Life on the Mississippi

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Fashioned from the same experiences that would inspire the masterpieceHuckleberry Finn, Life on the Mississippiis Mark Twain's most brilliant and most personal nonfiction work. It is at once an affectionate evocation of the vital river life in the steamboat era and a melancholy reminiscence of its passing after the Civil War, a priceless collection of humorous anecdotes and folktales, and a unique glimpse into Twain's life before he began to write. Written in a prose style that has been hailed as among the greatest in English literature,Life on the Mississippiestablished Twain as not only the most popular humorist of his time but also America's most profound chronicler of the human comedy.

Author Biography

Mark Twain, born Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, led one of the most exciting of literary lives. Raised in the river town of Hannibal, Missouri, Twain had to leave school at age 12 and was successively a journeyman printer, a steamboat pilot, a halfhearted Confederate soldier, and a prospector, miner, and reporter in the western territories. His experiences furnished him with a wide knowledge of humanity, as well as with the perfect grasp of local customs and speech which manifests itself in his writing. With the publication in 1865 of The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Twain gained national attention as a frontier humorist, and the bestselling Innocents Abroad solidified his fame. But it wasn't until Life on the Mississippi (1883), and finally, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), that he was recognized by the literary establishment as one of the greatest writers America would ever produce.

Toward the end of his life, plagued by personal tragedy and financial failure, Twain grew more and more pessimistic—an outlook not alleviated by his natural skepticism and sarcasm. Though his fame continued to widen—Yale & Oxford awarded him honorary degrees—Twain spent his last years in gloom and exasperation, writing fables about "the damned human race."

