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Chapter 20 – At Forty

Louisa May AlcottNov 05, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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"NEARLY twenty years since I set out to seek my fortune. It has been
a long search, but I think I have found it at last. I only asked to
be a useful, happy woman, and my wish is granted: for, I believe I
am useful; I know I am happy."

Christie looked so as she sat alone in the flowery parlor one
September afternoon, thinking over her life with a grateful,
cheerful spirit. Forty to-day, and pausing at that half-way house
between youth and age, she looked back into the past without bitter
regret or unsubmissive grief, and forward into the future with
courageous patience; for three good angels attended her, and with
faith, hope, and charity to brighten life, no woman need lament lost
youth or fear approaching age. Christie did not, and though her eyes
filled with quiet tears as they were raised to the faded cap and
sheathed sword hanging on the wall, none fell; and in a moment
tender sorrow changed to still tenderer joy as her glance wandered
to rosy little Ruth playing hospital with her dollies in the porch.
Then they shone with genuine satisfaction as they went from the
letters and papers on her table to the garden, where several young
women were at work with a healthful color in the cheeks that had
been very pale and thin in the spring.

"I think David is satisfied with me; for I have given all my heart
and strength to his work, and it prospers well," she said to
herself, and then her face grew thoughtful, as she recalled a late
event which seemed to have opened a new field of labor for her if
she chose to enter it.

A few evenings before she had gone to one of the many meetings of
working-women, which had made some stir of late. Not a first visit,
for she was much interested in the subject and full of sympathy for
this class of workers.

There were speeches of course, and of the most unparliamentary sort,
for the meeting was composed almost entirely of women, each eager to
tell her special grievance or theory. Any one who chose got up and
spoke; and whether wisely or foolishly each proved how great was the
ferment now going on, and how difficult it was for the two classes
to meet and help one another in spite of the utmost need on one side
and the sincerest good-will on the other. The workers poured out
their wrongs and hardships passionately or plaintively, demanding or
imploring justice, sympathy, and help; displaying the ignorance,
incapacity, and prejudice, which make their need all the more
pitiful, their relief all the more imperative.

The ladies did their part with kindliness, patience, and often
unconscious condescension, showing in their turn how little they
knew of the real trials of the women whom they longed to serve, how
very narrow a sphere of usefulness they were fitted for in spite of
culture and intelligence, and how rich they were in generous
theories, how poor in practical methods of relief.

One accomplished creature with learning radiating from every pore,
delivered a charming little essay on the strong-minded women of
antiquity; then, taking labor into the region of art, painted
delightful pictures of the time when all would work harmoniously
together in an Ideal Republic, where each did the task she liked,
and was paid for it in liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Unfortunately she talked over the heads of her audience, and it was
like telling fairy tales to hungry children to describe Aspasia
discussing Greek politics with Pericles and Plato reposing upon
ivory couches, or Hypatia modestly delivering philosophical lectures
to young men behind a Tyrian purple curtain; and the Ideal Republic
met with little favor from anxious seamstresses, type-setters, and
shop-girls, who said ungratefully among themselves, "That’s all very
pretty, but I don’t see how it’s going to better wages among us now"

Another eloquent sister gave them a political oration which fired
the revolutionary blood in their veins, and made them eager to rush
to the State-house en masse, and demand the ballot before one-half
of them were quite clear what it meant, and the other half were as
unfit for it as any ignorant Patrick bribed with a dollar and a sup
of whiskey.

A third well-wisher quenched their ardor like a wet blanket, by
reading reports of sundry labor reforms in foreign parts; most
interesting, but made entirely futile by differences of climate,
needs, and customs. She closed with a cheerful budget of statistics,
giving the exact number of needle-women who had starved, gone mad,
or committed suicide during the past year; the enormous profits
wrung by capitalists from the blood and muscles of their employes;
and the alarming increase in the cost of living, which was about to
plunge the nation into debt and famine, if not destruction
generally.

When she sat down despair was visible on many countenances, and
immediate starvation seemed to be waiting at the door to clutch them
as they went out; for the impressible creatures believed every word
and saw no salvation anywhere.

Christie had listened intently to all this; had admired, regretted,
or condemned as each spoke; and felt a steadily increasing sympathy
for all, and a strong desire to bring the helpers and the helped
into truer relations with each other.

