every day we get our list of cases and off we go, a long line of cars
swishing through the mud. Then one by one we branch off
to our village hospital, puzzling out the road on our maps.
Arrived there, we load up quickly.

The wounded make no moan. They lie, limp, heavily bandaged,
with bare legs and arms protruding from their blankets.
They do not know where they are going; they do not care.
Like live stock, they are labeled and numbered. An orderly brings along
their battle-scarred equipment, throwing open their rifles
to see that no charge remains. Sometimes they shake our hands
and thank us for the drive.

In the streets of the city I see French soldiers wearing the fourragere.
It is a cord of green, yellow or red, and corresponds to
the Croix de Guerre, the Me/daille militaire and the Legion of Honor.
The red is the highest of all, and has been granted only to
one or two regiments. This incident was told to me by a man who saw it:

The Blood-Red Fourragere


What was the blackest sight to me
Of all that campaign?
A naked woman tied to a tree
With jagged holes where her breasts should be,
Rotting there in the rain.

On we pressed to the battle fray,
Dogged and dour and spent.
Sudden I heard my Captain say:
"Voila\! Kultur has passed this way,
And left us a monument."

So I looked and I saw our Colonel there,
And his grand head, snowed with the years,
Unto the beat of the rain was bare;
And, oh, there was grief in his frozen stare,
And his cheeks were stung with tears!

Then at last he turned from the woeful tree,
And his face like stone was set;
"Go, march the Regiment past," said he,
"That every father and son may see,
And none may ever forget."

Oh, the crimson strands of her hair downpoured
Over her breasts of woe;
And our grim old Colonel leaned on his sword,
And the men filed past with their rifles lowered,
Solemn and sad and slow.

But I'll never forget till the day I die,
As I stood in the driving rain,
And the jaded columns of men slouched by,
How amazement leapt into every eye,
Then fury and grief and pain.

And some would like madmen stand aghast,
With their hands upclenched to the sky;
And some would cross themselves as they passed,
And some would curse in a scalding blast,
And some like children cry.

Yea, some would be sobbing, and some would pray,
And some hurl hateful names;
But the best had never a word to say;
They turned their twitching faces away,
And their eyes were like hot flames.

They passed; then down on his bended knee
The Colonel dropped to the Dead:
"Poor martyred daughter of France!" said he,
"O dearly, dearly avenged you'll be
Or ever a day be sped!"

Now they hold that we are the best of the best,
And each of our men may wear,
Like a gash of crimson across his chest,
As one fierce-proved in the battle-test,
The blood-red Fourragere.

For each as he leaps to the top can see,
Like an etching of blood on his brain,
A wife or a mother lashed to a tree,
With two black holes where her breasts should be,
Left to rot in the rain.

So we fight like fiends, and of us they say
That we neither yield nor spare.
Oh, we have the bitterest debt to pay. . . .
Have we paid it? -- Look -- how we wear to-day
Like a trophy, gallant and proud and gay,
Our blood-red Fourragere.

It is often weary waiting at the little poste de secours. Some of us
play solitaire, some read a "sixpenny", some doze or try to talk in bad French
to the poilus. Around us is discomfort, dirt and drama.

For my part, I pass the time only too quickly, trying to put into verse
the incidents and ideas that come my way. In this way I hope to collect
quite a lot of stuff which may some day see itself in print.

Here is one of my efforts:

Jim


Never knew Jim, did you? Our boy Jim?
Bless you, there was the likely lad;
Supple and straight and long of limb,
Clean as a whistle, and just as glad.
Always laughing, wasn't he, dad?
Joy, pure joy to the heart of him,
And, oh, but the soothering ways he had,
                              Jim, our Jim!

But I see him best as a tiny tot,
A bonny babe, though it's me that speaks;
Laughing there in his little cot,
With his sunny hair and his apple cheeks.
And my! but the blue, blue eyes he'd got,
And just where his wee mouth dimpled dim
Such a fairy mark like a beauty spot --
                              That was Jim.

Oh, the war, the war! How my eyes were wet!
But he says: "Don't be sorrowing, mother dear;
You never knew me to fail you yet,
And I'll be back in a year, a year."
'Twas at Mons he fell, in the first attack;
For so they said, and their eyes were dim;
But I laughed in their faces: "He'll come back,
                              Will my Jim."

Now, we'd been wedded for twenty year,
And Jim was the only one we'd had;
So when I whispered in father's ear,
He wouldn't believe me -- would you, dad?
There! I must hurry . . . hear him cry?
My new little baby. . . . See! that's him.
What are we going to call him? Why,
                              Jim, just Jim.

Jim! For look at him laughing there
In the same old way in his tiny cot,
With his rosy cheeks and his sunny hair,
And look, just look . . . his beauty spot
In the selfsame place. . . . Oh, I can't explain,
And of course you think it's a mother's whim,
But I know, I know it's my boy again,
                              Same wee Jim.

Just come back as he said he would;
Come with his love and his heart of glee.
Oh, I cried and I cried, but the Lord was good;
From the shadow of Death he set Jim free.
So I'll have him all over again, you see.
Can you wonder my mother-heart's a-brim?
Oh, how happy we're going to be!
                              Aren't we, Jim?

  II

                                        In Picardy,
                                          January 1915.

The road lies amid a malevolent heath. It seems to lead us
right into the clutch of the enemy; for the star-shells,
that at first were bursting overhead, gradually encircle us.
The fields are strangely sinister; the splintered trees
are like giant toothpicks. There is a lisping and a twanging overhead.