Table of Contents

p. 17
The Mississippi is Well worth Reading about
It is Remarkable
Instead of Widening towards its Mouth, it grows Narrower
It Empties four hundred and six million Tons of Mud
It was First Seen in 1542
It is Older than some Pages in European History
De Soto has the Pull
Older than the Atlantic Coast
Some Half-breeds chip in
La Salle Thinks he will Take a Hand
p. 26
La Salle again Appears, and so does a Cat-fish
Buffaloes also
Some Indian Paintings are Seen on the Rocks
"The Father of Waters" does not Flow into the Pacific
More History and Indians
Some Curious Performances
Not Early English
Natchez, or the Site of it, is Approached
p. 34
A little History
Early Commerce
Coal Fleets and Timber Rafts
We start on a Voyage
I seek Information
Some Music
The Trouble begins
Tall Talk
The Child of Calamity
Ground and lofty Tumbling
The Wash-up
Business and Statistics
Mysterious Band
Thunder and Lightning
The Captain speaks
Allbright weep
The Mystery settled
I am Discovered
Some Artwork proposed
I give an Account of Myself
p. 52
The Boys' Ambition
Village Scenes
Steamboat Pictures
A Heavy Swell
A Runaway
p. 59
A Traveller
A Lively Talker
A Wild-cat Victim
p. 64
Besieging the Pilot
Taken along
Spoiling a Nap
Fishing for a Plantation
"Points" on the River
A Gorgeous Pilothouse
p. 74
River Inspectors
Cottonwoods and Plum Point
Hat-Island Crossing
Touch and Go
It is a Go
A Lightning Pilot
p. 83
A Heavy-loaded Big Gun
Sharp Sights in Darkness
Abandoned to his Fate
Scraping the Banks
Learn him or Kill him
p. 92
Shake the Reef
Reason Dethroned
The Face of the Water
A Bewitching Scene
Romance and Beauty
p. 101
Putting on Airs
Taken down a bit
Learn it as it is
The River Rising
p. 103
In the Tract Business
Effects of the Rise
Plantations gone
A Measureless Sea
A Somnambulist Pilot
Supernatural Piloting
Nobody there
All Saved
p. 118
Low Water
Yawl sounding
Buoys and Lanterns
Cubs and Soundings
The Boat Sunk
Seeking the Wrecked
p. 126
A Pilot's Memory
Wages soaring
A Universal Grasp
Skill and Nerve
Testing a "Cub"
"Back her for Life"
A Good Lesson
p. 137
Pilots and Captains
High-priced Pilots
Pilots in Demand
A Whistler
A cheap Trade
Two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar Speed
p. 146
New Pilots undermining the Pilots' Association
Crutches and Wages
Putting on Airs
The Captains Weaken
The Association Laughs
The Secret Sign
An Admirable System
Rough on Outsiders
A Tight Monopoly
No Loophole
The Railroads and the War
p. 161
All Aboard
A Glorious Start
Loaded to Win
Bands and Bugles
Boats and Boats
Racers and Racing
p. 178
Ditching and Shooting
Mississippi Changes
A Wild Night
Swearing and Guessing
Stephen in Debt
He Confuses his Creditors
He makes a New Deal
Will Pay them Alphabetically
p. 180
Sharp Schooling
I am Inspected
Where did you get them Shoes?
Poll her Down
I want to kill Brown
I try to run her
I am Complimented
p. 188
A Question of Veracity
A Little Unpleasantness
I have an Audience with the Captain
Mr. Brown Retires
p. 194
I become a Passenger
We hear the News
A Thunderous Crash
They Stand to their Posts
In the Blazing Sun
A Grewsome Spectacle
His Hour has Struck
p. 202
I get my License
The War Begins
I become a Jack-of-all-trades
p. 203
I try the Alias Business
Region of Goatees
Boots begin to Appear
The River Man is Missing
The Young Man is Discouraged
Specimen Water
A Fine Quality of Smoke
A Supreme Mistake
We Inspect the Town
Desolation Way-traffic
A Wood-yard
p. 213
Old French Settlements
We start for Memphis
Young Ladies and Russia-leather Bags
p. 217
I receive some Information
Alligator Boats
Alligator Talk
She was a Rattler to go
I am Found Out
p. 224
The Devil's Oven and Table
A Bombshell falls
No Whitewash
Thirty Years on the River
Mississippi Uniforms
Accidents and Casualties
Two Hundred Wrecks
A Loss to Literature
Sunday-Schools and Brick Masons
p. 232
War Talk
I Tilt over Backwards
Fifteen Shot-holes
A Plain Story
Wars and Feuds
Darnell versus Watson
A Gang and a Woodpile
Western Grammar
River Changes
New Madrid
Floods and Falls
p. 241
Tourists and their Note-books
Captain Hall
Mrs. Trollope's Emotions
Hon. Charles Augustus Murray's Sentiment
Captain Marryat's Sensations
Alexander Mackay's Feelings
Mr. Parkman Reports
p. 247
Swinging down the River
Named for Me
Plum Point again
Lights and Snag Boats
Infinite Changes
A Lawless River
Changes and Jetties
Uncle Mumford Testifies
Pegging the River
What the Government does
The Commission Men and Theories
"Had them Bad"
Jews and Prices
p. 259
Murel's Gang
A Consummate Villain
Getting Rid of Witnesses
Stewart turns Traitor
I Start a Rebellion
I get a New Suit of Clothes
We Corer our Tracks
Pluck and Capacity
A Good Samaritan City
The Old and the New
p. 270
A Melancholy Picture
On the Move
River Gossip
She Went By a-Sparklin'
Amenities of Life
A World of Misinformation
Eloquence of Silence
Striking a Snag
Photographically Exact
Plank Side-walks
p. 279
Mutinous Language
The Dead-house
