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Cold Steel by M.P. Shiel (1899, rev. 1929)

April 1, 2016

This book features one of the strangest Anne Boleyns I have ever seen in fiction — there have been villainous Annes before, and even a few blonde Annes, but never before have I seen Anne depicted as a blonde, blue-eyed villain who spends a large portion of the story roaming the English countryside in order to capture and lock up another woman so that Henry VIII can have his way with the latter. I’m pretty sure that even by the standards of the sixteenth century, locking someone up in order to force them into sex was considered at least moderately sketchy behavior. Why, you ask, does she do this? Because she’s jealous. Henry has taken a fancy to the other girl, whose name is Laura Ford, and Anne thinks that the best way to extinguish this is to actually make her available as his mistress — once he’s slept with Laura, Anne’s reasoning goes, his interest will burn out pretty quickly and he’ll return to Anne, who at the moment is busy keeping him on a string while she attempts to persuade him into giving her a crown.

The Laura Ford with whom Henry becomes enamoured is a seventeen-year-old, depressingly simple-minded girl whose mother was an English widow and whose father was a random servant attending a party of Spanish noblemen who visited the bishop of Winchester for unstated reasons. The result was Laura, “a girl of passionate world-loveliness, Spanish in type.” This in stark contrast to Anne Boleyn, blonde, bosomy, and generally the exact opposite of the dark enchantress which she’s usually depicted as being. As one nobleman describes Anne:

She a girl of twenty, specially French in manner when England was still French (she having been a maid of Queen Claude), with embonpoint, and quite an outpush of kerchiefed bust, and frizzy straw-hair, and a broad brow, and a freckled nose, and a broad mouth, having character in its pressure, and a mole of the firm-fleshed short lip: pretty!

Laura’s father having decamped before her birth and her mother having died, she’s now in the care of her older half-sister, Bessie, six inches shorter, much plainer, and dedicating her life to protecting her dimwitted sister from male predation. Bessie works at a tavern to support both of them and Laura … doesn’t really do much except be hidden away during the day. Nonetheless, she’s attracted worthy male attention — a student named Mark Bonner, whose only defect is that he doesn’t have any money worth speaking of, so Bessie doesn’t think they can be married just yet. She changes her mind, however, on the fateful day when two of the King’s messengers happen to stop by the taver where she works (the Bell) and where she’s also under the unofficial protection of one Mauro Calvo, who’s Italian and like all Italians in these novels, is an alchemist wise in the ways of sorcery, astrology, and poisons — at least, he’s very good at making people think he is. In an extremely convoluted series of events, Bessie realizes that the messengers — James MacDonald and Garrett Oge Fitzgerald — have caught a glimpse of the beautiful Laura (she has to leave her room sometimes, after all) and are panting to let the world know about her. Bessie, horrified, realizes that word of Laura’s beauty must now inevitably get to the King, and he’ll inevitably find and dishonor her (because it’s not like he has enough else going on at the moment). So in order to get some leverage over the messengers, she steals and pockets the letters that they’re carrying which just so happen to be letters to Wolsey, relating to the projected divorce from Catherine of Aragon. As further insurance against Laura’s seduction, Bessie gathers up her life’s savings and arranges for Laura to have a hasty surprise wedding with Mark Bonner, who’s sent on a few last-minute errands before this can take place. All of this happens in many, many more pages of clotted prose than is strictly necessary.

The messengers realize that the letters have been stolen and while they suspect it was Bessie (she having access to their cloaks) they can’t prove anything, and besides they suspect that she only took the letters to pass on to Calvo. More pressingly, they have to somehow explain to Henry VIII how his sensitive personal correspondence just went missing. So, accompanied by much self-abasement (“I deserve to be hanged”) they tell Henry that Mauro Calvo, sinister foreign alchemist, has them. Mark Bonner, obliviously buying some last-minute wedding supplies, is intercepted and captured, and is forced to lead the King and the messengers to where Calvo is known to lurk. Alas, Calvo happens to be in the same place as Laura and Bessie, both of whom are waiting for Mark to arrive so the wedding can take place. Instead of Mark, however, they see Henry VIII, and “the primary face upon which the King’s eye rested was that face of Laura.”

