The Veiled Man. Being an Account of the Risks and Adventures of Sidi Ahamadou, Sheikh of the Azjar Marauders of the Great Sahara - William Le Queux - ebook

The Veiled Man. Being an Account of the Risks and Adventures of Sidi Ahamadou, Sheikh of the Azjar Marauders of the Great Sahara ebook

William Le Queux



I am a Veiled Man. Openly, I confess myself a vagabond and a brigand. Living here, in the heart of the Great Desert, six moons march from Algiers, and a thousand miles beyond the French outposts, theft is, with my nomadic tribe, their natural industry–a branch of education, in fact. We augment the meagreness of our herds by extorting ransoms from some of our neighbours, and completely despoiling others. Mention of the name of Ahamadou causes the face of the traveller on any of the caravan routes between the Atlas mountains and Lake Tsâd to pale beneath its bronze, for as sheikh of the most powerful piratical tribe in the Sahara, I have earned an unenviable notoriety as leader of „The Breath of the Wind,” while the Arabs themselves have bestowed upon my people three epithets which epitomise their psychology: „Thieves, Hyenas, and Abandoned of Allah.”

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DURING half a century of constant wandering over the silent sunlit sands, of tribal feuds, of revolts, battle and pillage, of bitter persistent hatreds, of exploit, foray, and fierce resistance against the lounging Spahis, cigarette-smoking Zouaves, black-faced Turcos, and swaggering Chasseurs of the French, I have met with some curious adventures, and have witnessed wonders more remarkable, perhaps, than many of the romances related by the Arab story-tellers. They mostly occurred before I was chosen sheikh of the Azjar; when I was simply one of a band of desert-pirates, whose only possessions were a long steel lance, a keen, finely-tempered poignard, and a white stallion, the speed of which was unequalled by those of my companions. A thief I was by birth; a scholar I had become by studying the Tarik, the Miraz, the Ibtihadj, and the Korân, under the Marabut Essoyouti in Algiers; a philosopher I fain would be. When riding over the great limitless red-brown sands, I was apt to forget the race whence I sprang, the learning that had made me wise, the logical reasonings of a well-schooled brain, and give myself up with all the rapture of an intense enthusiasm to the emotion of the hour. It was the same always. Essoyouti, a scholar renowned throughout Tripoli and Tunis, had versed me in legendary lore, until I had become full of glowing fancies and unutterable longing to penetrate the entrancing mysteries to which he had so often referred as problems that could never be solved.

I am a Veiled Man. Openly, I confess myself a vagabond and a brigand. Living here, in the heart of the Great Desert, six moons march from Algiers, and a thousand miles beyond the French outposts, theft is, with my nomadic tribe, their natural industry–a branch of education, in fact. We augment the meagreness of our herds by extorting ransoms from some of our neighbours, and completely despoiling others. Mention of the name of Ahamadou causes the face of the traveller on any of the caravan routes between the Atlas mountains and Lake Tsâd to pale beneath its bronze, for as sheikh of the most powerful piratical tribe in the Sahara, I have earned an unenviable notoriety as leader of “The Breath of the Wind,” while the Arabs themselves have bestowed upon my people three epithets which epitomise their psychology: “Thieves, Hyenas, and Abandoned of Allah.”

The only law recognised by my race, the Touaregs, is the right of the strongest. We wear the black litham wrapped about our faces, leaving only our noses and eyes visible, and never removing it, even at meal-times. It becomes so much a part of us that any one being deprived of his veil is unrecognisable to friends or relatives. If one of our number is killed, and divested of his veil, no one can identify him until it has been restored to its place. We are therefore known and dreaded as “The Veiled Men.”

My first journey by paths untrodden resulted strangely.

For two whole moons a party of us, numbering nearly three hundred, all well-armed and desperate, had been lurking in a narrow ravine in the far South, known as the Gueden, close to the point where it is crossed by the route taken by the caravans from Lake Tsâd to El Aghouat in Algeria. News travels fast in the desert. We had received word that a caravan laden with ivory and gold-dust was on its way from Kuka to Timissao, and were awaiting it, with the intention either of levying toll, or attacking it with a view to plunder. In our sombre robes of dark blue kano cloth and black veils, we were a mysterious, forbidding-looking rabble. As day succeeded day, and we remained inactive, with scouts ever vigilant for the approach of our prey, I recollected that in the vicinity were some curious rocks, with inscriptions recording the Mussulman conquest, and one morning, mounting my meheri, or swift camel, rode out to inspect them.