Cast-iron German and Flexible English
A Dying Man's Confession
I am Bound and Gagged
I get Myself Free
I Begin my Search
The Man with one Thumb
Red Paint and White Paper
He Dropped on his Knees
Fright and Gratitude
I Fled through the Woods
A Grisly Spectacle
Shout, Man, Shout
A look of Surprise and Triumph
The Muffled Gurgle of a Mocking Laugh
How strangely Things happen
The Hidden Money
p. 298
Ritter's Narrative
A Question of Money
Somebody is Serious
Where the Prettiest Girl used to Live
p. 305
A Question of Division
A Place where there was no License
The Calhoun Land Company
A Cotton-planter's Estimate
Halifax and Watermelons
Jewelled-up Bar-keepers
p. 311
An Austere Man
A Mosquito Policy
Facts dressed in Tights
A swelled Left Ear
p. 314
Signs and Scars
Cannon-thunder Rages
A Continual Sunday
A ton of Iron and no Glass
The Ardent is Saved
Mule Meat
A National Cemetery
A Dog and a Shell
Railroads and Wealth
Wharfage Economy
Vicksburg versus The "Gold Dust"
A Narrative in Anticipation
p. 324
The Professor Spins a Yarn
An Enthusiast in Cattle
He makes a Proposition
Loading Beeves at Acapulco
He wasn't Raised to it
He is Roped In
His Dull Eyes Lit Up.
Four Aces, you Ass!
He doesn't care for the Gores
p. 333
A Terrible Disaster
The "Gold Dust" explodes her Boilers
The End of a Good Man
p. 335
Mr. Dickens has a Word
Best Dwellings and their Furniture
Albums and Music
Pantalets and Conch-shells
Sugarcandy Rabbits and Photographs
Horse-hair Sofas and Snuffers
Rag Carpets and Bridal Chambers
p. 342
Rowdies and Beauty
Ice as Jewelry
Ice Manufacture
More Statistics
Some Drummers
Oleomargarine versus Butter
Olive Oil versus Cotton Seed
The Answer was not Caught
A Terrific Episode
A Sulphurous Canopy
The Demons of Var
The Terrible Gauntlet
p. 349
In Flowers, like a Bride
A White-washed Castle
A Southern Prospectus
Pretty Pictures
An Alligator's Meal
p. 356
The Approaches to New Orleans
A Stirring Street
Sanitary Improvements
Journalistic Achievements
Cisterns and Wells
p. 361
Beautiful Graveyards
Chameleons and Panaceas
Inhumation and Infection
Mortality and Epidemics
The Cost of Funerals
p. 366
I Meet an Acquaintance
Coffins and Swell Houses
Mrs. O'Flaherty goes One Better
Epidemics and Embamming
Six hundred for a Good Case
Joyful High Spirits
p. 371
French and Spanish Parts of the City
Mr. Cable and the Ancient Quarter
Cabbages and Bouquets
Cows and Children
The Shell Road
The West End
A Good Square Meal
The Pompano
The Broom-Brigade
Historical Painting
Southern Speech
p. 380
"Waw" Talk
Too Much to Bear
Fine Writing
Mule Racing
p. 391
The Mystic Crewe
Rex and Relics
Sir Walter Scott
A World Set Back
Titles and Decorations
A Change
p. 396
Uncle Remus
The Children Disappointed
We Read Aloud
Mr. Cable and Jean ah Poquelin
Involuntary Trespass
The Gilded Age
An Impossible Combination
The Owner Materializes
And Protests
p. 400
Tight Curls and Springy Steps
"No. I." Sugar
A Frankenstein Laugh
Spiritual Postage
A Place where there are no Butchers or Plumbers
Idiotic Spasms
p. 408
Working on Shares
Men who Stick to their Posts
He saw what he would do
A Day after the Fair
p. 415
A Patriarch
Leaves from a Diary
A Tongue-stopper
The Ancient Mariner
Pilloried in Print
Petrified Truth
p. 421
A Fresh "Cub" at the Wheel
A Valley Storm
Some Remarks on Construction
Sock and Buskin
The Man who never played Hamlet
I got Thirsty
Sunday Statistics
p. 430
I Collar an Idea
A Graduate of Harvard
A Penitent Thief
His Story in the Pulpit
Something Symmetrical
A Literary Artist
A Model Epistle
Pumps again Working
The "Nub" of the Note
p. 443
A Masterly Retreat
A Town at Rest
Boyhood's Pranks
Friends of my Youth
The Refuge fur Imbeciles
I am Presented with my Measure
p. 450
A Special Judgment
Celestial Interest
A Night of Agony
Another Bad attack
I become Convalescent
I address a Sunday-School
A Model Boy
p. 460
A second Generation
A hundred thousand Tons of Saddles
A Dark and Dreadful Secret
A Large Family
A Goldenhaired Darling
The Mysterious Cross
My Idol is Broken
A Bad Season of Chills and Fever
An Interesting Cave
p. 468
Perverted History
A Guilty Conscience
A Suppositious Case
A Habit to be Cultivated
I Drop my Burden
Difference in Time
p. 476
A Model Town
A Town that Comes up to Blow in the Summer
The Scare-crow Dean
Spouting Smoke and Flame
An Atmosphere that tastes good
The Sunset Land
p. 484
An Independent Race
Twenty-four-hour Towns
Enchanting Scenery
The Home of the Plow
Black Hawk
Fluctuating Securities
A Contrast
Electric Lights
p. 492
Indian Traditions and Rattlesnakes
A Three-ton Word
Chimney Rock
The Panorama Man
A Good Jump
The Undying Head
Peboan and Seegwun
p. 501
The Head of Navigation
From Roses to Snow
Climatic Vaccination
A Long Ride
Bones of Poverty
The Pioneer of Civilization
Jug of Empire
Siamese Twins
The Sugar-bush
He Wins his Bride
The Mystery about the Blanket
A City that is always a Novelty
Home again
p. 513
p. 524
p. 528
p. 532
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.