Just as Bessie feared, Henry is instantly stunned by her:

But whey did not the King speak? He had his finger outstretched, covering the alchymist, and on his tongue were the words: “Arrest me that rat,” but instead, he turned his head to the girls to say: “Ha, mamsels, what make you here …?”, his face now wearing a sheepish expression of some peeping motive.

Eventually Henry recovers enough to shout “Seize me that stinkard!” (referring to Calvo) but Calvo cunningly extinguishes all the lamps at once and by the time the men get the lamps re-lit, Bessie, Laura and of course Calvo have disappeared (through a hidden door in the wall, we’ll learn later). They haven’t vanished for long, though, if Henry has anything to say about it. He informs the messengers that if they want redemption for losing the letters “Find me that girl which has vanished, if thou would’st reap a harvest.”

This all takes place in the first 35 pages, by the way. There are many, many more to come but for the sake of everyone’s sanity I’ll restrict this to the highlights, since this is essentially a 300 page serial chase scene. Before the hunt is properly up, we’ll see that most of the major figures of the English court are just as interested in finding Laura as Henry is, and they’re all interested in making her “his”, albeit from varying motives. When Wolsey gets wind of the story from messenger MacDonald, the following conversation is a good sample both of the book’s plotting and prose style:

”Art thou a fellow which knowest a pretty wench when thou seest her?” [said Wolsey]

“Why, my Lord, yea”.

“Is she hitting? Doth she spank the eye?”
“Bread and salt, my Lord, she doth”.

“She is spicy, eh? Thou has seen her. She tickles the regard, eh, Scot? Has ever seen the Lady Anne Boleyn?”

“Yea, thrice, my Lord.”

“Then tell me — reflect, then tell me: would’st thou liefer cuddle, varlet, the Lady Anne, or this Laura Ford?”

“Why, Laura, my Lord, forty times o’er, since you ask me. I tell your Grace, ‘tist the most curiousest, most flashiest, moppet I ever laid look upon.”

Wolsey, sworn enemy of Anne Boleyn, is thrilled at this news and promises the messenger a large cash consideration if he should find Laura and bring her not to Henry, but to Wolsey — not for his own use (so to speak) but because he realizes that if Henry once gets her, he’ll tire of her quickly, but if Wolsey manages to keep her just out of reach, Wolsey could keep him dangling for a very long time. “The King will continue to pursue this Laura Ford, to the exclusion of the Lady Anne, up to the week after he gets her into his hand: that week Anne will regain her sway. The King must not, therefore, get her into his hand, but I; and lest his flame for her, for lack of fuel, wax cool, I, having her, will continually reincite him by new hopes of her, under such conditions that he shall hope only, but not touch.”

However, there are spies everywhere, and Jean du Bellay, close ally of Anne, has overheard some of this conversation and immediately dashes off to warn her. The blonde, freckled Anne, who has noticed a distinct cooling in the King’s attitude towards herself recently, instantly realizes what the solution is: to whistle up the still-loyal Henry Percy and dispatch him to find Laura Ford, so that she can deliver her to the King so that after he’s become thoroughly bored of Laura, he’ll proceed to return to Anne. So now there are three separate search parties on the hunt for these girls (not to mention Calvo and letters, which nobody seems to remember now) and, it’s important to note, a fourth search party dispatched by Catherine of Aragon when she gets wind of what’s going on. “Yes, you will seize this girl, my good Conde. Poor King Henry! — he is frail in this way. And I, look, am only a woman — I cannot bear another infidelity just now.” Unlike the other three, Catherine doesn’t want Laura seized either to be given to the king or held out as bait for the king, she merely wants to send Laura and her sister “across the seas … providing well for their sustenance.” Which compared to the motives of the other three is positively humane, although one notes that she’s basing the request on the fact that she can’t stand another mistress right now, not out of any overt concern for the girls themselves.

So the stage is finally set for one of the longest, most confusing, most clotted stories I have ever read, and I’m including Francis Lathom’s four-volume production in that because at least that story was occasionally broken up with bizarre interludes where George Boleyn was tied up and seduced by strange Italian women, but this book just goes on, and on, and on, with clashing search parties fighting each other, Bessie, Laura and Calvo being temporarily captured and then escaping (over and over and OVER) and, most horribly, the introduction of yet another plot wrinkle when Calvo, who likes to see how many plates he can keep spinning at once, dispatches a secret message to King Francis I informing him that “the most perfectest girl in the world” of whom Calvo once prophesied, has now been found in England and he should come forthwith to win her hand. “Mars being in conjunction with Sol in the Fourth Shamaim, and Venus retrograde in the Sixth House, it is indicated that around the maiden shall spread conflicts; nor, save by prowess of arms, can she be won.”

