Oak Openings

by James Fenimore Cooper

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Chapter V.

      He was a wight of high renown,
        And thou art but of low degree;
     'Tis pride that pulls the country down--
        Then take thine auld cloak about thee.

The canoe did not reach the mouth of the river until near evening of the third day of its navigation. It was not so much the distance, though that was considerable, as it was the obstacles that lay in the way, which brought the travellers to the end of their journey at so late a period. As they drew nearer and nearer to the place where Gershom had left his wife and sister, le Bourdon detected in his companion signs of an interest in the welfare of the two last, as well as a certain feverish uneasiness lest all might not be well with them, that said something in favor of his heart, whatever might be urged against his prudence and care in leaving them alone in so exposed a situation.

"I'm afeard a body don't think as much as he ought to do, when liquor is in him," said Whiskey Centre, just as the canoe doubled the last point, and the hut came into view; "else I never could have left two women by them-selves in so lonesome a place. God be praised! there is the chiente at any rate; and there's a smoke comin' out of it, if my eyes don't deceive me! Look, Bourdon, for I can scarcely see at all."

"There is the house; and, as you say, there is certainly a smoke rising from it"

"There's comfort in that!" exclaimed the truant husband and brother, with a sigh that seemed to relieve a very loaded breast. "Yes, there's comfort in that! If there's a fire, there must be them that lighted it; and a fire at this season, too, says that there's somethin' to eat, I should be sorry, Bourdon, to think I'd left the women folks without food; though, to own the truth, I don't remember whether I did or not"

"The man who drinks, Gershom, has commonly but a very poor memory."

"That's true--yes, I'll own that; and I wish it warn't as true as it is; but reason and strong drink do not travel far in company--"

Gershom suddenly ceased speaking; dropping his paddle like one beset by a powerless weakness. The bee-hunter saw that he was overcome by some unexpected occurrence, and that the man's feelings were keenly connected with the cause, whatever that might be. Looking eagerly around in quest of the explanation, le Bourdon saw a female standing on a point of land that commanded a view of the river and its banks for a considerable distance, unequivocally watching the approach of the canoe.

"There she is," said Gershom, in a subdued tone--"that's Dolly; and there she has been, I'll engage, half the time of my absence, waitin' to get the first glimpse of my miserable body, as it came back to her. Sich is woman, Bourdon; and God forgive me, if I have ever forgotten their natur', when I was bound to remember it. But we all have our weak moments, at times, and I trust mine will not be accounted ag'in' me more than them of other men."

"This is a beautiful sight, Gershom, and it almost makes me your friend! The man for whom a woman can feel so much concern--that a woman--nay, women; for you tell me your sister is one of the family- -but the man whom decent women can follow to a place like this, must have some good p'ints about him. That woman is a-weepin'; and it must be for joy at your return."

"'Twould be jist like Dolly to do so--she's done it before, and would be likely to do so ag'in," answered Gershom, nearly choked by the effort he made to speak without betraying his own emotion. "Put the canoe into the p'int, and let me land there. I must go up and say a kind word to poor Dolly; while you can paddle on, and let Blossom know I'm near at hand."

The bee-hunter complied in silence, casting curious glances upward at the woman while doing so, in order to ascertain what sort of a female Whiskey Centre could possibly have for a wife. To his surprise, Dorothy Waring was not only decently, but she was neatly clad, appearing as if she had studiously attended to her personal appearance, in the hope of welcoming her wayward and unfortunate husband back to his forest home. This much le Bourdon saw by a hasty glance as his companion landed, for a feeling of delicacy prevented him from taking a longer look at the woman. As Gershom ascended the bank to meet his wife, le Bourdon paddled on, and landed just below the grove in which was the chiente. It might have been his long exclusion from all of the other sex, and most especially from that portion of it which retains its better looks, but the being which now met the bee-hunter appeared to him to belong to another world, rather than to that in which he habitually dwelt. As this was Margery Waring, who was almost uniformly called Blossom by her acquaintances, and who is destined to act an important part in this legend of the "openings," it may be well to give a brief description of her age, attire, and personal appearance, at the moment when she was first seen by le Bourdon.