Chapter I

the river and its history

The Mississippi is well worth reading about. It is not a commonplace river, but on the contrary is in all ways remarkable. Considering the Missouri its main branch, it is the longest river in the world—four thousand three hundred miles. It seems safe to say that it is also the crookedest river in the world, since in one part of its journey it uses up one thousand three hundred miles to cover the same ground that the crow would fly over in six hundred and seventy-five. It discharges three times as much water as the St. Lawrence, twenty-five times as much as the Rhine, and three hundred and thirty-eight times as much as the Thames. No other river has so vast a drainage-basin: it draws its water supply from twenty-eight States and Territories; from Delaware, on the Atlantic seaboard, and from all the country between that and Idaho on the Pacific slope—a spread of forty-five degrees of longitude. The Mississippi receives and carries to the Gulf water from fifty-four subordinate rivers that are navigable by steamboats, and from some hundreds that are navigable by flats and keels. The area of its drainage-basin is as great as the combined areas of England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Turkey; and almost all this wide region is fertile; the Mississippi valley, proper, is exceptionally so.

It is a remarkable river in this: that instead of widening toward its mouth, it grows narrower; grows narrower and deeper. From the junction of the Ohio to a point half way down to the sea, the width averages a mile in high water: thence to the sea the width steadily diminishes, until, at the “Passes,” above the mouth, it is but little over half a mile. At the junction of the Ohio the Mississippi’s depth is eighty-seven feet; the depth increases gradually, reaching one hundred and twenty-nine just above the mouth.

The difference in rise and fall is also remarkable—not in the upper, but in the lower river. The rise is tolerably uniform down to Natchez (three hundred and sixty miles above the mouth)—about fifty feet. But at Bayou La Fourche the river rises only twenty-four feet; at New Orleans only fifteen, and just above the mouth only two and one half.

An article in the New Orleans “Times-Democrat,” based upon reports of able engineers, states that the river annually empties four hundred and six million tons of mud into the Gulf of Mexico—which brings to mind Captain Marryat’s rude name for the Mississippi—“the Great Sewer.” This mud, solidified, would make a mass a mile square and two hundred and forty-one feet high.

The mud deposit gradually extends the land—but only gradually; it has extended it not quite a third of a mile in the two hundred years which have elapsed since the river took its place in history. The belief of the scientific people is, that the mouth used to be at Baton Rouge, where the hills cease, and that the two hundred miles of land between there and the Gulf was built by the river. This gives us the age of that piece of country, without any trouble at all—one hundred and twenty thousand years. Yet it is much the youthfulest batch of country that lies around there anywhere.

The Mississippi is remarkable in still another way—its disposition to make prodigious jumps by cutting through narrow necks of land, and thus straightening and shortening itself. More than once it has shortened itself thirty miles at a single jump! These cut-offs have had curious effects: they have thrown several river towns out into the rural districts, and built up sand bars and forests in front of them. The town of Delta used to be three miles below Vicksburg: a recent cut-off has radically changed the position, and Delta is now two miles above Vicksburg.

Both of these river towns have been retired to the country by that cut-off. A cut-off plays havoc with boundary lines and jurisdictions: for instance, a man is living in the State of Mississippi to-day, a cut-off occurs to-night, and to-morrow the man finds himself and his land over on the other side of the river, within the boundaries and subject to the laws of the State of Louisiana! Such a thing, happening in the upper river in the old times, could have transferred a slave from Missouri to Illinois and made a free man of him.