Calvo seals the letter with the remark “That should fetch the other chuff over,” and leaves us wondering vaguely what double, triple or quadruple game he might be playing while in the meantime Fitzgerald and MacDonald keep making mincemeat out the other search parties, briefly pose as priests in a confessional booth to see if they can get any valuable information out of Bessie (they don’t, but Fitzgerald ends up developing a crush on her and lets her go when it would have made more sense to capture her right then), and Calvo, Laura and Bessie make the acquaintance of Anne Boleyn’s illegitimate half-brother “Flying Sidney Boleyn” (so called because he’s a very fast rider). Sidney is initially inclined to bring them in, until Calvo gives him a salve which cures his “fits” and Sidney decides that to repay him, he’ll enter their service instead and carry messages wherever they wish. Calvo sends a few more messages to Francois I, giving more details of Laura’s location, and before we know it Francois is heaving into sight with an entire armed fleet. Unfortunately, Sidney happens to encounter Anne “the one being of whom he stood in fear” while delivering a letter from his father to Bridewell palace, and ends up babbling out the fact that King Francis, disguised as a knight, has landed on English soil. Anne’s “keen blue eyes” see that he’s telling the truth, and she realizes she had better step up her game, since she knows Francis fairly well from times past and she also knows that “if he sought Laura Ford, he would hardly fail to possess; nor, if he possessed, could Henry; and, until Henry possessed, she was convinced that the queenship would still flee her seizing.”

Anne, realizing that she needs to remove herself from court and hunt the girls herself in order to see that it’s done competently, has a convenient attack of the sweating sickness — “feigning of the staggers in her gait” — and leaves court, supposedly to prevent the spread of infection but actually to go full Action Girl and find the Ford sisters herself before Francois manages to do so. And in fact, she manages to find them for about ten seconds but they manage to escape with Calvo yet again in the confusion when King Francis, going incognito as “The Black Knight” disrupts matters by arriving with a crowd of bannermen and challenging King Henry to single combat over … various things, including Mistress Ford and the service of various loyal retainers like Garrett Oge Fitzgerald (remember him?) At this point the author feels obliged to pause and tell the reader, in case she hasn’t gotten it yet, that Calvo’s summoning of Francis was intended to “draw upon him his pursuers to their mutual destruction, while he escaped to the coast,” and in this he almost manages to succeed, because everyone temporarily forgets about Laura while the Black Knight dukes it out with the Golden Knight (Henry) and eventually loses, and Henry tears off in triumph to resume the hunt for Mistress Ford, while Francis wanders disconsolate into the woods and eventually finds Bessie (temporarily separated from Laura) and does some intense flirting with her which she attempts to repulse — not, however, fast enough, as it turns out Anne Boleyn has been tracking Bessie in hopes of being led to Laura as well, and the conveniently veiled Anne takes this delay as an opportunity to approach Bessie and offer her safe haven from the importunate gentleman at a local castle. After escorting Bessie into “a long room, containing three windows on the housefront … tapestry, ebon chairs, a table for shovel-board, a Spanish footcloth of needlework bound in buckram, a massive “beaufet”, Venice mirrors in silver filigree” Anne literally doffs the mask (or veil) and cackles to Bessie about her evil intentions:

”Thy sister I seek, that I may have her in my hands, that I may give her into the hands of Henry, that Henry may give into my hands the Kingdom of England, that — so on, in the manner of the house that Jack built, chaste Bess.”

“Why, woman, you are black with sin!”

“And would you know precisely why I hold you now, chaste Bess? Wait — I will even show you!”

“Showing” in this case means writing a letter to Henry Percy, telling him of Mauro Calvo’s location, which Anne has somehow managed to deduce. Bessie, ready to fight to the end to keep this information from getting out, attacks Anne and throws the letter into the fire; furthermore she also grabs the key to the room and throws it out the window. A multi-page catfight ensues “Oh fie, lewd lady! … yea, verily, by my credit, exposed you shall be!” and the two women rip each other’s hair out and are both very bruised by the time Garrett Oge Fitzgerald bursts through the door — he happens to be in the neighborhood and saw the window shatter and heard the fight. Bess escapes once more, this time with him.