The dear ladies were so earnest, so hopeful, and so unpractically
benevolent, that it grieved her to see so much breath wasted, so
much good-will astray; while the expectant, despondent, or excited
faces of the work-women touched her heart; for well she knew how
much they needed help, how eager they were for light, how ready to
be led if some one would only show a possible way.

As the statistical extinguisher retired, beaming with satisfaction
at having added her mite to the good cause, a sudden and
uncontrollable impulse moved Christie to rise in her place and ask
leave to speak. It was readily granted, and a little stir of
interest greeted her; for she was known to many as Mr. Power’s
friend, David Sterling’s wife, or an army nurse who had done well.
Whispers circulated quickly, and faces brightened as they turned
toward her; for she had a helpful look, and her first words pleased
them. When the president invited her to the platform she paused on
the lowest step, saying with an expressive look and gesture:

"I am better here, thank you; for I have been and mean to be a
working-woman all my life."

"Hear! hear!" cried a stout matron in a gay bonnet, and the rest
indorsed the sentiment with a hearty round. Then they were very
still, and then in a clear, steady voice, with the sympathetic
undertone to it that is so magical in its effect, Christie made her
first speech in public since she left the stage.

That early training stood her in good stead now, giving her
self-possession, power of voice, and ease of gesture; while the
purpose at her heart lent her the sort of simple eloquence that
touches, persuades, and convinces better than logic, flattery, or
oratory.

What she said she hardly knew: words came faster than she could
utter them, thoughts pressed upon her, and all the lessons of her
life rose vividly before her to give weight to her arguments, value
to her counsel, and the force of truth to every sentence she
uttered. She had known so many of the same trials, troubles, and
temptations that she could speak understandingly of them; and,
better still, she had conquered or outlived so many of them, that
she could not only pity but help others to do as she had done.
Having found in labor her best teacher, comforter, and friend, she
could tell those who listened that, no matter how hard or humble the
task at the beginning, if faithfully and bravely performed, it would
surely prove a stepping-stone to something better, and with each
honest effort they were fitting themselves for the nobler labor, and
larger liberty God meant them to enjoy.

The women felt that this speaker was one of them; for the same lines
were on her face that they saw on their own, her hands were no fine
lady’s hands, her dress plainer than some of theirs, her speech
simple enough for all to understand; cheerful, comforting, and full
of practical suggestion, illustrations out of their own experience,
and a spirit of companionship that uplifted their despondent hearts.

Yet more impressive than any thing she said was the subtle magnetism
of character, for that has a universal language which all can
understand. They saw and felt that a genuine woman stood down there
among them like a sister, ready with head, heart, and hand to help
them help themselves; not offering pity as an alms, but justice as a
right. Hardship and sorrow, long effort and late-won reward had been
hers they knew; wifehood, motherhood, and widowhood brought her very
near to them; and behind her was the background of an earnest life,
against which this figure with health on the cheeks, hope in the
eyes, courage on the lips, and the ardor of a wide benevolence
warming the whole countenance stood out full of unconscious dignity
and beauty; an example to comfort, touch, and inspire them.

It was not a long speech, and in it there was no learning, no
statistics, and no politics; yet it was the speech of the evening,
and when it was over no one else seemed to have any thing to say. As
the meeting broke up Christie’s hand was shaken by many roughened by
the needle, stained with printer’s ink, or hard with humbler toil;
many faces smiled gratefully at her, and many voices thanked her
heartily. But sweeter than any applause were the words of one woman
who grasped her hand, and whispered with wet eyes:

"I knew your blessed husband; he was very good to me, and I’ve been
thanking the Lord he had such a wife for his reward!"

Christie was thinking of all this as she sat alone that day, and
asking herself if she should go on; for the ladies had been as
grateful as the women; had begged her to come and speak again,
saying they needed just such a mediator to bridge across the space
that now divided them from those they wished to serve. She certainly
seemed fitted to act as interpreter between the two classes; for,
from the gentleman her father she had inherited the fine instincts,
gracious manners, and unblemished name of an old and honorable race;
from the farmer’s daughter, her mother, came the equally valuable
dower of practical virtues, a sturdy love of independence, and great
respect for the skill and courage that can win it.