The Mississippi does not alter its locality by cut-offs alone: it is always changing its habitat bodily—is always moving bodily sidewise. At Hard Times, La., the river is two miles west of the region it used to occupy. As a result, the original site of that settlement is not now in Louisiana at all, but on the other side of the river, in the State of Mississippi. Nearly the whole of that one thousand three hundred miles of old Mississippi River which La Salle floated down in his canoes, two hundred years ago, is good solid dry ground now. The river lies to the right of it, in places, and to the left of it in other places.

Although the Mississippi’s mud builds land but slowly, down at the mouth, where the Gulf’s billows interfere with its work, it builds fast enough in better protected regions higher up: for instance, Prophet’s Island contained one thousand five hundred acres of land thirty years ago; since then the river has added seven hundred acres to it.

But enough of these examples of the mighty stream’s eccentricities for the present—I will give a few more of them further along in the book.

Let us drop the Mississippi’s physical history, and say a word about its historical history—so to speak. We can glance briefly at its slumbrous first epoch in a couple of short chapters; at its second and wider-awake epoch in a couple more; at its flushest and widest- awake epoch in a good many succeeding chapters; and then talk about its comparatively tranquil present epoch in what shall be left of the book.

The world and the books are so accustomed to use, and over-use, the word “new” in connection with our country, that we early get and permanently retain the impression that there is nothing old about it. We do of course know that there are several comparatively old dates in American history, but the mere figures convey to our minds no just idea, no distinct realization, of the stretch of time which they represent. To say that De Soto, the first white man who ever saw the Mississippi River, saw it in 1542, is a remark which states a fact without interpreting it: it is something like giving the dimensions of a sunset by astronomical measurements, and cataloguing the colors by their scientific names;—as a result, you get the bald fact of the sunset, but you don’t see the sunset. It would have been better to paint a picture of it.

The date 1542, standing by itself, means little or nothing to us; but when one groups a few neighboring historical dates and facts around it, he adds perspective and color, and then realizes that this is one of the American dates which is quite respectable for age.

For instance, when the Mississippi was first seen by a white man, less than a quarter of a century had elapsed since Francis I’s defeat at Pavia; the death of Raphael; the death of Bayard, sans peur et sans reproche; the driving out of the Knights-Hospitallers from Rhodes by the Turks; and the placarding of the Ninety-Five Propositions,—the act which began the Reformation. When De Soto took his glimpse of the river, Ignatius Loyola was an obscure name; the order of the Jesuits was not yet a year old; Michael Angelo’s paint was not yet dry on the Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel; Mary Queen of Scots was not yet born, but would be before the year closed. Catherine de Medici was a child; Elizabeth of England was not yet in her teens; Calvin, Benvenuto Cellini, and the Emperor Charles V were at the top of their fame, and each was manufacturing history after his own peculiar fashion; Margaret of Navarre was writing the “Heptameron” and some religious books,—the first survives, the others are forgotten, wit and indelicacy being sometimes better literature- preservers than holiness; lax court morals and the absurd chivalry business were in full feather, and the joust and the tournament were the frequent pastime of titled fine gentlemen who could fight better than they could spell, while religion was the passion of their ladies, and the classifying their offspring into children of full rank and children by brevet their pastime. In fact, all around, religion was in a peculiarly blooming condition: the Council of Trent was being called; the Spanish Inquisition was roasting, and racking, and burning, with a free hand; elsewhere on the continent the nations were being persuaded to holy living by the sword and fire; in England, Henry VIII had suppressed the monasteries, burnt Fisher and another bishop or two, and was getting his English reformation and his harem effectively started. When De Soto stood on the banks of the Mississippi, it was still two years before Luther’s death; eleven years before the burning of Servetus; thirty years before the St. Bartholomew slaughter; Rabelais was not yet published; “Don Quixote” was not yet written; Shakspeare was not yet born; a hundred long years must still elapse before Englishmen would hear the name of Oliver Cromwell.

Unquestionably the discovery of the Mississippi is a datable fact which considerably mellows and modifies the shiny newness of our country, and gives her a most respectable outside-aspect of rustiness and antiquity.