But the evil Anne is still “prowling” for Laura, who has now managed to twist her ankle and can’t keep up with Bessie and Calvo when they’re sneaking from cellar to hiding place in the woods and so forth. Laura is hidden in the woods and Calvo and Bessie take turns getting provisions for her, but inevitably the moment comes when Anne spots Bessie yet again; however, Bessie has the advantage this time as she knows this part of the woods and can see that from where Anne is starting, she is heading towards a swamp which used to have a bridge over it which is now broken — “as a bird to the snare, Anne ran toward her doom in voluntary suicide.” Bess, being pure goodness, is faced with a dilemma; let her enemy die or warn her? Being more virtuous than practical, Bess screams out “Why woman, go not on! The bridge is broken,” and then runs off, but she’s called out in time to save Anne’s life, and Anne promptly changes course in the direction of the King’s camp to tell him what she’s discovered about Laura’s location. After this, with dozens of soldiers combing the woods and Laura’s inability to move, it isn’t long before she and Bessie are finally captured (Calvo manages to slip off to alert Francis to these developments) and locked up in very nice accommodations in London, where King Henry visits Laura every day — that isn’t a euphemism, he just visits and talks to her, but they’re locked in and it’s clear that they’re not leaving until he’s done with Laura.

After a few days it becomes apparent that Laura, never especially bright at the best of times, has agreed to let Henry come and visit her that evening. Bessie, angry and terrified, bullies Laura into switching bedrooms with her (“Why nay, Bessie!” says Laura, “’Tis too much, at the end of the tale,” which the reader might well agree with, but Bessie threatens to bash her over the head with a chamber pot if she doesn’t listen). They switch rooms, Bessie puts out all the lights, and when Henry arrives he ends up spending the night with Bessie without noticing. The lady of the house does notice the next morning, though, when she opens the door and sees the wrong Ford sister still asleep, and thinking that it won’t be too long before the king discovers the switch she arranges for the Ford girls to “escape,” and once again Henry, Anne, Wolsey and all the rest are in pursuit, not to mention Garrett Oge Fitzgerald, who’s decided that he’ll marry Bessie or nobody, and Mark Bonner, who’s reappeared to try and get Laura back, and Francois I, who’s still looking for the “perfectest girl in the world” he was done out of previously, and Calvo, who’s badgering Francois to give the Ford girls safe passage to France.

Amidst all of this Bessie manages to arrange, once again, for Laura to marry Mark Bonner before they both leave for France. “And know, Mark Bonner, that I palm not off upon thee a wife tainted and touched, but one equal to any queen, boy, pure as snow! And cherish her, boy, cheris her, for Jesus sake — all thy life —“ after which she breaks down and Mark, confused, asks why she isn’t going to France with them, and pries out of her the story of her having slept with Henry under pretense of being Laura.

Mark doesn’t see why this should keep her from marrying Fitzgerald if she likes (Bessie hasn’t shown any enthusiasm for the idea but hey, why should that stop him?) and promptly goes off to Fitzgerald to assure him that any rumors he’s heard on that score are completely false, but before he can make it back for his wedding to Laura, Anne waylays him again and throws him into the Marshalsea, and once again Fitzgerald comes to the rescue of a character who’s been locked up by Anne Boleyn, and carries him off to finally, actually, be married to Laura.