The sun rose, and beneath its furnace heat I pushed on into the great waterless wilderness of Tasili, the true extent of which is unknown even to us Children of the Desert, for the utter dearth of water there renders a journey of many days impossible. Until the maghrib hour I remained in the saddle, then dismounting, faced towards the Holy Ca’aba, recited my fâtihat, ate a handful of dates, and squatted to smoke and watch the fading of the blood-red afterglow. On the next day, and the next, I journeyed forward over the wide monotonous plain, where the poison-wind fanned my brow like a breath from an oven, and nothing met the aching eye but glaring sand and far-off horizon, until, when my shadow lengthened on the sixth day after parting with my companions, I found myself within sight of a range of high hills, looming darkly against the brilliant sunset.

Well acquainted as I was with the geography of my native sands, I had never heard mention of these hills, and was therefore convinced that I had mistaken the route to the great black rock whereon the inscriptions were engraved, and was now approaching a region unexplored. On many occasions I had traversed the caravan route to Timissao, and crossed the rocky ravine where my companions were now in ambush; but none of us had ever before left that track, clearly defined by its bleaching bones, for to the solitary traveller in that inhospitable region a pricked water-skin or a lame camel means death. With irrepressible awe I gazed upon the hills, clothed in the deep purple light of the descending sun, because of one strange thing my eyes had detected. I saw, above the serrated line, two cone-like peaks, rising close to one another, in majesty solemn and sublime, and recognised in them a scene exactly as described by my master Essoyouti, in one of the curious romances he was fond of relating. I stood recalling every detail of the scene, just as I had imagined it when, seated under the vine, in the cool patio of his house, in the ancient Kasbah at Algiers, he had told me a story that held me breathless and entranced.

Worn with fatigue, exhausted and feverish from long exposure to the fiery sun, half stifled by the sand-laden wind, and riding a camel scarcely less jaded than myself, I confess that, despite my love of adventure, and by reason of the strangeness of the story I had heard, I contemplated with no little dread the prospect of passing that night alone within sight of those twin mountain-crests. Twilight is brief in the desert, and soon the moon, having risen from behind a bank of cloud, afforded an uncertain light, which partly illuminated the prospect, and I sat hugging my knees and thinking deeply until sleep closed my eyes.

Before the appearance of the first saffron streak that heralds the sun’s coming, I had recited a sûra and mounted, with my face set resolutely towards the unknown range. In the skin across my saddle I had only just sufficient water to enable me to return to our ambush, therefore I broke not my fast, determined to hoard up my frugal store. The sand was soft and treacherous. At every step my camel’s spongy feet sank deeper and deeper, until, after a toilsome ride of three hours, we arrived near the foot of the two dark, ominous-looking mountains. Then I pulled up, fearing to proceed further lest we should be overwhelmed by the quicksands.

Near me was a narrow pass between the two mountains, and shading my eyes with my hand, I was startled at beholding two gigantic figures standing on either side of the entrance. The sight of them confirmed my suspicion that I had approached the Unknown, and with curiosity aroused, I urged my meheri still forward, coming at last close up to the colossal figures. They were fashioned from enormous blocks of dark grey stone, ten times the height of a human being. One, carved to represent a beautiful woman, had her right hand lifted towards the sky, while the other, a forbidding-looking hag, with chipped, time-worn face still wearing a repulsive expression, pointed downward. Between these colossal figures was a space of about thirty paces. According to the legend related by the sage Essoyouti, and told by our story-tellers through ages, there existed beyond a land forbidden.

I held my breath. I was about to view a country that had not been viewed; the ravine known in story as the Valley of the Ants. In eagerness I pressed onward, leading my camel, and passing up the stony valley until at length I came to a second and more fertile space of vast extent, covered entirely by the colossal ruins of a forgotten city.

Aghast, I stood gazing upon the remarkable and unexpected scene.

Ruined temples, with long rows of broken columns, and great houses cracked and fallen into decay, stood silent and deserted, grim, grey relics of a glorious past. Here and there obelisks and colossi still stood, and the broad streets of the giant city were everywhere well-defined by the ruins, half-buried by drifting sand on either side. Above, a single eagle soared high in the heavens, the only sign of life in that once populous and magnificent centre of a lost civilisation.