As we wait at the door of the dugout that serves as a first-aid
dressing station, I gaze up into that mysterious dark,
so alive with musical vibrations. Then a small shadow detaches itself
from the greater shadow, and a gray-bearded sentry says to me:
"You'd better come in out of the bullets."

So I keep under cover, and presently they bring my load. Two men
drip with sweat as they carry their comrade. I can see that they all three
belong to the Foreign Legion. I think for a moment of Saxon Dane.
How strange if some day I should carry him! Half fearfully
I look at my passenger, but he is a black man. Such things only happen
in fiction.

This is what I have written of the finest troops in the Army of France:

Kelly of the Legion


Now Kelly was no fighter;
He loved his pipe and glass;
An easygoing blighter,
Who lived in Montparnasse.
But 'mid the tavern tattle
He heard some guinney say:
"When France goes forth to battle,
The Legion leads the way.

    "The scourings of creation,
    Of every sin and station,
    The men who've known damnation,
    Are picked to lead the way."

Well, Kelly joined the Legion;
They marched him day and night;
They rushed him to the region
Where largest loomed the fight.
"Behold your mighty mission,
Your destiny," said they;
"By glorious tradition
The Legion leads the way.

    "With tattered banners flying
    With trail of dead and dying,
    On! On! All hell defying,
    The Legion sweeps the way."

With grim, hard-bitten faces,
With jests of savage mirth,
They swept into their places,
The men of iron worth;
Their blooded steel was flashing;
They swung to face the fray;
Then rushing, roaring, crashing,
The Legion cleared the way.

    The trail they blazed was gory;
    Few lived to tell the story;
    Through death they plunged to glory;
    But, oh, they cleared the way!

Now Kelly lay a-dying,
And dimly saw advance,
With split new banners flying,
The fantassins of France.
Then up amid the melee
He rose from where he lay;
"Come on, me boys," says Kelly,
"The Layjun lades the way!"

    Aye, while they faltered, doubting
    (Such flames of doom were spouting),
    He caught them, thrilled them, shouting:
    "The Layjun lades the way!"

They saw him slip and stumble,
Then stagger on once more;
They marked him trip and tumble,
A mass of grime and gore;
They watched him blindly crawling
Amid hell's own affray,
And calling, calling, calling:
"The Layjun lades the way!"

    And even while they wondered,
    The battle-wrack was sundered;
    To Victory they thundered,
    But . . . Kelly led the way.

Still Kelly kept agoing;
Berserker-like he ran;
His eyes with fury glowing,
A lion of a man;
His rifle madly swinging,
His soul athirst to slay,
His slogan ringing, ringing,
"The Layjun lades the way!"

    Till in a pit death-baited,
    Where Huns with Maxims waited,
    He plunged . . . and there, blood-sated,
    To death he stabbed his way.

Now Kelly was a fellow
Who simply loathed a fight:
He loved a tavern mellow,
Grog hot and pipe alight;
I'm sure the Show appalled him,
And yet without dismay,
When Death and Duty called him,
He up and led the way.

    So in Valhalla drinking
    (If heroes meek and shrinking
    Are suffered there), I'm thinking
    'Tis Kelly leads the way.

We have just had one of our men killed, a young sculptor of immense promise.

When one thinks of all the fine work he might have accomplished,
it seems a shame. But, after all, to-morrow it may be the turn of any of us.
If it should be mine, my chief regret will be for work undone.

Ah! I often think of how I will go back to the Quarter
and take up the old life again. How sweet it will all seem.
But first I must earn the right. And if ever I do go back,
how I will find Bohemia changed! Missing how many a face!

It was in thinking of our lost comrade I wrote the following:

The Three Tommies


That Barret, the painter of pictures, what feeling for color he had!
And Fanning, the maker of music, such melodies mirthful and mad!
And Harley, the writer of stories, so whimsical, tender and glad!

To hark to their talk in the trenches, high heart unfolding to heart,
Of the day when the war would be over, and each would be true to his part,
Upbuilding a Palace of Beauty to the wonder and glory of Art . . .

Yon's Barret, the painter of pictures, yon carcass that rots on the wire;
His hand with its sensitive cunning is crisped to a cinder with fire;
His eyes with their magical vision are bubbles of glutinous mire.

Poor Fanning! He sought to discover the symphonic note of a shell;
There are bits of him broken and bloody, to show you the place where he fell;
I've reason to fear on his exquisite ear the rats have been banqueting well.

And speaking of Harley, the writer, I fancy I looked on him last,
Sprawling and staring and writhing in the roar of the battle blast;
Then a mad gun-team crashed over, and scattered his brains as it passed.

Oh, Harley and Fanning and Barret, they were bloody good mates o' mine;
Their bodies are empty bottles; Death has guzzled the wine;
What's left of them's filth and corruption. . . . Where is the Fire Divine?

I'll tell you. . . . At night in the trenches, as I watch and I do my part,
Three radiant spirits I'm seeing, high heart revealing to heart,
And they're building a peerless palace to the splendor and triumph of Art.

Yet, alas! for the fame of Barret, the glory he might have trailed!
And alas! for the name of Fanning, a star that beaconed and paled,
Poor Harley, obscure and forgotten. . . .
  Well, who shall say that they failed!

No, each did a Something Grander than ever he dreamed to do;
And as for the work unfinished, all will be paid their due;
The broken ends will be fitted, the balance struck will be true.

So painters, and players, and penmen, I tell you: Do as you please;
Let your fame outleap on the trumpets, you'll never rise up to these --
To three grim and gory Tommies, down, down on your bended knees!

Daventry, the sculptor, is buried in a little graveyard near one of our posts.
Just now our section of the line is quiet, so I often go and sit there.
Stretching myself on a flat stone, I dream for hours.