Fitzgerald will not, however, be married to Bessie, who in addition to feeling the deep shame of having slept with Henry, now realizes that another reason she can’t marry him is “the material reason of motherhood”. Not able to bear the idea of being pregnant with Henry’s child, she takes off after Laura is safely married and is chased by Fitzgerald through the night streets of London and finally ends up jumping in the river and, in the classic fate of seduced maidens, drowning herself. Mauro Calvo, seeing this pursuit, jumps to the wrong conclusion and, thinking that Fitzgerald was attacking her, promptly stabs Fitzgerald to death and then, in a move that shows his practical streak is never far away, promptly rifles through Bessie’s pockets to find the letters that she stole from Fitzgerald and MacDonald way back at the beginning of the book. Remember them? Yes, she’s been carrying them on her all this time, since while Anne is presented as being extremely cunning, she’s apparently not quite cunning enough to routinely look in the pockets of people that she captures. (Actually, given what happened to the love letters Henry sent to Anne, it seems realistic enough that she’d be careless about that sort of thing). The grief-stricken Calvo decides to hand all the letters over to Francis I, who’s still in the neighborhood, and Francis takes them back to France, accompanied by Laura and Mark Bonner, and swears eternal enmity against Henry VIII for his destruction of Bessie. He’s determined never again to ally with Henry and to cause him all the trouble he can, and the letters will be a good start in that endeavour. Four weeks later, news comes to Henry that Francis has formally allied with Charles V, and what’s worse, the Pope has done an about-face and a totally conventional annulment case has now been denied — based largely on his having read those letters which have mysteriously found their way on to the continent. And thus, we are told

King Henry of England stamped his foot: and with that stamp Mediaeval Europe ceased; Modern Europe sprang.

SEX OR POLITICS? Hahahaha. Sex all the way — the entire story is one long, involved chase in which Henry is trying to track down Laura and “make her his mistress” and Anne (as well as sundry other parties) is doing the same thing in the hopes that he’ll lose interest in Laura once he’s got her. There is a very slight nod to religion in that Bessie is made the descendant of a “Lollard saint” who holds all things Popish in extreme horror, though that doesn’t stop her from going to confession later on and conveniently revealing plot points to the listener, who isn’t actually a priest. Politics also gets a look-in with the subplot where Francis I secretly visits England because of Calvo’s prophecy and is so enraged by Henry’s conduct towards Bessie that he decides to make an alliance with Charles V and sandbag Henry’s prospects of a straightforward annulment. Still, it’s clear that this is just window-dressing; what really interests the author are the chases and, to a lesser extent, the many confusing swordfights involving various lackeys of the four different people who are searching for Laura.

WHEN BORN? The action takes place in the summer of 1528, since Anne pretends to have the sweating sickness in order to leave court and go chasing the Fords around the country. Anne had the sweat in June 1528. Since Anne is described as “a girl of twenty” at the open, this would indicate a birthdate around 1507 or 1508. Bessie is twenty-one years old, and Laura is seventeen, putting their birthdates around 1506/7 and 1510/11 respectively. Flying Sidney Boleyn, Anne’s illegitimate half-brother, is not given a birthdate.

THE EARLY LOVE Henry Percy makes several appearances as Anne’s dogsbody — he’s “big-bosomed, bow-legged, a gallant of twenty-two, blue-eyed, with locks of flaxen silk — with whom a year gone had had a flagrant love-intrigue, nipped by Wolsey.” Laura, of course, has Mark Bonner, and Bessie has both Garrett Oge Fitzgerald and, to a lesser extent, Mauro Calvo pining after her perfection and nobility, not that she chooses to take advantage of the fact.

THE QUEEN’S BEES None notable. Anne herself is technically Catherine of Aragon’s attendant throughout the story, though we barely ever see them in the same place and no other attendants are mentioned.

THE FAITHFUL SERVITOR Bessie to her sister Laura, Flying Sidney Boleyn to most of the sympathetic characters.

THE PROPHECY Mauro Calvo’s prophecy of “the most perfectest girl in the world” which ends up bringing Francis I secretly to England to seek the charms of Laura Ford. Of course, it’s not really a prophecy but, as we eventually learn, a con to get Francis over to England to fight with Henry to their mutual destruction so that Calvo and the Ford girls can escape. Francis doesn’t know that. It is implied that Calvo is legitimately capable of reading certain things in the stars, however.


DO YOU HAVE SIX FINGERS ON YOUR RIGHT HAND? No, although she does have a mole — not on her neck, but near her mouth.

FAMILY AFFAIRS Bessie and Laura have no family except each other, and Anne appears to have no family within hailing distance except of course for Flying Sidney Boleyn, her illegitimate (and imaginary) half-brother.

DID SHE OR DIDN’T SHE? The whole plot hinges on Bessie making sure that Laura does not, even to the point where she allows herself to be effectively raped under cover of being Laura. This last hardly counts, as the author himself points out that Bessie is harder on herself than she should be for having let it happen (he says that “one of our modern college girls” would have taken a more practical view of what she’d done). About Anne, it’s uncertain — it’s never made clear whether or not she’s actually sleeping with Henry, but that fact that she lets Henry Percy put his arm around her waist and squeeze her while she’s officially involved with the king bodes ill in that direction.