In complexion, color of the hair, and outline of face, Margery Waring bore a strong family resemblance to her brother. In spite of exposure, and the reflection of the sun's rays from the water of the lake, however, her skin was of a clear, transparent white, such as one might look for in a drawing-room, but hardly expect to find in a wilderness; while the tint of her lips, cheeks, and, in a diminished degree, of her chin and ears, were such as one who wielded a pencil might long endeavor to catch without succeeding. Her features had the chiselled outline which was so remarkable in her brother; while in her countenance, in addition to the softened expression of her sex and years, there was nothing to denote any physical or moral infirmity, to form a drawback to its witchery and regularity. Her eyes were blue, and her hair as near golden as human tresses well could be. Exercise, a life of change, and of dwelling much in the open air, had given to this unusually charming girl not only health, but its appearance. Still, she was in no respect coarse, or had anything in the least about her that indicated her being accustomed to toil, with some slight exception in her hands, perhaps, which were those of a girl who did not spare herself, when there was an opportunity to be of use. In this particular, the vagrant life of her brother had possibly been of some advantage to her, as it had prevented her being much employed in the ordinary toil of her condition in life. Still, Margery Waring had that happy admixture of delicacy and physical energy, which is, perhaps, oftener to be met in the American girl of her class, than in the girl of almost any other nation; and far oftener than in the young American of her sex, who is placed above the necessity of labor.

As a stranger approached her, the countenance of this fair creature expressed both surprise and satisfaction; surprise that any one should have been met by Gershom, in such a wilderness, and satisfaction that the stranger proved to be a white man, and seemingly one who did not drink.

"You are Blossom," said the bee-hunter, taking the hand of the half- reluctant girl, in a way so respectful and friendly that she could not refuse it, even while she doubted the propriety of thus receiving an utter stranger--"the Blossom of whom Gershom Waring speaks so often, and so affectionately?"

"You are, then, my brother's friend," answered Margery, smiling so sweetly, that le Bourdon gazed on her with delight. "We are so glad that he has come back! Five terrible nights have sister and I been here alone, and we have believed every bush was a red man!"

"That danger is over, now, Blossom; but there is still an enemy near you that must be overcome."

"An enemy! There is no one here, but Dolly and myself. No one has been near us, since Gershom went after the bee-hunter, whom we heard was out in the openings. Are you that bee-bunter?"

"I am, beautiful Blossom; and I tell you there is an enemy here, in your cabin, that must be looked to."

"We fear no enemies but the red men, and we have seen none of them since we reached this river. What is the name of the enemy you so dread, and where is he to be found?"

"His name is Whiskey, and he is kept somewhere in this hut, in casks. Show me the place, that I may destroy him, before his friend comes to his assistance."

A gleam of bright intelligence flashed into the face of the beautiful young creature. First she reddened almost to scarlet; then her face became pale as death. Compressing her lips intensely, she stood irresolute--now gazing at the pleasing and seemingly well- disposed stranger before her, now looking earnestly toward the still distant forms of her brother and sister, which were slowly advancing in the direction of the cabin.

"Dare you?" Margery at length asked, pointing toward her brother.

"I dare: he is now quite sober, and may be reasoned with. For the sake of us all, let us profit by this advantage."

"He keeps the liquor in two casks that you will find under the shed, behind the hut."

This said, the girl covered her face with both her hands, and sunk on a stool, as if afraid to be a witness of that which was to follow. As for le Bourdon, he did not delay a moment, but passed out of the cabin by a second door, that opened in its rear. There were the two barrels, and by their side an axe. His first impulse was to dash in the heads of the casks where they stood; but a moment's reflection told him that the odor, so near the cabin, would be unpleasant to every one, and might have a tendency to exasperate the owner of the liquor. He cast about him, therefore, for the means of removing the casks, in order to stave them, at a distance from the dwelling.

Fortunately, the cabin of Whiskey Centre stood on the brow of a sharp descent, at the bottom of which ran a brawling brook. At another moment, le Bourdon would have thought of saving the barrels; but time pressed, and he could not delay. Seizing the barrel next to him, he rolled it without difficulty to the brow of the declivity, and set it off with a powerful shove of his foot. It was the half- empty cask, and away it went, the liquor it contained washing about as it rolled over and over, until hitting a rock about half-way down the declivity, the hoops gave way, when the staves went over the little precipice, and the water of the stream was tumbling through all that remained of the cask, at the next instant. A slight exclamation of delight behind him caused the bee-hunter to look round, and he saw Margery watching his movement with an absorbed interest. Her smile was one of joy, not unmingled with terror; and she rather whispered than said aloud--"The other--the other--that is full--be quick; there is no time to lose." The bee-hunter seized the second cask and rolled it toward the brow of the rocks. It was not quite as easily handled as the other barrel, but his strength sufficed, and it was soon bounding down the declivity after its companion. The second cask hit the same rock as the first, whence it leaped off the precipice, and, aided by its greater momentum, it was literally dashed in pieces at its base.