Having tethered my camel, I started forward through the ocean of soft sand that through centuries had drifted over the place, and as I did so the story of old Essoyouti recurred to me. The appearance of the place agreed with the strange legend in almost every detail. The ruler of this gigantic capital had been Balkîs, the wealthy and luxurious queen mentioned in our Book of Everlasting Will. This was actually the city of Saba, once the wealthiest and most magnificent capital in the world. According to the legend of the sages, this place existed somewhere in the Great Desert, but whereabouts no man had been able to determine, although it was believed that its entrance was between two cone-like mountains, but surrounded by quicksands of so treacherous a nature that none dare approach it.

With hurried footsteps I scrambled on over fallen columns and great blocks of hewn stone, with inscriptions in characters unknown to me, until suddenly my eyes were bewildered at beholding on the mountain-side an enormous palace, with beautiful terraces and pavilions, apparently in an excellent state of preservation. From the city it was approached by a long flight of wide stone steps, flanked on either side by a pair of colossal figures of similar design to those at the entrance of the Valley of the Ants.

At first, I doubted that the scene before me was one of actual reality, but having reassured myself that I was not dreaming, and was entirely in possession of my senses, I gripped my long lance firmly, and started to ascend the thousand steps that gave access to the historic palace of Balkîs. Hardly, however, had I placed my foot upon the first step, when my eyes were blinded by a lightning-flash, and my ears deafened by a crash of thunder, that, shaking the earth, resounded among the hills, until it became lost in innumerable echoes.

I halted in suspicion, puzzled to account for the strange phenomenon, which seemed like some ominous warning.

Nothing daunted, however, I sprang up the steps, two by two, halting but once to regain breath, and in a few minutes entered the great, marvellously-sculptured portals of the magnificent dwelling-place of one of the most powerful and beautiful women the world ever knew. About to enter, my footsteps were suddenly arrested by the discovery that the floor of the palace was of running water, wherein fish disported themselves, and in the centre, raised upon a daïs of ivory and gold, was the great empty throne of Balkîs, constructed entirely of chalcedony, amethysts, and rubies.

The extent of my discoveries entranced me. I twisted up my robe, and prepared to wade through the water, when, on setting foot into it, I discovered to my amazement that the floor was of transparent glass, laid over the running water, thus keeping the palace uniformly cool during the hottest hours. On approaching the throne I at once became aware of its enormous value, and with my poignard prised from its setting one of the largest rubies my eyes had ever beheld. It was the size of a pigeon’s egg, and of matchless colour.

Through the wonderful courts of the deserted palace I wandered, amazed at every turn. Of gigantic proportions, with strange grotesque embellishments that clearly showed its ancient origin, it had stood here in the zenith of its magnificence ages before the days of the Prophet, and for many centuries had remained hidden from the sight of man within that unknown valley. From the flat roof of one of its pavilions I stood gazing down upon the once mighty city, trying to reconstruct it in my imagination, and endeavouring to form an idea of its aspect in the long-past days, when the hosts of Balkîs went forth to battle, and when the beautiful queen herself flashed forth in her golden chariot, amid the wild plaudits of the multitude.

Many hours I spent in exploring this wonderful relic of a decayed civilisation, visiting pavilion after pavilion and finding most of them knee-deep in the accumulated dust of ages, until at last I came to a small chamber built right against the side of the mountain. This I entered, finding traces of the most extravagant luxury within. The decorations were richly ornamented with gold even now untarnished, the beams supporting the roof being set with gems which sparkled where a ray of sunlight fell upon them. Beyond was a door which, on examination, proved to be of solid iron. On dragging it open there was disclosed a small, dark, and cavernous burrow into the mountain-side. Minutely I examined this door, and finding thereon great bolts with sockets sunk deeply into the solid rock, it occurred to me that in this place might be hidden some of the treasure that the Korân tells us was possessed by the great Queen Balkîs. Cupidity prompted me to search, and having constructed a large improvised torch, I propped open the door with a huge stone sculptured to represent a lion’s paw, and started forward up the narrow gloomy tunnel. The natural sides of the cavern were rough, gleaming with long pendant stalactites; but soon it grew larger, and the air became so warm that the perspiration fell from my brow in big drops. One or two articles, old cross-hilted swords, a rusty, dinted helmet and a battered breastplate, showed that this place had long ago been frequented, therefore I pressed forward eagerly, hoping to discover that which would render me wealthy. The increasing heat within the cavern surprised me; nevertheless I went forward, my torch held high above my head, my eyes eagerly strained into the impenetrable gloom, and my feet stumbling ever and anon over the uneven ground, until suddenly a harsh grinding noise fell upon my ears, and next second a crushing blow fell full upon my skull, felling me like a log and rendering me unconscious.