WRITERS OF THE PURPLE PAGE “Dense” might be a good way to describe it. It’s not as bad as some others I could name but it takes tremendous effort to hack one’s way through the thicket of prose on every page. The dialogue is especially rough going. “Francis? ‘Sdeath! Am I not a Percy? Francis of France, quotha? ‘Sdeath! I’d spit him like a moor-cock,” is a typical offhand remark. Bessie’s monologue denouncing Anne Boleyn is a typical example of the longer monologues:

”This woman whom I have never hurt, how she hath hunted and beset me! I hate her, for first she hated me; and I will choke her life in the water, and gladly hear the cry of her agony, for first she wanted to choke my every hope in shame and horror. I will not stop — I will walk straight on to the water. I can hear the water shout, and I know how she will feel at the moment when her feet step on emptiness, and the world turns all into whirling waters to her …. Well and fair have I meant, God wot; so she should have let me be, that woman, she should not have lit this thing in me, nor hated me first. I will not stop — I will walk doggedly on to the ghastly water: for ’tis God — perhaps — who hath wrought it so to a chance most rare, and given her into my hand, just when she would do me final woe, that I may choke her throat in the river’s roaring, and be for ever rid of her, rid, rid of her, that woman. My mother, how the shout of the water fills one’s ears ….”

ERRATA Like a lot of earlier novels, this is firmly in the “romance” territory, in which any resemblance to persons living or dead is unintentional even if the names happen to be identical. However, it does touch on real history briefly when Anne has her attack of sweating sickness, which in this story is actually faked, and an excuse for her to go running around rural England looking for Laura Ford. Anne’s catching the sweat can be dated to June of 1528 and it really did happen, so for a moment the novel acknowledges a real event. I can’t say as much for Francis I and his undocumented gallivanting over to England, and even more strangely, his alliance with Charles V. Since Francis had been held prisoner by Charles only a few years earlier and had been forced to marry Eleanor of Austria, he had no interest in voluntarily handing intelligence over to the Hapsburgs and in fact was quite friendly to Anne Boleyn in subsequent years, albeit not ready to stick out his neck for her (so to speak).

WORTH A READ? For sheer novelty value, you could do worse. I’ve seen a fair number of villainous Annes, but never one quite like this one (and that’s even discounting the fact that she’s blonde and blue-eyed, unusual characteristics for her at any time). Virtually every “evil Anne” portrayal comes from either the author’s partiality towards another wife or towards Roman Catholicism. While Shiel touches briefly on Catherine of Aragon and she’s portrayed in a fairly sympathetic manner, she’s dropped from the story after dispatching loyal henchmen to track Laura down, and we never learn what she thinks about anything that happens afterwards, or even if she knew about it all. As for the religious aspect, while Bessie goes to confession on one occasion, the author makes it clear that he does not hold an especially high opinion of the state of Catholicism in England at that time; Calvo and the Ford sisters have an encounter with a parish priest so ignorant he’s celebrating Easter in high summer, and Bessie herself is stated to have a horror of Popish superstition which she inherited from a Lollard ancestor — the Lollards being often regarded by Protestants as their forerunners in theological rebellion, although that can be disputed.

However, it is not an easy read: the prose passages I’ve quoted are absolutely typical of the whole book, if anything they’re among the more readable portions. There are so many different groups of men chasing after the Ford sisters, so many double-crossings and so many captures and escapes, all covered in a thick blanket of pseudo-medieval dialogue, that it’s often very difficult to tell what’s going on. I read this book straight through about six times, but even with that it was extremely difficult to keep track of who was where and what was going on; I’ve excised a number of subplots and minor characters from the summary because otherwise it there’d be no end for it. But if you like oddities, and especially odd depictions of Anne Boleyn, it’s hard to do better than this. Just don’t expect to find it an especially enjoyable experience.

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From → Book Overviews

  1. Charlene permalink

    Didn’t we all write this book when we were fifteen?

    • sonetka permalink

      We may have started writing it but even with a fifteen-year-old’s stamina I don’t think too many of us actually saw it through to the end :).

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