Such women were much needed and are not always easy to find; for
even in democratic America the hand that earns its daily bread must
wear some talent, name, or honor as an ornament, before it is very
cordially shaken by those that wear white gloves.

"Perhaps this is the task my life has been fitting me for," she
said. "A great and noble one which I should be proud to accept and
help accomplish if I can. Others have finished the emancipation work
and done it splendidly, even at the cost of all this blood and
sorrow. I came too late to do any thing but give my husband and
behold the glorious end. This new task seems to offer me the chance
of being among the pioneers, to do the hard work, share the
persecution, and help lay the foundation of a new emancipation whose
happy success I may never see. Yet I had rather be remembered as
those brave beginners are, though many of them missed the triumph,
than as the late comers will be, who only beat the drums and wave
the banners when the victory is won."

Just then the gate creaked on its hinges, a step sounded in the
porch, and little Ruth ran in to say in an audible whisper:

"It’s a lady, mamma, a very pretty lady: can you see her?"

"Yes, dear, ask her in."

There was a rustle of sweeping silks through the narrow hall, a
vision of a very lovely woman in the door-way, and two daintily
gloved hands were extended as an eager voice asked: "Dearest
Christie, don’t you remember Bella Carrol?"

Christie did remember, and had her in her arms directly, utterly
regardless of the imminent destruction of a marvellous hat, or the
bad effect of tears on violet ribbons. Presently they were sitting
close together, talking with April faces, and telling their stories
as women must when they meet after the lapse of years. A few letters
had passed between them, but Bella had been abroad, and Christie too
busy living her life to have much time to write about it.

"Your mother, Bella? how is she, and where?"

"Still with Augustine, and he you know is melancholy mad: very
quiet, very patient, and very kind to every one but himself. His
penances for the sins of his race would soon kill him if mother was
not there to watch over him. And her penance is never to leave him."

"Dear child, don’t tell me any more; it is too sad. Talk of yourself
and Harry. Now you smile, so I’m sure all is well with him."

"Yes, thank heaven! Christie, I do believe fate means to spare us as
dear old Dr. Shirley said. I never can be gay again, but I keep as
cheerful and busy as I can, for Harry’s sake, and he does the same
for mine. We shall always be together, and all in all to one
another, for we can never marry and have homes apart you know. We
have wandered over the face of the earth for several years, and now
we mean to settle down and be as happy and as useful as we can."

"That’s brave! I am so glad to hear it, and so truly thankful it is
possible. But tell me, Bella, what Harry means to do? You spoke in
one of your first letters of his being hard at work studying
medicine. Is that to be his profession?"

"Yes; I don’t know what made him choose it, unless it was the hope
that he might spare other families from a curse like ours, or
lighten it if it came. After Helen’s death he was a changed
creature; no longer a wild boy, but a man. I told him what you said
to me, and it gave him hope. Dr. Shirley confirmed it as far as he
dared; and Hal resolved to make the most of his one chance by
interesting himself in some absorbing study, and leaving no room for
fear, no time for dangerous recollections. I was so glad, and mother
so comforted, for we both feared that sad trouble would destroy him.
He studied hard, got on splendidly, and then went abroad to finish
off. I went with him; for poor August was past hope, and mamma would
not let me help her. The doctor said it was best for me to be away,
and excellent for Hal to have me with him, to cheer him up, and keep
him steady with a little responsibility. We have been happy together
in spite of our trouble, he in his profession, and I in him; now he
is ready, so we have come home, and now the hardest part begins for
me."

"How, Bella?"

"He has his work and loves it: I have nothing after my duty to him
is done. I find I’ve lost my taste for the old pleasures and
pursuits, and though I have tried more sober, solid ones, there
still remains much time to hang heavy on my hands, and such an empty
place in my heart, that even Harry’s love cannot fill it. I’m afraid
I shall get melancholy, – that is the beginning of the end for us,
you know."

As Bella spoke the light died out of her eyes, and they grew
despairing with the gloom of a tragic memory. Christie drew the
beautiful, pathetic face clown upon her bosom, longing to comfort,
yet feeling very powerless to lighten Bella’s burden.