Not only was this barrel broken into fragments, but its hoops and staves were carried down the torrent, driving before them those of the sister cask, until the whole were swept into the lake, which was some distance from the cabin.

"That job is well done!" exclaimed le Bourdon, when the last fragment of the wreck was taken out of sight. "No man will ever turn himself into a beast by means of that liquor."

"God be praised!" murmured Margery. "He is so different, stranger, when he has been drinking, from what he is when he has not! You have been sent by Providence to do us this good."

"I can easily believe that, for it is so with us all. But you must not call me stranger, sweet Margery; for, now that you and I have this secret between us, I am a stranger no longer."

The girl smiled and blushed; then she seemed anxious to ask a question. In the mean time they left the shed, and took seats, in waiting for the arrival of Gershom and his wife. It was not long ere the last entered; the countenance of the wife beaming with a satisfaction she made no effort to conceal. Dolly was not as beautiful as her sister-in-law; still, she was a comely woman, though one who had been stricken by sorrow. She was still young, and might have been in the pride of her good looks, had it not been for the manner in which she had grieved over the fall of Gershom. The joy that gladdens a woman's heart, however, was now illuminating her countenance, and she welcomed le Bourdon most cordially, as if aware that he had been of service to her husband. For months she had not seen Gershom quite himself, until that evening.

"I have told Dolly all our adventur's, Bourdon," cried Gershom, as soon as the brief greetings were over, "and she tells me all's right, hereabouts. Three canoe-loads of Injins passed along shore, goin' up the lake, she tells me, this very a'ternoon; but they didn't see the smoke, the fire bein' out, and must have thought the hut empty; if indeed, they knew anythin' of it, at all."

"The last is the most likely," remarked Margery; "for I watched them narrowly from the beeches on the shore, and there was no pointing, or looking up, as would have happened had there been any one among them who could show the others a cabin. Houses an't so plenty, in this part of the country, that travellers pass without turning round to look at them. An Injin has curiosity as well as a white man, though he manages so often to conceal it."

"Didn't you say, Blossom, that one of the canoes was much behind the others, and that a warrior in that canoe did look up toward this grove, as if searching for the cabin?" asked Dorothy.

"Either it was so, or my fears made it seem so. The two canoes that passed first were well filled with Injins, each having eight in it; while the one that came last held but four warriors. They were a mile apart, and the last canoe seemed to be trying to overtake the others. I did think that nothing but their haste prevented the men in the last canoe from landing; but my fears may have made that seem so that was not so."

As the cheek of the charming girl flushed with excitement, and her race became animated, Margery appeared marvellously handsome; more so, the bee-hunter fancied, than any other female he had ever before seen. But her words impressed him quite as much as her looks; for he at once saw the importance of such an event, to persons in their situation. The wind was rising on the lake, and it was ahead for the canoes; should the savages feel the necessity of making a harbor, they might return to the mouth of the Kalamazoo; a step that would endanger all their lives, in the event of these Indians proving to belong to those, whom there was now reason to believe were in British pay. In times of peace, the intercourse between the whites and the red men was usually amicable, and seldom led to violence, unless through the effects of liquor; but, a price being placed on scalps, a very different state of things might be anticipated, as a consequence of the hostilities. This was then a matter to be looked to; and, as evening was approaching, no time was to be lost.