Silence and solitude! How good the peace of it all seems!
Around me the grasses weave a pattern, and half hide
the hundreds of little wooden crosses. Here is one with a single name:
  
                AUBREY.
  
Who was Aubrey I wonder? Then another:
  
        To Our Beloved Comrade.

Then one which has attached to it, in the cheapest of little frames,
the crude water-color daub of a child, three purple flowers
standing in a yellow vase. Below it, painfully printed, I read:
  
    To My Darling Papa -- Thy Little Odette.

And beyond the crosses many fresh graves have been dug.
With hungry open mouths they wait. Even now I can hear the guns
that are going to feed them. Soon there will be more crosses,
and more and more. Then they will cease, and wives and mothers
will come here to weep.

Ah! Peace so precious must be bought with blood and tears.
Let us honor and bless the men who pay, and envy them
the manner of their dying; for not all the jeweled orders
on the breasts of the living can vie in glory with the little wooden cross
the humblest of these has won. . . .

The Twa Jocks


Says Bauldy MacGreegor frae Gleska tae Hecky MacCrimmon frae Skye:
"That's whit I hate maist aboot fechtin' -- it makes ye sae deevilish dry;
Noo jist hae a keek at yon ferm-hoose them Gairmans are poundin' sae fine,
Weel, think o' it, doon in the dunnie there's bottles and bottles o' wine.
A' hell's fairly belchin' oot yonner, but oh, lad, I'm ettlin' tae try. . . ."
"If it's poose she'll be with ye whateffer,"
  says Hecky MacCrimmon frae Skye.

Says Bauldy MacGreegor frae Gleska: "Whit price fur a funeral wreath?
We're dodgin' a' kinds o' destruction, an' jist by the skin o' oor teeth.
Here, spread yersel oot on yer belly, and slither along in the glaur;
Confoond ye, ye big Hielan' deevil! Ye don't realize there's a war.
Ye think that ye're back in Dunvegan, and herdin' the wee bits o' kye."
"She'll neffer trink wine in Dunfegan," says Hecky MacCrimmon frae Skye.

Says Bauldy MacGreegor frae Gleska: "Thank goodness! the ferm-hoose at last;
There's no muckle left but the cellar, an' even that's vanishin' fast.
Look oot, there's the corpse o' a wumman, sair mangelt and deid by her lane.
Quick! Strike a match. . . . Whit did I tell ye!
  A hale bonny box o' shampane;
Jist knock the heid aff o' a bottle. . . .
  Haud on, mon, I'm hearing a cry. . . ."
"She'll think it's a wean that wass greetin',"
  says Hecky MacCrimmon frae Skye.

Says Bauldy MacGreegor frae Gleska:
  "Ma conscience! I'm hanged but yer richt.
It's yin o' thae waifs of the war-field, a' sobbin' and shakin' wi' fricht.
Wheesht noo, dear, we're no gaun tae hurt ye.
  We're takin' ye hame, my wee doo!
We've got tae get back wi' her, Hecky. Whit mercy we didna get fou!
We'll no touch a drap o' that likker --
  that's hard, man, ye canna deny. . . ."
"It's the last thing she'll think o' denyin',"
  says Hecky MacCrimmon frae Skye.

Says Bauldy MacGreegor frae Gleska: "If I should get struck frae the rear,
Ye'll tak' and ye'll shield the wee lassie, and rin for the lines like a deer.
God! Wis that the breenge o' a bullet? I'm thinkin' it's cracket ma spine.
I'm doon on ma knees in the glabber; I'm fearin', auld man, I've got mine.
Here, quick! Pit yer erms roon the lassie.
  Noo, rin, lad! good luck and good-by. . . .
"Hoots, mon! it's ye baith she'll be takin',"
  says Hecky MacCrimmon frae Skye.

Says Corporal Muckle frae Rannoch: "Is that no' a picture tae frame?
Twa sair woundit Jocks wi' a lassie jist like ma wee Jeannie at hame.
We're prood o' ye baith, ma brave heroes. We'll gie ye a medal, I think."
Says Bauldy MacGreegor frae Gleska: "I'd raither ye gied me a drink.
I'll no speak for Private MacCrimmon, but oh, mon, I'm perishin' dry. . . ."
"She'll wush that Loch Lefen wass whuskey," says Hecky MacCrimmon frae Skye.

  III

                                        Near Albert,
                                          February 1915.

Over the spine of the ridge a horned moon of reddish hue
peers through the splintered, hag-like trees. Where the trenches are,
rockets are rising, green and red. I hear the coughing of the Maxims,
the peevish nagging of the rifles, the boom of a "heavy"
and the hollow sound of its exploding shell.

Running the car into the shadow of a ruined house, I try to sleep.
But a battery starts to blaze away close by, and the flame
lights up my shelter. Near me some soldiers are in deep slumber;
one stirs in his sleep as a big rat runs over him, and I know by experience
that when one is sleeping a rat feels as heavy as a sheep.

But how can one possibly sleep? Out there in the dark
there is the wild tattoo of a thousand rifles; and hark! that dull roar
is the explosion of a mine. There! the purring of the rapid firers.
Desperate things are doing. There will be lots of work for me
before this night is over. What a cursed place!

As I cannot sleep, I think of a story I heard to-day.
It is of a Canadian Colonel, and in my mind I shape it like this:

His Boys


"I'm going, Billy, old fellow. Hist, lad! Don't make any noise.
There's Boches to beat all creation, the pitch of a bomb away.
I've fixed the note to your collar, you've got to get back to my Boys,
You've got to get back to warn 'em before it's the break of day."