How long I remained in that dark stifling tunnel I have no idea.

When, slowly and painfully, I opened my eyes I found that my veil had been removed, my brow deftly bandaged, and my fevered head was resting upon a woman’s cool hand. A soft feminine voice gave me “Peace,” and turning I saw by the light of a burning brazier that my companion was a girl of wondrous beauty. Her face was of the pure Arab type, her complexion white as those of the Englishwomen who come to Biskra at Ramadan; her little skull-cap was thickly embroidered with seed-pearls, and her bracelets and anklets, set with beautiful diamonds, gleamed with a thousand iridescent fires at each movement. At first I fancied myself dreaming, but when at length I entirely recovered consciousness, I recognised that we were together in a small apartment hung with heavy hangings of thick dark crimson stuffs. The golden perfuming-pan diffused an intoxicating odour of attar of roses, and the silken couch whereon I reclined was soft, restful, and spacious.

Turning to my companion who, instantly divining my longing, handed me water in a crystal goblet, I enquired where I was.

“Thou art with a friend,” she answered. “Thou hast dared to enter the City of the Seven Shadows bent on plunder, and the wrath hath fallen upon thee.”

“Didst thou discover me?” I asked, raising myself upon my elbow, and looking at her.

She nodded, and with bent head sat with her luminous dark eyes fixed upon the ground.

“Thou hast entered this, the city upon which the seven lights of the heavens have cast the shadows of their wrath, and where all who enter are accursed,” she exclaimed at last, speaking slowly and impressively. “Thou earnest hither with evil intent, to secure the treasure of Balkîs. Yet out of evil cometh good, for in thee I have found a companion in adversity.”

“In adversity!” I echoed. “What art thou?”

“I am Balkîs, sole lineal descendant of the great queen who ruled over Saba, and guardian of her treasure,” she answered. “I am a queen without court; a ruler without people. The palace that thou hast inspected is mine; the throne from the arm of which thou hast filched the great ruby is my lonely seat of royalty; for I am queen of a dead city. Although I am bearer of the historic name of Balkîs, and possess treasure of greater worth than men have ever dreamed, my subjects number only fourteen persons, all of whom are my relatives and live here with me in this my palace. As thou hast already seen, our once-powerful city with its fifty brazen gates hath fallen into decay because of the curse placed upon it by Allah. The teeming populace that once crowded its thoroughfares and market-places have dwindled down until mine own family only are left, the last of a long illustrious, world-famed line. Soon, alas! I, too, shall pass into the grave, and the royal house of Balkîs will become extinct,” and her jewel-laden breast rose and fell slowly in a long deep-drawn sigh.

“Why speakest thou in tone so melancholy?” I asked. “Thou hast youth, health, long life, everything before thee!”

“No,” she answered gravely, with her white pointed chin still resting thoughtfully upon her palm. “Already I am threatened; nay, I am doomed.”

“How?” I enquired, incredulously.