The shores of Michigan are generally low, nor are harbors either numerous, or very easy of access. It would be difficult, indeed, to find in any other part of the world, so great an extent of coast that possesses so little protection for the navigator, as that of this very lake. There are a good many rivers, it is true, but usually they have bars, and are not easy of entrance. This is the reason why that very convenient glove, the Constitution, which can be made to fit any hand, has been discovered to have an extra finger in it, which points out a mode by which the federal government can create ports wherever nature has forgotten to perform this beneficent office. It is a little extraordinary that the fingers of so many of the great "expounders" turn out to be "thumbs," however, exhibiting clumsiness, rather than that adroit lightness which usually characterizes the dexterity of men who are in the habit of rummaging other people's pockets, for their own especial purposes. It must be somewhat up-hill work to persuade any disinterested and clear-headed man, that a political power to "regulate commerce" goes the length of making harbors; the one being in a great measure a moral, while the other is exclusively a physical agency; any more than it goes the length of making ware-houses, and cranes, and carts, and all the other physical implements for carrying on trade. Now, what renders all this "thumbing" of the Constitution so much the more absurd, is the fact, that the very generous compact interested does furnish a means, by which the poverty of ports on the great lakes may be remedied, without making any more unnecessary rents in the great national glove. Congress clearly possesses the power to create and maintain a navy, which includes the power to create all sorts of necessary physical appliances; and, among others, places of refuge for that navy, should they be actually needed. As a vessel of war requires a harbor, and usually a better harbor than a merchant-vessel, it strikes us the "expounders" would do well to give this thought a moment's attention. Behind it will be found the most unanswerable argument in favor of the light-houses, too.

But, to return to the narrative: the Kalamazoo could be entered by canoes, though it offered no very available shelter for a vessel of any size. There was no other shelter for the savages for several miles to the southward; and, should the wind increase, of which there were strong indications, it was not only possible, but highly probable, that the canoes would return. According to the account of the females, they had passed only two hours before, and the breeze had been gradually gathering strength ever since. It was not unlikely, indeed, that the attention paid to the river by the warrior in the last canoe may have had reference to this very state of the weather; and his haste to overtake his companions been connected with a desire to induce them to seek a shelter. All this presented itself to the beehunter's mind, at once; and it was discussed between the members of the party, freely, and not without some grave apprehensions.

There was one elevated point--elevated comparatively, if not in a very positive sense--whence the eye could command a considerable distance along the lake shore. Thither Margery now hastened to look after the canoes. Boden accompanied her; and together they proceeded, side by side, with a new-born but lively and increasing confidence, that was all the greater, in consequence of their possessing a common secret.

"Brother must be much better than he was," the girl observed, as they hurried on, "for he has not once been into the shed to look at the barrels! Before he went into the openings, he never entered the house without drinking; and sometimes he would raise the cup to his mouth as often as three times in the first half-hour. Now, he does not seem even to think of it!"

"It may be well that he can find nothing to put into his cup, should he fall into his old ways. One is never sure of a man of such habits, until he is placed entirely out of harm's way."

"Gershom is such a different being when he has not been drinking!" rejoined the sister, in a touching manner. "We love him, and strive to do all we can to keep him up, but it is hard."

"I am surprised that you should have come into this wilderness with any one of bad habits."

"Why not? He is my brother, and I have no parents--he is all to me: and what would become of Dorothy if I were to quit her, too! She has lost most of her friends, since Gershom fell into these ways, and it would quite break her heart, did I desert her."

"All this speaks well for you, pretty Margery, but it is not the less surprising--ah, there is my canoe, in plain sight of all who enter the river; that must be concealed, Injins or no Injins."

"It is only a step further to the place where we can get a lookout. Just there, beneath the burr-oak. Hours and hours have I sat on that spot, with my sewing, while Gershom was gone into the openings."

"And Dolly--where was she while you were here?"

"Poor Dolly!--I do think she passed quite half her time up at the beech-tree, where you first saw her, looking if brother was not coming home. It is a cruel thing to a wife to have a truant husband!"

"Which I hope may never be your case, pretty Margery, and which I think never can."

Margery did not answer: but the speech must have been heard, uttered as it was in a much lower tone of voice than the young man had hitherto used; for the charming maiden looked down and blushed. Fortunately, the two now soon arrived at the tree, and their conversation naturally reverted to the subject which had brought them there. Three canoes were in sight, close in with the land, but so distant as to render it for some time doubtful which way they were moving. At first, the bee-hunter said that they were still going slowly to the southward; but he habitually carried his little glass, and, on levelling that, it was quite apparent that the savages were paddling before the wind, and making for the mouth of the river. This was a very grave fact; and, as Blossom flew to communicate it to her brother and his wife, le Bourdon moved toward his own canoe, and looked about for a place of concealment.