The order came to go forward to a trench-line traced on the map;
I knew the brass-hats had blundered, I knew and I told 'em so;
I knew if I did as they ordered I would tumble into a trap,
And I tried to explain, but the answer came like a pistol: "Go."

Then I thought of the Boys I commanded -- I always called them "my Boys" --
The men of my own recruiting, the lads of my countryside;
Tested in many a battle, I knew their sorrows and joys,
And I loved them all like a father, with more than a father's pride.

To march my Boys to a shambles as soon as the dawn of day;
To see them helplessly slaughtered, if all that I guessed was true;
My Boys that trusted me blindly, I thought and I tried to pray,
And then I arose and I muttered: "It's either them or it's you."

I rose and I donned my rain-coat; I buckled my helmet tight.
I remember you watched me, Billy, as I took my cane in my hand;
I vaulted over the sandbags into the pitchy night,
Into the pitted valley that served us as No Man's Land.

I strode out over the hollow of hate and havoc and death,
From the heights the guns were angry, with a vengeful snarling of steel;
And once in a moment of stillness I heard hard panting breath,
And I turned . . . it was you, old rascal, following hard on my heel.

I fancy I cursed you, Billy; but not so much as I ought!
And so we went forward together, till we came to the valley rim,
And then a star-shell sputtered . . . it was even worse than I thought,
For the trench they told me to move in was packed with Boche to the brim.

They saw me too, and they got me; they peppered me till I fell;
And there I scribbled my message with my life-blood ebbing away;
"Now, Billy, you fat old duffer, you've got to get back like hell;
And get them to cancel that order before it's the dawn of day.

"Billy, old boy, I love you, I kiss your shiny black nose;
Now, home there. . . . Hurry, you devil,
  or I'll cut you to ribands. . . . See . . ."
Poor brute! he's off! and I'm dying. . . . I go as a soldier goes.
I'm happy. My Boys, God bless 'em! . . . It had to be them or me.

Ah! I never was intended for a job like this. I realize it more and more
every day, but I will stick it out till I break down. To be nervous,
over-imaginative, terribly sensitive to suffering, is a poor equipment
for the man who starts out to drive wounded on the battlefield. I am haunted
by the thought that my car may break down when I have a load of wounded.
Once indeed it did, and a man died while I waited for help.
Now I never look at what is given me. It might unnerve me.

I have been at it for over six months without a rest. When an attack
has been going on I have worked day and night, until as I drove
I wanted to fall asleep at the wheel.

The winter has been trying; there is rain one day, frost the next.
Mud up to the axles. One sleeps in lousy barns or dripping dugouts.
Cold, hunger, dirt, I know them all singly and together. My only consolation
is that the war must soon be over, and that I will have helped.
When I have time and am not too tired, I comfort myself with scribbling.

The Booby-Trap


I'm crawlin' out in the mangolds to bury wot's left o' Joe --
Joe, my pal, and a good un (God! 'ow it rains and rains).
I'm sick o' seein' him lyin' like a 'eap o' offal, and so
I'm crawlin' out in the beet-field to bury 'is last remains.

'E might 'a bin makin' munitions -- 'e 'adn't no need to go;
An' I tells 'im strite, but 'e arnsers, "'Tain't no use chewin' the fat;
I've got to be doin' me dooty wiv the rest o' the boys" . . . an' so
Yon's 'im, yon blob on the beet-field wot I'm tryin' so 'ard to git at.

There was five of us lads from the brickyard; 'Enry was gassed at Bapome,
Sydney was drowned in a crater, 'Erbert was 'alved by a shell;
Joe was the pick o' the posy, might 'a bin sifely at 'ome,
Only son of 'is mother, 'er a widder as well.

She used to sell bobbins and buttons -- 'ad a plice near the Waterloo Road;
A little, old, bent-over lydy, wiv glasses an' silvery 'air;
Must tell 'er I planted 'im nicely,
  cheer 'er up like. . . . (Well, I'm blowed,
That bullet near catched me a biffer) -- I'll see the old gel if I'm spared.

She'll tike it to 'eart, pore ol' lydy, fer 'e was 'er 'ope and 'er joy;
'Is dad used to drink like a knot-'ole, she kept the 'ome goin', she did:
She pinched and she scriped fer 'is scoolin', 'e was sich a fine 'andsome boy
('Alf Flanders seems packed on me panties) --
  'e's 'andsome no longer, pore kid!

This bit o' a board that I'm packin' and draggin' around in the mire,
I was tickled to death when I found it. Says I, "'Ere's a nice little glow."
I was chilled and wet through to the marrer, so I started to make me a fire;
And then I says: "No; 'ere, Goblimy, it'll do for a cross for Joe."

Well, 'ere 'e is. Gawd! 'Ow one chinges a-lyin' six weeks in the rain.
Joe, me old pal, 'ow I'm sorry; so 'elp me, I wish I could pray.
An' now I 'ad best get a-diggin' 'is grave (it seems more like a drain) --
And I 'opes that the Boches won't git me till I gits 'im safe planted away.

      (As he touches the body there is a tremendous explosion.
      He falls back shattered.
)

A booby-trap! Ought to 'a known it! If that's not a bastardly trick!
Well, one thing, I won't be long goin'. Gawd! I'm a 'ell of a sight.
Wish I'd died fightin' and killin'; that's wot it is makes me sick. . . .
Ah, Joe! we'll be pushin' up dysies . . .
  together, old Chummie . . . good-night!

To-day I heard that MacBean had been killed in Belgium.
I believe he turned out a wonderful soldier. Saxon Dane, too,
has been missing for two months. We know what that means.