“Listen, and I will explain,” she said, slowly, raising her beautiful eyes to mine. “About two moons ago, attired in the haick of an Arab woman, I journeyed with my aged uncle to In Salah, in order to make purchases in the market, as is our custom twice each year. On our return hither we came across an encampment of those red-legged dogs of French, and having accepted the hospitality of their tents through several days on account of the sand-storms, I was surprised and annoyed by receiving a declaration of love from the young lieutenant in charge, whose name was Victor Gaillard, and whose home, he told me, was in Paris. Believing me to be daughter of an Arab merchant, he announced his readiness to take me to Algiers and make me his wife; but hating these youthful irresponsible masters of our land, I declined that honour. He then declared that at all costs I should be his, for at the end of the year he was going north to the seashore, where he would be quartered until the spring, and that if I escaped him he and his host who ruled the Desert would treat me and my people as rebellious, and shoot us down like dogs. I laughed his declaration to scorn, for he little dreamed of my real name, birth, and dwelling-place. Next day I remained in the encampment, but on the following night, by bribing one of the Spahi sentries with a ring from my finger, I and my uncle managed to escape, and, beneath the crescent moon, pushed our way forward in the direction of Saba. Through four days we travelled almost incessantly, until at midnight on the fifth our camels’ feet sank deep into the quicksands that render the entrance to Saba unapproachable. Laughing as I congratulated myself on my cleverness at outwitting him, I had gone some hundred paces when, chancing to glance back, I saw not far away, hesitating at the edge of the treacherous belt of ground, a single horseman. The glint of moonlight on his bright scabbard showed him to be an officer of the Roumis, and instantly I recognised the slim silhouette of Victor Gaillard. He sat motionless in his saddle, and with his field-glass raised calmly watched our difficult progress towards the two colossal statues which have guarded the entrance to our city from the day of King Solomon. My uncle, noticing my alarm, also turned and detected our pursuer. That night, before my family assembled in the palace, I explained the whole of the facts, and they, knowing how relentless are these harsh infidel rulers of ours, unanimously decided upon flight. But I declined to leave. Was I not Balkîs, Queen of Saba? Was not the great store of gold and jewels given into my keeping that I should remain and watch them until I drew my last breath? They urged me to accompany them into the mountains, but finding me obdurate all fled, leaving me alone to face the unscrupulous man who had declared that at all costs I should become his wife. Ten weary anxious days have since gone by. Yesterday thou earnest hither, thy face wrapped in thy black litham, and naturally I supposed thou wert the accursed infidel in disguise. I watched thee explore my palace and enter to the cave wherein my treasure lieth concealed. When thou hadst entered I breathed more freely, full well knowing that thou hadst gone forward into thy grave.”

“How? Is the tunnel azotic?”

“No. Within is an ingenious mechanical contrivance which was constructed by Balkîs herself, whereby the unsuspecting intruder releases a spring, and is struck down by a great iron mace.”

“I was struck,” I observed.

She nodded, smiling sadly.

“When I went forward to ascertain whether mine enemy still lived I found thy veil unloosened, and that thy features were not those of the hateful Frank. Then I tended thee throughout the night, and at dawn thou didst rally and art now rapidly recovering.”

“Of a verity I had a narrow escape.”

“Assuredly thou didst. Many others, as adventurous and stout-hearted as thyself, have met their fate at that spot.”

“So thou hast remained here alone and single-handed to guard the treasure of thine ancestor against the pilfering of the Franks?” I said, regarding the beautiful, frail-looking girl with admiration. “Assuredly thou art as courageous as the great Balkîs who defied the combined powers of the ancient world.”

She sighed. “It hath been the duty of the Queens of Saba to remain within their kingdom even if evil threatened and all forsake them. I will never be wife of a Frank, neither will I exhibit fear to these new rulers of the Desert who are led by amorous youths from Paris boulevards,” she answered, drawing herself up with queenly hauteur.

“Peradventure he only useth idle threats,” I observed.

“No. The Franks who conquered Algeria and hold it beneath the thraldom of the religion they call Christianity, are our rulers also. He ordered me to remain in the encampment on pain of being outlawed. I disobeyed; therefore I and my people are rebels. That he will return and seek me out I am convinced.”

“Then why not fly?” I suggested. “I will take thee to where my tribe, are encamped. Although we are thieves and brigands, thou, a woman, wilt nevertheless meet with chivalrous treatment at our hands.”

She shook her head, and with dogged persistence announced her intention of remaining, while, on my part, I promised to render her whatever assistance lay in my power.

“Then first help me to remove the throne into the treasure-house,” she said, and opening a door that had been concealed behind the heavy hangings she led me into the great hall where water flowed beneath its pavement of glass.