But Christie’s little daughter did it for her. Ruth had been
standing near regarding the "pretty lady," with as much wonder and
admiration as if she thought her a fairy princess, who might vanish
before she got a good look at her. Divining with a child’s quick
instinct that the princess was in trouble, Ruth flew into the porch,
caught up her latest and dearest treasure, and presented it as a
sure consolation, with such sweet good-will, that Bella could not
refuse, although it was only a fuzzy caterpillar in a little box.

"I give it to you because it is my nicest one and just ready to spin
up. Do you like pussy-pillars, and know how they do it?" asked Ruth,
emboldened by the kiss she got in return for her offering.

"Tell me all about it, darling," and Bella could not help smiling,
as the child fixed her great eyes upon her, and told her little
story with such earnestness, that she was breathless by the time she
ended.

"At first they are only grubs you know, and stay down in the earth;
then they are like this, nice and downy and humpy, when they walk;
and when it’s time they spin up and go to sleep. It’s all dark in
their little beds, and they don’t know what may happen to ’em; but
they are not afraid ’cause God takes care of ’em. So they wait and
don’t fret, and when it’s right for ’em they come out splendid
butterflies, all beautiful and shining like your gown. They are
happy then, and fly away to eat honey, and live in the air, and
never be creeping worms any more."

"That’s a pretty lesson for rne," said Bella softly, "I accept and
thank you for it, little teacher; I’ll try to be a patient
‘pussy-pillar’ though it is dark, and I don’t know what may happen
to me; and I’ll wait hopefully till it’s time to float away a happy
butterfly."

"Go and get the friend some flowers, the gayest and sweetest you can
find, Pansy," said Christie, and, as the child ran off, she added to
her friend:

"Now we must think of something pleasant for you to do. It may take
a little time, but I know we shall find your niche if we give our
minds to it."

"That’s one reason why I came. I heard some friends of mine talking
about you yesterday, and they seemed to think you were equal to any
thing in the way of good works. Charity is the usual refuge for
people like me, so I wish to try it. I don’t mind doing or seeing
sad or disagreeable things, if it only fills up my life and helps me
to forget."

"You will help more by giving of your abundance to those who know
how to dispense it wisely, than by trying to do it yourself, my
dear. I never advise pretty creatures like you to tuck up their silk
gowns and go down into the sloughs with alms for the poor, who don’t
like it any better than you do, and so much pity and money are
wasted in sentimental charity."

"Then what shall I do?"

"If you choose you can find plenty of work in your own class; for,
if you will allow me to say it, they need help quite as much as the
paupers, though in a very different way."

"Oh, you mean I’m to be strong-minded, to cry aloud and spare not,
to denounce their iniquities, and demand their money or their
lives?"

"Now, Bella, that’s personal; for I made my first speech a night or
two ago."

"I know you did, and I wish I’d heard it. I’d make mine to-night if
I could do it half as well as I’m told you did," interrupted Bella,
clapping her hands with a face full of approval.

But Christie was in earnest, and produced her new project with all
speed.

"I want you to try a little experiment for me, and if it succeeds
you shall have all the glory; I’ve been waiting for some one to
undertake it, and I fancy you are the woman. Not every one could
attempt it; for it needs wealth and position, beauty and
accomplishments, much tact, and more than all a heart that has not
been spoilt by the world, but taught through sorrow how to value and
use life well."

"Christie, what is it? this experiment that needs so much, and yet
which you think me capable of trying?" asked Bella, interested and
flattered by this opening.

"I want you to set a new fashion: you know you can set almost any
you choose in your own circle; for people are very like sheep, and
will follow their leader if it happens to be one they fancy. I don’t
ask you to be a De Staël, and have a brilliant salon: I only want
you to provide employment and pleasure for others like yourself, who
now are dying of frivolity or ennui."

"I should love to do that if I could. Tell me how."

"Well, dear, I want you to make Harry’s home as beautiful and
attractive as you can; to keep all the elegance and refinement of
former times, and to add to it a new charm by setting the fashion of
common sense. Invite all the old friends, and as many new ones as
you choose; but have it understood that they are to come as
intelligent men and women, not as pleasure-hunting beaux and belles;
give them conversation instead of gossip; less food for the body and
more for the mind; the healthy stimulus of the nobler pleasures they
can command, instead of the harmful excitements of present
dissipation. In short, show them the sort of society we need more
of, and might so easily have if those who possess the means of
culture cared for the best sort, and took pride in acquiring it. Do
you understand, Bella?"