It is odd how one gets callous to death, a mediaeval callousness.
When we hear that the best of our friends have gone West,
we have a moment of the keenest regret; but how soon again
we find the heart to laugh! The saddest part of loss, I think,
is that one so soon gets over it.

Is it that we fail to realize it all? Is it that it seems
a strange and hideous dream, from which we will awake and rub our eyes?

Oh, how bitter I feel as the days go by! It is creeping more and more
into my verse. Read this:

Bonehead Bill


I wonder 'oo and wot 'e was,
That 'Un I got so slick.
I couldn't see 'is face because
The night was 'ideous thick.
I just made out among the black
A blinkin' wedge o' white;
Then biff! I guess I got 'im crack --
The man I killed last night.

I wonder if account o' me
Some wench will go unwed,
And 'eaps o' lives will never be,
Because 'e's stark and dead?
Or if 'is missis damns the war,
And by some candle light,
Tow-headed kids are prayin' for
The Fritz I copped last night.

I wonder, 'struth, I wonder why
I 'ad that 'orful dream?
I saw up in the giddy sky
The gates o' God agleam;
I saw the gates o' 'eaven shine
Wiv everlastin' light:
And then . . . I knew that I'd got mine,
As 'e got 'is last night.

Aye, bang beyond the broodin' mists
Where spawn the mother stars,
I 'ammered wiv me bloody fists
Upon them golden bars;
I 'ammered till a devil's doubt
Fair froze me wiv affright:
To fink wot God would say about
The bloke I corpsed last night.

I 'ushed; I wilted wiv despair,
When, like a rosy flame,
I sees a angel standin' there
'Oo calls me by me name.
'E 'ad such soft, such shiny eyes;
'E 'eld 'is 'and and smiled;
And through the gates o' Paradise
'E led me like a child.

'E led me by them golden palms
Wot 'ems that jeweled street;
And seraphs was a-singin' psalms,
You've no ideer 'ow sweet;
Wiv cheroobs crowdin' closer round
Than peas is in a pod,
'E led me to a shiny mound
Where beams the throne o' God.

And then I 'ears God's werry voice:
"Bill 'agan, 'ave no fear.
Stand up and glory and rejoice
For 'im 'oo led you 'ere."
And in a nip I seemed to see:
Aye, like a flash o' light,
My angel pal I knew to be
The chap I plugged last night.

Now, I don't claim to understand --
They calls me Bonehead Bill;
They shoves a rifle in me 'and,
And show me 'ow to kill.
Me job's to risk me life and limb,
But . . . be it wrong or right,
This cross I'm makin', it's for 'im,
The cove I croaked last night.

  IV

A Lapse of Time and a Word of Explanation


                                        The American Hospital, Neuilly,
                                          January 1919.

Four years have passed and it is winter again. Much has happened.
When I last wrote, on the Somme in 1915, I was sickening with typhoid fever.
All that spring I was in hospital.

Nevertheless, I was sufficiently recovered to take part
in the Champagne battle in the fall of that year, and to "carry on"
during the following winter. It was at Verdun I got my first wound.

In the spring of 1917 I again served with my Corps; but on the entry
of the United States into the War I joined the army of my country.
In the Argonne I had my left arm shot away.

As far as time and health permitted, I kept a record of these years,
and also wrote much verse. All this, however, has disappeared
under circumstances into which there is no need to enter here.
The loss was a cruel one, almost more so than that of my arm;
for I have neither the heart nor the power to rewrite this material.

And now, in default of something better, I have bundled together
this manuscript, and have added to it a few more verses, written in hospitals.
Let it represent me. If I can find a publisher for it, tant mieux.
If not, I will print it at my own cost, and any one who cares for a copy
can write to me --
  
    Stephen Poore,
        12 bis, Rue des Petits Moineaux,
                                        Paris.

Michael


"There's something in your face, Michael, I've seen it all the day;
There's something quare that wasn't there when first ye wint away. . . ."

"It's just the Army life, mother, the drill, the left and right,
That puts the stiffinin' in yer spine and locks yer jaw up tight. . . ."

"There's something in your eyes, Michael, an' how they stare and stare --
You're lookin' at me now, me boy, as if I wasn't there. . . ."

"It's just the things I've seen, mother, the sights that come and come,
A bit o' broken, bloody pulp that used to be a chum. . . ."

"There's something on your heart, Michael, that makes ye wake at night,
And often when I hear ye moan, I trimble in me fright. . . ."

"It's just a man I killed, mother, a mother's son like me;
It seems he's always hauntin' me, he'll never let me be. . . ."

"But maybe he was bad, Michael, maybe it was right
To kill the inimy you hate in fair and honest fight. . . ."

"I did not hate at all, mother; he never did me harm;
I think he was a lad like me, who worked upon a farm. . . ."

"And what's it all about, Michael; why did you have to go,
A quiet, peaceful lad like you, and we were happy so? . . ."

"It's thim that's up above, mother, it's thim that sits an' rules;
We've got to fight the wars they make, it's us as are the fools. . . ."

"And what will be the end, Michael, and what's the use, I say,
Of fightin' if whoever wins it's us that's got to pay? . . ."

"Oh, it will be the end, mother, when lads like him and me,
That sweat to feed the ones above, decide that we'll be free. . . ."

"And when will that day come, Michael, and when will fightin' cease,
And simple folks may till their soil and live and love in peace? . . ."

"It's coming soon and soon, mother, it's nearer every day,
When only men who work and sweat will have a word to say;
When all who earn their honest bread in every land and soil
Will claim the Brotherhood of Man, the Comradeship of Toil;
When we, the Workers, all demand: `What are we fighting for?' . . .
Then, then we'll end that stupid crime, that devil's madness -- War."