De Soto merely glimpsed the river, then died and was buried in it by his priests and soldiers. One would expect the priests and the soldiers to multiply the river’s dimensions by ten—the Spanish custom of the day—and thus move other adventurers to go at once and explore it. On the contrary, their narratives when they reached home, did not excite that amount of curiosity. The Mississippi was left unvisited by whites during a term of years which seems incredible in our energetic days. One may “sense” the interval to his mind, after a fashion, by dividing it up in this way: After De Soto glimpsed the river, a fraction short of a quarter of a century elapsed, and then Shakspeare was born; lived a trifle more than half a century, then died; and when he had been in his grave considerably more than half a century, the second white man saw the Mississippi. In our day we don’t allow a hundred and thirty years to elapse between glimpses of a marvel. If somebody should discover a creek in the county next to the one that the North Pole is in, Europe and America would start fifteen costly expeditions thither: one to explore the creek, and the other fourteen to hunt for each other.

For more than a hundred and fifty years there had been white settlements on our Atlantic coasts. These people were in intimate communication with the Indians: in the south the Spaniards were robbing, slaughtering, enslaving and converting them; higher up, the English were trading beads and blankets to them for a consideration, and throwing in civilization and whiskey, “for lagniappe”;* and in Canada the French were schooling them in a rudimentary way, missionarying among them, and drawing whole populations of them at a time to Quebec, and later to Montreal, to buy furs of them. Necessarily, then, these various clusters of whites must have heard of the great river of the far west; and indeed, they did hear of it vaguely,—so vaguely and indefinitely, that its course, proportions, and locality were hardly even guessable. The mere mysteriousness of the matter ought to have fired curiosity and compelled exploration; but this did not occur. Apparently nobody happened to want such a river, nobody needed it, nobody was curious about it; so, for a century and a half the Mississippi remained out of the market and undisturbed. When De Soto found it, he was not hunting for a river, and had no present occasion for one; consequently he did not value it or even take any particular notice of it.

But at last La Salle the Frenchman conceived the idea of seeking out that river and exploring it. It always happens that when a man seizes upon a neglected and important idea, people inflamed with the same notion crop up all around. It happened so in this instance.

Naturally the question suggests itself, Why did these people want the river now when nobody had wanted it in the five preceding generations? Apparently it was because at this late day they thought they had discovered a way to make it useful; for it had come to be believed that the Mississippi emptied into the Gulf of California, and therefore afforded a short cut from Canada to China. Previously the supposition had been that it emptied into the Atlantic, or Sea of Virginia.

Chapter II

the river and its explorers

La Salle himself sued for certain high privileges, and they were graciously accorded him by Louis XIV of inflated memory. Chief among them was the privilege to explore, far and wide, and build forts, and stake out continents, and hand the same over to the king, and pay the expenses himself; receiving, in return, some little advantages of one sort or another; among them the monopoly of buffalo hides. He spent several years and about all of his money, in making perilous and painful trips between Montreal and a fort which he had built on the Illinois, before he at last succeeded in getting his expedition in such a shape that he could strike for the Mississippi.

And meantime other parties had had better fortune. In 1673 Joliet the merchant, and Marquette the priest, crossed the country and reached the banks of the Mississippi. They went by way of the Great Lakes; and from Green Bay, in canoes, by way of Fox River and the Wisconsin. Marquette had solemnly contracted, on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, that if the Virgin would permit him to discover the great river, he would name it Conception, in her honor. He kept his word. In that day, all explorers travelled with an outfit of priests. De Soto had twenty-four with him. La Salle had several, also. The expeditions were often out of meat, and scant of clothes, but they always had the furniture and other requisites for the mass; they were always prepared, as one of the quaint chroniclers of the time phrased it, to “explain hell to the salvages.”

On the 17th of June, 1673, the canoes of Joliet and Marquette and their five subordinates reached the junction of the Wisconsin with the Mississippi. Mr. Parkman says: “Before them a wide and rapid current coursed athwart their way, by the foot of lofty heights wrapped thick in forests.” He continues: “Turning southward, they paddled down the stream, through a solitude unrelieved by the faintest trace of man.”

Excerpted from Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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