"Yes, but it’s a great undertaking, and you could do it better than
I."

"Bless you, no! I haven’t a single qualification for it but the will
to have it done. I’m ‘strong-minded,’ a radical, and a reformer.
I’ve done all sorts of dreadful things to get my living, and I have
neither youth, beauty, talent, or position to back me up; so I
should only be politely ignored if I tried the experiment myself. I
don’t want you to break out and announce your purpose with a
flourish; or try to reform society at large, but I do want you to
devote yourself and your advantages to quietly insinuating a better
state of things into one little circle. The very fact of your own
want, your own weariness, proves how much such a reform is needed.
There are so many fine young women longing for something to fill up
the empty places that come when the first flush of youth is over,
and the serious side of life appears; so many promising young men
learning to conceal or condemn the high ideals and the noble
purposes they started with, because they find no welcome for them.
You might help both by simply creating a purer atmosphere for them
to breathe, sunshine to foster instead of frost to nip their good
aspirations, and so, even if you planted no seed, you might
encourage a timid sprout or two that would one day be a lovely
flower or a grand tree all would admire and enjoy."

As Christie ended with the figure suggested by her favorite work,
Bella said after a thoughtful pause:

"But few of the women I know can talk about any thing but servants,
dress, and gossip. Here and there one knows something of music, art,
or literature; but the superior ones are not favorites with the
larger class of gentlemen."

"Then let the superior women cultivate the smaller class of men who
do admire intelligence as well as beauty. There are plenty of them,
and you had better introduce a few as samples, though their coats
may not be of the finest broadcloth, nor their fathers ‘solid men.’
Women lead in society, and when men find that they can not only
dress with taste, but talk with sense, the lords of creation will be
glad to drop mere twaddle and converse as with their equals. Bless
my heart!" cried Christie, walking about the room as if she had
mounted her hobby, and was off for a canter, "how people can go on
in such an idiotic fashion passes my understanding. Why keep up an
endless clatter about gowns and dinners, your neighbors’ affairs,
and your own aches, when there is a world full of grand questions to
settle, lovely things to see, wise things to study, and noble things
to imitate. Bella, you must try the experiment, and be the queen of
a better society than any you can reign over now."

"It looks inviting, and I will try it with you to help me. I know
Harry would like it, and I’ll get him to recommend it to his
patients. If he is as successful here as elsewhere they will swallow
any dose he orders; for he knows how to manage people wonderfully
well. He prescribed a silk dress to a despondent, dowdy patient
once, telling her the electricity of silk was good for her nerves:
she obeyed, and when well dressed felt so much better that she
bestirred herself generally and recovered; but to this day she sings
the praises of Dr. Carrol’s electric cure."

Bella was laughing gaily as she spoke, and so was Christie as she
replied:

"That’s just what I want you to do with your patients. Dress up
their minds in their best; get them out into the air; and cure their
ills by the magnetism of more active, earnest lives."

They talked over the new plan with increasing interest; for Christie
did not mean that Bella should be one of the brilliant women who
shine for a little while, and then go out like a firework. And Bella
felt as if she had found something to do in her own sphere, a sort
of charity she was fitted for, and with it a pleasant sense of power
to give it zest.

When Letty and her mother came in, they found a much happier looking
guest than the one Christie had welcomed an hour before. Scarcely
had she introduced them when voices in the lane made all look up to
see old Hepsey and Mrs. Wilkins approaching.

"Two more of my dear friends, Bella: a fugitive slave and a
laundress. One has saved scores of her own people, and is my pet
heroine. The other has the bravest, cheeriest soul I know, and is my
private oracle."

The words were hardly out of Christie’s mouth when in they came;
Hepsey’s black face shining with affection, and Mrs. Wilkins as
usual running over with kind words.

"My dear creeter, the best of wishes and no end of happy birthdays.
There ‘s a triflin’ keepsake; tuck it away, and look at it byme by.
Mis’ Sterlin’, I’m proper glad to see you lookin’ so well. Aunt
Letty, how’s that darlin’ child? I ain’t the pleasure of your
acquaintance, Miss, but I’m pleased to see you. The children all
sent love, likewise Lisha, whose bones is better sense I tried the
camfire and red flannel."