Together we dragged the bejewelled seat of royalty through several courts, until we came to the small pavilion which gave entrance to the cavern. Then, while she carried a flaming flambeau, I toiled on with it after her. When we had gone some distance into the heart of the mountain she stooped to secure the ancient mechanism so that the iron mace could not again descend, and advancing some further distance we found ourselves in a kind of cul-de-sac, with only a black wall of rock before us. To the right, however, was a cunningly-concealed door which gave entrance to a spacious natural chamber, wherein I saw, heaped indiscriminately, the most wondrous collection of golden ornaments and brilliant jewels my eyes had ever gazed upon. Some of them I took up, holding them in my hand in wonderment. The gems were of the first water, the spoils taken in battle by the notorious queen once feared by all the world, while heaped everywhere were bejewelled breast-plates, gem-encrusted goblets, golden dishes, and swords with hilts and scabbards thickly set with precious stones. Wheresoever I trod there were scattered in the fine white dust strings of pearls, uncut gems, rings, and ear-ornaments, while all around were piled great immovable boxes of hewn stone, like coffins, securely clamped with rusting iron. These had never been opened, and contained, according to the story of my companion, the tribute of enormous worth sent by King Solomon to Balkîs. These I examined carefully, one after another, at length discovering one, the stone of which had split so that a small aperture was formed. I placed my hand inside and withdrew it, holding between my thumb and finger three cut diamonds, the like of which I had never before beheld. The stone box was filled to the brim with gems of every kind.

In wonderment I was standing, contemplating this vast wealth of a vanished nation, when my fair conductress exclaimed–

“There is still one other marvel about this place. Listen! Canst thou hear a sound?”

Distinctly I heard a dull, monotonous boom, which had continued uninterruptedly ever since we had been there.

“Yea. What is its cause?” I asked.

“The interior of this mountain is as a fiery furnace. That roaring is the unquenchable flame that has burned therein through ages. During mine own remembrance as a child smoke hath issued from the cone above, and so near are we to the fiery interior here in this treasure-house that its very walls are warm.”

Upon the rock I placed my hand, and so hot was it that I was compelled to withdraw it instantly. Only a thin partition of stone apparently divided us from the mysterious fathomless crater.

“One of the beliefs that have come down unto me through ages,” Balkîs said, “is that within this place is Al-Hâwiyat, the dwelling prepared for infidels and pagans, where their food shall be offal, and they shall slake their thirst with boiling pitch.”

“Allah is mighty and wise,” I answered. “Alone he knoweth the hearts of his servants. May perfect peace remain ever upon thee.”

“And upon thee, O Ahamadou,” she responded, raising her bright eyes earnestly to mine. “Now that I have shown thee this, the wealth of my ancestors, thou wilt promise never to conspire to gain possession of it while any of my family remain here in Saba.”

“Although of a tribe of thieves, I swear by Allah’s might that never will I expose thy secret, nor will I seek to possess myself of what is thine,” I answered. “Thy family shall ever be as mine, for I am no abuser of the salt.”

“In thee do I place my trust,” she answered, allowing her soft hand, the hand that had so deftly bandaged my injured brow and bathed my face–to linger for an instant within my grasp.

Then, drawing from my pouch the great lustrous ruby I had stolen, I handed it back to her. But she made me retain it as souvenir of my visit to Saba, the city forgotten.

The atmosphere in the treasure-house was stifling. Having, therefore, deposited the throne of Balkîs in fitting place, we left, returning through the concealed door to the narrow burrow which had exit in the small pavilion. Side by side we slowly crossed court after court of the great palace which had witnessed pageants of such magnificence that their splendour has been proverbial till this day, she pointing out the principal objects of interest, halting to explain curious sculptured wall-pictures and inscriptions commemorating the triumphs of the great queen, or pausing to recall some long-forgotten story of love, hatred, or malice connected with the spot whereon we stood. In that mellow sunset-hour, as we lingered together beneath the cool shadows, I learnt more of the historic, time-effaced empire of Balkîs than savants have ever known. As scholar, it delighted me to hear it from the lips of one who had descended in the direct royal line from that famous woman, who, according to our Sura, entitled “The Ant,” became convinced during her visit to Solomon that, by worshipping the sun she had dealt unjustly with her own soul, and resigned herself unto Allah, the lord of all creatures.

She had given me some wine and dates, and we had passed through the great hall with its transparent pavement and out upon the terrace before the palace when, of a sudden, a loud cry escaped her.

“See!” she gasped, dismayed. “See! The Franks are here!”

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