The Wife


"Tell Annie I'll be home in time
To help her with her Christmas-tree."
That's what he wrote, and hark! the chime
Of Christmas bells, and where is he?
And how the house is dark and sad,
And Annie's sobbing on my knee!

The page beside the candle-flame
With cruel type was overfilled;
I read and read until a name
Leapt at me and my heart was stilled:
My eye crept up the column -- up
Unto its hateful heading: Killed.

And there was Annie on the stair:
"And will he not be long?" she said.
Her eyes were bright and in her hair
She'd twined a bit of riband red;
And every step was daddy's sure,
Till tired out she went to bed.

And there alone I sat so still,
With staring eyes that did not see;
The room was desolate and chill,
And desolate the heart of me;
Outside I heard the news-boys shrill:
"Another Glorious Victory!"

A victory. . . . Ah! what care I?
A thousand victories are vain.
Here in my ruined home I cry
From out my black despair and pain,
I'd rather, rather damned defeat,
And have my man with me again.

They talk to us of pride and power,
Of Empire vast beyond the sea;
As here beside my hearth I cower,
What mean such words as these to me?
Oh, will they lift the clouds that low'r,
Or light my load in years to be?

What matters it to us poor folk?
Who win or lose, it's we who pay.
Oh, I would laugh beneath the yoke
If I had him at home to-day;
One's home before one's country comes:
Aye, so a million women say.

"Hush, Annie dear, don't sorrow so."
(How can I tell her?) "See, we'll light
With tiny star of purest glow
Each little candle pink and white."
(They make mistakes. I'll tell myself
I did not read that name aright.)
Come, dearest one; come, let us pray
Beside our gleaming Christmas-tree;
Just fold your little hands and say
These words so softly after me:
"God pity mothers in distress,
And little children fatherless."

"God pity mothers in distress,
And little children fatherless."

     . . . . .

What's that? -- a step upon the stair;
A shout! -- the door thrown open wide!
My hero and my man is there,
And Annie's leaping by his side. . . .
The room reels round, I faint, I fall. . . .
"O God! Thy world is glorified."

Victory Stuff


What d'ye think, lad; what d'ye think,
As the roaring crowds go by?
As the banners flare and the brasses blare
And the great guns rend the sky?
As the women laugh like they'd all gone mad,
And the champagne glasses clink:
Oh, you're grippin' me hand so tightly, lad,
I'm a-wonderin': what d'ye think?

D'ye think o' the boys we used to know,
And how they'd have topped the fun?
Tom and Charlie, and Jack and Joe --
Gone now, every one.
How they'd have cheered as the joy-bells chime,
And they grabbed each girl for a kiss!
And now -- they're rottin' in Flanders slime,
And they gave their lives -- for this.

Or else d'ye think of the many a time
We wished we too was dead,
Up to our knees in the freezin' grime,
With the fires of hell overhead;
When the youth and the strength of us sapped away,
And we cursed in our rage and pain?
And yet -- we haven't a word to say. . . .
We're glad. We'd do it again.

I'm scared that they pity us. Come, old boy,
Let's leave them their flags and their fuss.
We'd surely be hatin' to spoil their joy
With the sight of such wrecks as us.
Let's slip away quietly, you and me,
And we'll talk of our chums out there:
You with your eyes that'll never see,
Me that's wheeled in a chair.

Was It You?


"Hullo, young Jones! with your tie so gay
And your pen behind your ear;
Will you mark my cheque in the usual way?
For I'm overdrawn, I fear."
Then you look at me in a manner bland,
As you turn your ledger's leaves,
And you hand it back with a soft white hand,
And the air of a man who grieves. . . .

"Was it you, young Jones, was it you I saw
(And I think I see you yet)
With a live bomb gripped in your grimy paw
And your face to the parapet?
With your lips asnarl and your eyes gone mad
With a fury that thrilled you through. . . .
Oh, I look at you now and I think, my lad,
Was it you, young Jones, was it you?

"Hullo, young Smith, with your well-fed look
And your coat of dapper fit,
Will you recommend me a decent book
With nothing of War in it?"
Then you smile as you polish a finger-nail,
And your eyes serenely roam,
And you suavely hand me a thrilling tale
By a man who stayed at home.

"Was it you, young Smith, was it you I saw
In the battle's storm and stench,
With a roar of rage and a wound red-raw
Leap into the reeking trench?
As you stood like a fiend on the firing-shelf
And you stabbed and hacked and slew. . . .
Oh, I look at you and I ask myself,
Was it you, young Smith, was it you?

"Hullo, old Brown, with your ruddy cheek
And your tummy's rounded swell,
Your garden's looking jolly chic
And your kiddies awf'ly well.
Then you beam at me in your cheery way
As you swing your water-can;
And you mop your brow and you blithely say:
`What about golf, old man?'

"Was it you, old Brown, was it you I saw
Like a bull-dog stick to your gun,
A cursing devil of fang and claw
When the rest were on the run?
Your eyes aflame with the battle-hate. . . .
As you sit in the family pew,
And I see you rising to pass the plate,
I ask: Old Brown, was it you?

"Was it me and you? Was it you and me?
(Is that grammar, or is it not?)
Who groveled in filth and misery,
Who gloried and groused and fought?
Which is the wrong and which is the right?
Which is the false and the true?
The man of peace or the man of fight?
Which is the ME and the YOU?"