Then they settled down like a flock of birds of various plumage and
power of song, but all amicably disposed, and ready to peck socially
at any topic which might turn up.

Mrs. Wilkins started one by exclaiming as she "laid off" her bonnet:

"Sakes alive, there’s a new picter! Ain’t it beautiful?"

"Colonel Fletcher brought it this morning. A great artist painted it
for him, and he gave it to me in a way that added much to its
value," answered Christie, with both gratitude and affection in her
face; for she was a woman who could change a lover to a friend, and
keep him all her life.

It was a quaint and lovely picture of Mr. Greatheart, leading the
fugitives from the City of Destruction. A dark wood lay behind; a
wide river rolled before; Mercy and Christiana pressed close to
their faithful guide, who went down the rough and narrow path
bearing a cross-hilted sword in his right hand, and holding a
sleeping baby with the left. The sun was just rising, and a long ray
made a bright path athwart the river, turned Greatheart’s dinted
armor to gold, and shone into the brave and tender face that seemed
to look beyond the sunrise.

"There’s just a hint of Davy in it that is very comforting to me,"
said Mrs. Sterling, as she laid her old hands softly together, and
looked up with her devout eyes full of love.

"Dem women oughter bin black," murmured Hepsey, tearfully; for she
considered David worthy of a place with old John Brown and Colonel
Shaw.

"The child looks like Pansy, we all think," added Letty, as the
little girl brought her nosegay for Aunty to tie up prettily.

Christie said nothing, because she felt too much; and Bella was also
silent because she knew too little. But Mrs. Wilkins with her kindly
tact changed the subject before it grew painful, and asked with
sudden interest:

"When be you a goin’ to hold forth agin, Christie? Jest let me know
beforehand, and I’ll wear my old gloves: I tore my best ones all to
rags clappin’ of you; it was so extra good."

"I don’t deserve any credit for the speech, because it spoke itself,
and I couldn’t help it. I had no thought of such a thing till it
came over me all at once, and I was up before I knew it. I’m truly
glad you liked it, but I shall never make another, unless you think
I’d better. You know I always ask your advice, and what is more
remarkable usually take it," said Christie, glad to consult her
oracle.

"Hadn’t you better rest a little before you begin any new task, my
daughter? You have done so much these last years you must be tired,"
interrupted Mrs. Sterling, with a look of tender anxiety.

"You know I work for two, mother," answered Christie, with the
clear, sweet expression her face always wore when she spoke of
David. "I am not tired yet: I hope I never shall be, for without my
work I should fall into despair or ennui. There is so much to be
done, and it is so delightful to help do it, that I never mean to
fold my hands till they are useless. I owe all I can do, for in
labor, and the efforts and experiences that grew out of it, I have
found independence, education, happiness, and religion."

"Then, my dear, you are ready to help other folks into the same
blessed state, and it’s your duty to do it!" cried Mrs. Wilkins, her
keen eyes full of sympathy and commendation as they rested on
Christie’s cheerful, earnest face. "Ef the sperrit moves you to
speak, up and do it without no misgivin’s. I think it was a special
leadin’ that night, and I hope you’ll foller, for it ain’t every one
that can make folks laugh and cry with a few plain words that go
right to a body’s heart and stop there real comfortable and fillin’.
I guess this is your next job, my dear, and you’d better ketch hold
and give it the right turn; for it’s goin’ to take time, and women
ain’t stood alone for so long they’ll need a sight of boostin’."

There was a general laugh at the close of Mrs. Wilkins’s remarks;
but Christie answered seriously: "I accept the task, and will do my
share faithfully with words or work, as shall seem best. We all need
much preparation for the good time that is coming to us, and can get
it best by trying to know and help, love and educate one
another, – as we do here."

With an impulsive gesture Christie stretched her hands to the
friends about her, and with one accord they laid theirs on hers, a
loving league of sisters, old and young, black and white, rich and
poor, each ready to do her part to hasten the coming of the happy
end.

"Me too!" cried little Ruth, and spread her chubby hand above the
rest: a hopeful omen, seeming to promise that the coming generation
of women will not only receive but deserve their liberty, by
learning that the greatest of God’s gifts to us is the privilege of
sharing His great work.

"Each ready to do her part to hasten the coming of the happy end."

 

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