Several considerations had to be borne in mind, in disposing of the canoes; for that of Gershom was to be secreted, as well as that of the bee-hunter. A tall aquatic plant, that is termed wild rice, and which we suppose to be the ordinary rice-plant, unimproved by tillage, grows spontaneously about the mouths and on the flats of most of the rivers of the part of Michigan of which we are writing; as, indeed, it is to be found in nearly all the shallow waters of those regions. There was a good deal of this rice at hand; and the bee-hunter, paddling his own canoe and towing the other, entered this vegetable thicket, choosing a channel that had been formed by some accident of nature, and which wound through the herbage in a way soon to conceal all that came within its limits. These channels were not only numerous, but exceedingly winding; and the bee-hunter had no sooner brought his canoes to the firm ground and fastened them there, than he ascended a tree, and studied the windings of these narrow passages, until he had got a general idea of their direction and characters. This precaution taken, he hurried back to the hut.

"Well, Gershom, have you settled on the course to be taken?" were the first words uttered by the bee-hunter when he rejoined the family of Whiskey Centre.

"We haven't," answered the husband. "Sister begs us to quit the chiente, for the Indians must soon be here; but wife seems to think that she must be safe, now I'm at home ag'in."

"Then wife is wrong, and sister is right. If you will take my advice, you will hide all your effects in the woods, and quit the cabin as soon as possible. The Injins cannot fail to see this habitation, and will be certain to destroy all they find in it, and that they do not carry off. Besides, the discovery of the least article belonging to a white man will set them on our trail; for scalps will soon bear a price at Montreal. In half an hour, all that is here can be removed into the thicket that is luckily so near; and by putting out the fire with care, and using proper caution, we may give the place such a deserted look, that the savages will suspect nothing."

"If they enter the river, Bourdon, they will not camp out with a wigwam so near by, and should they come here, what is to prevent their seein' the footprints we shall leave behind us?"

"The night, and that only. Before morning their own footsteps will be so plenty as to deceive them. Luckily we all wear moccasins, which is a great advantage just now. But every moment is precious, and we should be stirring. Let the women take the beds and bedding, while you and I shoulder this chest. Up it goes, and away with it!"

Gershom had got to be so much under his companion's influence, that he complied, though his mind suggested various objections to the course taken, to which his tongue gave utterance as they busied themselves in this task. The effects of Whiskey Centre had been gradually diminishing in quantity, as well as in value, for the last three years, and were now of no great amount, in any sense. Still there were two chests, one large, and one small. The last contained all that a generous regard for the growing wants of the family had left to Margery; while the first held the joint wardrobes of the husband and wife, with a few other articles that were considered as valuable. Among other things were half a dozen of very thin silver tea-spoons, which had fallen to Gershom on a division of family plate. The other six were carefully wrapped up in paper and put in the till of Margery's chest, being her portion of this species of property. The Americans, generally, have very little plate; though here and there marked exceptions do exist; nor do the humbler classes lay out much of their earnings in jewelry, while they commonly dress far beyond their means in all other ways. In this respect, the European female of the same class in life frequently possesses as much in massive golden personal ornaments as would make an humble little fortune, while her attire is as homely as cumbrous petticoats, coarse cloth, and a vile taste can render it. On the other hand, the American matron that has not a set--one half-dozen-- of silver tea-spoons must be poor indeed, and can hardly be said to belong to the order of housekeepers at all. By means of a careful mother, both Gershom and his sister had the half-dozen mentioned; and they were kept more as sacred memorials of past and better days than as articles of any use. The household goods of Waring would have been limited by his means of transportation, if not by his poverty. Two common low-post maple bedsteads were soon uncorded and carried off, as were the beds and bedding. There was scarcely any crockery, pewter and tin being its substitutes; and as for chairs there was only one, and that had rockers: a practice of New England that has gradually diffused itself over the whole country, looking down ridicule, the drilling of boarding-schools, the comments of elderly ladies of the old school, the sneers of nurses, and, in a word, all that venerable ideas of decorum could suggest, until this appliance of domestic ease has not only fairly planted itself in nearly every American dwelling, but in a good many of Europe also!