  V

Les Grands Mutiles


I saw three wounded of the war:
And the first had lost his eyes;
And the second went on wheels and had
No legs below the thighs;
And the face of the third was featureless,
And his mouth ran cornerwise.
So I made a rhyme about each one,
And this is how my fancies run.

  The Sightless Man


Out of the night a crash,
A roar, a rampart of light;
A flame that leaped like a lash,
Searing forever my sight;
Out of the night a flash,
Then, oh, forever the Night!

Here in the dark I sit,
I who so loved the sun;
Supple and strong and fit,
In the dark till my days be done;
Aye, that's the hell of it,
Stalwart and twenty-one.

Marie is stanch and true,
Willing to be my wife;
Swears she has eyes for two . . .
Aye, but it's long, is Life.
What is a lad to do
With his heart and his brain at strife?

There now, my pipe is out;
No one to give me a light;
I grope and I grope about.
Well, it is nearly night;
Sleep may resolve my doubt,
Help me to reason right. . . .

    (He sleeps and dreams.)

I heard them whispering there by the bed . . .
Oh, but the ears of the blind are quick!
Every treacherous word they said
Was a stab of pain and my heart turned sick.
Then lip met lip and they looked at me,
Sitting bent by the fallen fire,
And they laughed to think that I couldn't see;
But I felt the flame of their hot desire.
He's helping Marie to work the farm,
A dashing, upstanding chap, they say;
And look at me with my flabby arm,
And the fat of sloth, and my face of clay --
Look at me as I sit and sit,
By the side of a fire that's seldom lit,
Sagging and weary the livelong day,
When every one else is out on the field,
Sowing the seed for a golden yield,
Or tossing around the new-mown hay. . . .

Oh, the shimmering wheat that frets the sky,
Gold of plenty and blue of hope,
I'm seeing it all with an inner eye
As out of the door I grope and grope.
And I hear my wife and her lover there,
Whispering, whispering, round the rick,
Mocking me and my sightless stare,
As I fumble and stumble everywhere,
Slapping and tapping with my stick;
Old and weary at thirty-one,
Heartsick, wishing it all was done.
Oh, I'll tap my way around to the byre,
And I'll hear the cows as they chew their hay;
There at least there is none to tire,
There at least I am not in the way.
And they'll look at me with their velvet eyes
And I'll stroke their flanks with my woman's hand,
And they'll answer to me with soft replies,
And somehow I fancy they'll understand.
And the horses too, they know me well;
I'm sure that they pity my wretched lot,
And the big fat ram with the jingling bell . . .
Oh, the beasts are the only friends I've got.
And my old dog, too, he loves me more,
I think, than ever he did before.
Thank God for the beasts that are all so kind,
That know and pity the helpless blind!

Ha! they're coming, the loving pair.
My hand's a-shake as my pipe I fill.
What if I steal on them unaware
With a reaping-hook, to kill, to kill? . . .
I'll do it . . . they're there in the mow of hay,
I hear them saying: "He's out of the way!"
Hark! how they're kissing and whispering. . . .
Closer I creep . . . I crouch . . . I spring. . . .

    (He wakes.)

Ugh! What a horrible dream I've had!
And it isn't real . . . I'm glad, I'm glad!
Marie is good and Marie is true . . .
But now I know what it's best to do.
I'll sell the farm and I'll seek my kind,
I'll live apart with my fellow-blind,
And we'll eat and drink, and we'll laugh and joke,
And we'll talk of our battles, and smoke and smoke;
And brushes of bristle we'll make for sale,
While one of us reads a book of Braille.
And there will be music and dancing too,
And we'll seek to fashion our life anew;
And we'll walk the highways hand in hand,
The Brotherhood of the Sightless Band;
Till the years at last shall bring respite
And our night is lost in the Greater Night.

  The Legless Man


    (The Dark Side)

My mind goes back to Fumin Wood, and how we stuck it out,
Eight days of hunger, thirst and cold, mowed down by steel and flame;
Waist-deep in mud and mad with woe, with dead men all about,
We fought like fiends and waited for relief that never came.
Eight days and nights they rolled on us in battle-frenzied mass!
"Debout les morts!" We hurled them back. By God! they did not pass.

They pinned two medals on my chest, a yellow and a brown,
And lovely ladies made me blush, such pretty words they said.
I felt a cheerful man, almost, until my eyes went down,
And there I saw the blankets -- how they sagged upon my bed.
And then again I drank the cup of sorrow to the dregs:
Oh, they can keep their medals if they give me back my legs.

I think of how I used to run and leap and kick the ball,
And ride and dance and climb the hills and frolic in the sea;
And all the thousand things that now I'll never do at all. . . .
Mon Dieu! there's nothing left in life, it often seems to me.
And as the nurses lift me up and strap me in my chair,
If they would chloroform me off I feel I wouldn't care.

Ah yes! we're "heroes all" to-day -- they point to us with pride;
To-day their hearts go out to us, the tears are in their eyes!
But wait a bit; to-morrow they will blindly look aside;
No more they'll talk of what they owe, the dues of sacrifice
(One hates to be reminded of an everlasting debt).
It's all in human nature. Ah! the world will soon forget.

My mind goes back to where I lay wound-rotted on the plain,
And ate the muddy mangold roots, and drank the drops of dew,
And dragged myself for miles and miles when every move was pain,
And over me the carrion-crows were retching as they flew.
Oh, ere I closed my eyes and stuck my rifle in the air
I wish that those who picked me up had passed and left me there.

    (The Bright Side)

Oh, one gets used to everything!
I hum a merry song,
And up the street and round the square
I wheel my chair along;
For look you, how my chest is sound
And how my arms are strong!