It required about twenty minutes for the party to clear the cabin of every article that might induce an Indian to suspect the presence of white men. The furniture was carried to a sufficient distance to be safe from everything but a search; and care was had to avoid as much as possible making a trail, to lead the savages to the place selected for the temporary storeroom. This was merely a close thicket, into which there was a narrow but practicable entrance on the side the least likely to be visited. When all was accomplished the four went to the lookout to ascertain how far the canoes had come. It was soon ascertained that they were within a mile, driving down before a strong breeze and following sea, and impelled by as many paddles as there were living beings in them. Ten minutes would certainly bring them up with the bar, and five more fairly within the river. The question now arose, where the party was to be concealed during the stay of the savages. Dolly, as was perhaps natural for the housewife, wished to remain by her worldly goods, and pretty Margery had a strong feminine leaning to do the same. But neither of the men approved of the plan. It was risking too much in one spot; and a suggestion that the bee-hunter was not long in making prevailed.

It will be remembered that le Bourdon had carried the canoes within the field of wild rice, and bestowed them there with a good deal of attention to security. Now these canoes offered, in many respects, better places of temporary refuge, under all the circumstances, than any other that could readily be found on shore. They were dry; and by spreading skins, of which Boden had so many, comfortable beds might be made for the females, which would be easily protected from the night air and dews by throwing a rug over the gunwales. Then, each canoe contained many articles that would probably be wanted; that of the bee-hunter in particular furnishing food in abundance, as well as diverse other things that would be exceedingly useful to persons in their situation. The great advantage of the canoes, however, in the mind of le Bourdon, was the facilities they offered for flight. He hardly hoped that Indian sagacity would be so far blinded as to prevent the discovery of the many footsteps they must have left in their hurried movements, and he anticipated that with the return of day something would occur to render it necessary for them to seek safety by a stealthy removal from the spot. This might be done, he both hoped and believed, under cover of the rice, should sufficient care be taken to avoid exposure. In placing the canoes, he had used the precaution to leave them where they could not be seen from the cabin or its vicinity, or, indeed, from any spot in the vicinity of the ground that the savages would be likely to visit during their stay. All these reasons le Bourdon now rapidly laid before his companions, and to the canoes the whole party retired as fast as they could walk.

There was great judgment displayed on the part of the bee-hunter in selecting the wild rice as a place of shelter. At that season it was sufficiently grown to afford a complete screen to everything within it that did not exceed the height of a man, or which was not seen from some adjacent elevation. Most of the land near the mouth of the river was low, and the few spots which formed exceptions had been borne in mind when the canoes were taken into the field. But just as Gershom was on the point of putting a foot into his own canoe, with a view to arrange it for the reception of his wife, he drew back, and exclaimed after the manner of one to whom a most important idea suddenly occurs:

"Land's sake! I've forgotten all about them barrels! They'll fall into the hands of the savages, and an awful time they'll make with them! Let me pass, Dolly; I must look after the barrels this instant."

While the wife gently detained her eager husband, the bee-hunter quietly asked to what barrels he alluded.

"The whiskey casks," was the answer. "There's two on 'em in the shed behind the hut, and whiskey enough to set a whole tribe in commotion. I wonder I should have overlooked the whiskey!"

"It is a sign of great improvement, friend Waring, and will lead to no bad consequences," returned le Bourdon, coolly. "I foresaw the danger, and rolled the casks down the hill, where they were dashed to pieces in the brook, and the liquor has long since been carried into the lake in the shape of grog."

Waring seemed astounded; but was so completely mystified as not to suspect the truth. That his liquor should be hopelessly lost was bad enough; but even that was better than to have it drunk by savages without receiving any re-turns. After groaning and lamenting over the loss for a few minutes, he joined the rest of the party in making some further dispositions, which le Bourdon deemed prudent, if not necessary.

It had occurred to the bee-hunter to divide his own cargo between the two canoes, which was the task that the whole party was now engaged in. The object was to lighten his own canoe in the event of flight, and, by placing his effects in two parcels, give a chance to those in the boat which might escape, of having wherewithal to comfort and console themselves. As soon as this new arrangement was completed, le Bourdon ran up to a tree that offered the desired facilities, and springing into its branches, was soon high enough to get a view of the bar and the mouth of the river. By the parting light of day, he distinctly saw four canoes coming up the stream; which was one more than those reported to him by Margery as having passed.

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