Oh, one gets used to anything!
It's awkward at the first,
And jolting o'er the cobbles gives
A man a grievous thirst;
But of all ills that one must bear
That's surely not the worst.

For there's the cafe open wide,
And there they set me up;
And there I smoke my caporal
Above my cider cup;
And play manille a while before
I hurry home to sup.

At home the wife is waiting me
With smiles and pigeon-pie;
And little Zi-Zi claps her hands
With laughter loud and high;
And if there's cause to growl, I fail
To see the reason why.

And all the evening by the lamp
I read some tale of crime,
Or play my old accordion
With Marie keeping time,
Until we hear the hour of ten
From out the steeple chime.

Then in the morning bright and soon,
No moment do I lose;
Within my little cobbler's shop
To gain the silver sous
(Good luck one has no need of legs
To make a pair of shoes).

And every Sunday -- oh, it's then
I am the happy man;
They wheel me to the river-side,
And there with rod and can
I sit and fish and catch a dish
Of goujons for the pan.

Aye, one gets used to everything,
And doesn't seem to mind;
Maybe I'm happier than most
Of my two-legged kind;
For look you at the darkest cloud,
Lo! how it's silver-lined.

  The Faceless Man


I'm dead.
Officially I'm dead. Their hope is past.
How long I stood as missing! Now, at last
                                        I'm dead.
Look in my face -- no likeness can you see,
No tiny trace of him they knew as "me".
How terrible the change!
Even my eyes are strange.
So keyed are they to pain,
That if I chanced to meet
My mother in the street
She'd look at me in vain.

When she got home I think she'd say:
"I saw the saddest sight to-day --
A poilu with no face at all.
Far better in the fight to fall
Than go through life like that, I think.
Poor fellow! how he made me shrink.
No face. Just eyes that seemed to stare
At me with anguish and despair.
This ghastly war! I'm almost cheered
To think my son who disappeared,
My boy so handsome and so gay,
Might have come home like him to-day."

I'm dead. I think it's better to be dead
When little children look at you with dread;
And when you know your coming home again
Will only give the ones who love you pain.
Ah! who can help but shrink? One cannot blame.
They see the hideous husk, not, not the flame
Of sacrifice and love that burns within;
While souls of satyrs, riddled through with sin,
Have bodies fair and excellent to see.
Mon Dieu! how different we all would be
If this our flesh was ordained to express
Our spirit's beauty or its ugliness.

(Oh, you who look at me with fear to-day,
And shrink despite yourselves, and turn away --
It was for you I suffered woe accurst;
For you I braved red battle at its worst;
For you I fought and bled and maimed and slew;
                                        For you, for you!
For you I faced hell-fury and despair;
The reeking horror of it all I knew:
I flung myself into the furnace there;
I faced the flame that scorched me with its glare;
I drank unto the dregs the devil's brew --
Look at me now -- for you and you and you. . . .)

     . . . . .

I'm thinking of the time we said good-by:
We took our dinner in Duval's that night,
Just little Jacqueline, Lucette and I;
We tried our very utmost to be bright.
We laughed. And yet our eyes, they weren't gay.
I sought all kinds of cheering things to say.
"Don't grieve," I told them. "Soon the time will pass;
My next permission will come quickly round;
We'll all meet at the Gare du Montparnasse;
Three times I've come already, safe and sound."
(But oh, I thought, it's harder every time,
After a home that seems like Paradise,
To go back to the vermin and the slime,
The weariness, the want, the sacrifice.
"Pray God," I said, "the war may soon be done,
But no, oh never, never till we've won!")

Then to the station quietly we walked;
I had my rifle and my haversack,
My heavy boots, my blankets on my back;
And though it hurt us, cheerfully we talked.
We chatted bravely at the platform gate.
I watched the clock. My train must go at eight.
One minute to the hour . . . we kissed good-by,
Then, oh, they both broke down, with piteous cry.
I went. . . . Their way was barred; they could not pass.
I looked back as the train began to start;
Once more I ran with anguish at my heart
And through the bars I kissed my little lass. . . .

Three years have gone; they've waited day by day.
I never came. I did not even write.
For when I saw my face was such a sight
I thought that I had better . . . stay away.
And so I took the name of one who died,
A friendless friend who perished by my side.
In Prussian prison camps three years of hell
I kept my secret; oh, I kept it well!
And now I'm free, but none shall ever know;
They think I died out there . . . it's better so.

To-day I passed my wife in widow's weeds.
I brushed her arm. She did not even look.
So white, so pinched her face, my heart still bleeds,
And at the touch of her, oh, how I shook!
And then last night I passed the window where
They sat together; I could see them clear,
The lamplight softly gleaming on their hair,
And all the room so full of cozy cheer.
My wife was sewing, while my daughter read;
I even saw my portrait on the wall.
I wanted to rush in, to tell them all;
And then I cursed myself: "You're dead, you're dead!"
God! how I watched them from the darkness there,
Clutching the dripping branches of a tree,
Peering as close as ever I might dare,
And sobbing, sobbing, oh, so bitterly!

But no, it's folly; and I mustn't stay.
To-morrow I am going far away.
I'll find a ship and sail before the mast;
In some wild land I'll bury all the past.
I'll live on lonely shores and there forget,
Or tell myself that there has never been
The gay and tender courage of Lucette,
The little loving arms of Jacqueline.

A man lonely upon a lonely isle,
Sometimes I'll look towards the North and smile
To think they're happy, and they both believe
I died for France, and that I lie at rest;
And for my glory's sake they've ceased to grieve,
And hold my memory sacred. Ah! that's best.
And in that thought I'll find my joy and peace
As there alone I wait the Last Release.



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