The Professor's House


A study in emotional dislocation and renewal—Professor Godfrey St. Peter, a man in his 50's, has achieved what would seem to be remarkable success. When called on to move to a more comfortable home, something in him rebels.

Tells the story of a scholarly professor in a Midwestern university passing through the critical, uneasy period between middle age and old age.

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The Professor's House

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A study in emotional dislocation and renewal—Professor Godfrey St. Peter, a man in his 50's, has achieved what would seem to be remarkable success. When called on to move to a more comfortable home, something in him rebels.

Tells the story of a scholarly professor in a Midwestern university passing through the critical, uneasy period between middle age and old age.

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Editorial Reviews

Great Plains Quarterly - Steven Trout

The Professor’s House (1925) is arguably Willa Cather’s most important novel of the 1920s. Thematically, the book is exceptionally far ranging. . . . [It] offers a portrait of conspicuous consumption occasionally reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. . . . An achievement worthy of the masterpiece at its center, the Willa Cather Scholarly Edition of The Professor’s House is a major addition to Cather studies.”—Steven Trout, Great Plains Quarterly
The Virginia Quarterly Review

"Historians as well as Cather scholars will find this new work useful and informative."—The Virginia Quarterly Review
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679731801
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/1990
  • Series: Vintage Classics Series
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 265,522
  • Product dimensions: 5.13 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.55 (d)

Meet the Author

Willa Cather

James Woodress is a professor emeritus of American literature at the University of California, Davis, and the author of many books, including Willa Cather: A Literary Life (Nebraska 1987). Kari A. Ronning is a research associate for the Willa Cather Project at the University of Nebraska. Frederick M. Link is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Nebraska.
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    1. Also Known As:
      Wilella Sibert Cather (full name)
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 7, 1873
    2. Place of Birth:
      Winchester, Virginia
    1. Date of Death:
      April 27, 1947
    2. Place of Death:
      New York, New York

Read an Excerpt


The moving was over and done. Professor St. Peter was alone in the dismantled house where he had lived ever since his marriage, where he had worked out his career and brought up his two daughters. It was almost as ugly as it is possible for a house to be; square, three stories in height, painted the colour of ashes-the front porch just too narrow for comfort, with a slanting floor and sagging steps. As he walked slowly about the empty, echoing rooms on that bright September morning, the Professor regarded thoughtfully the needless inconveniences he had put up with for so long; the stairs that were too steep, the halls that were too cramped, the awkward oak mantles with thick round posts crowned by bumptious wooden balls, over green-tiled fire-places.

Certain wobbly stair treads, certain creaky boards in the upstairs hall, had made him wince many times a day for twenty-odd years-and they still creaked and wobbled. He had a deft hand with tools, he could easily have fixed them, but there were always so many things to fix, and there was not time enough to go round. He went into the kitchen, where he had carpentered under a succession of cooks, went up to the bath-room on the second floor, where there was only a painted tin tub; the taps were so old that no plumber could ever screw them tight enough to stop the drip, the window could only be coaxed up and down by wriggling, and the doors of the linen closet didn't fit. He had sympathized with his daughters' dissatisfaction, though he could never quite agree with them that the bath should be the most attractive room in the house. He had spent the happiest years of his youth in a house at Versailles where it distinctly was not, and he had known many charming people who had no bath at all. However, as his wife said: "If your country has contributed one thing, at least, to civilization, why not have it?" Many a night, after blowing out his study lamp, he had leaped into that tub, clad in his pyjamas, to give it another coat of some one of the many paints that were advertised to behave like porcelain, and didn't.

The Professor in pyjamas was not an unpleasant sight; for looks, the fewer clothes he had on, the better. Anything that clung to his body showed it to be built upon extremely good bones, with the slender hips and springy shoulders of a tireless swimmer. Though he was born on Lake Michigan, of mixed stock (Canadian French on one side, and American farmers on the other), St. Peter was commonly said to look like a Spaniard. That was possibly because he had been in Spain a good deal, and was an authority on certain phases of Spanish history. He had a long brown face, with an oval chin over which he wore a close-trimmed Van Dyke, like a tuft of shiny black fur. With this silky, very black hair, he had a tawny skin with gold lights in it, a hawk nose, and hawk-like eyes-brown and gold and green. They were set in ample cavities, with plenty of room to move about, under thick, curly, black eyebrows that turned up sharply at the outer ends, like military moustaches. His wicked-looking eyebrows made his students call him Mephistopheles-and there was no evading the searching eyes underneath them; eyes that in a flash could pick out a friend or an unusual stranger from a throng. They had lost none of their fire, though just now the man behind them was feeling a diminution of ardour.

His daughter Kathleen, who had done several successful studies of him in water-colour, had once said:-"The thing that really makes Papa handsome is the modelling of his head between the top of his ear and his crown; it is quite the best thing about him." That part of his head was high, polished, hard as bronze, and the close-growing black hair threw off a streak of light along the rounded ridge where the skull was fullest. The mould of his head on the side was so individual and definite, so far from casual, that it was more like a statue's head than a man's.

From one of the dismantled windows the Professor happened to look out into his back garden, and at that cheerful sight he went quickly downstairs and escaped from the dusty air and brutal light of the empty rooms.

His walled-in garden had been the comfort of his life-and it was the one thing his neighbours held against him. He started to make it soon after the birth of his first daughter, when his wife began to be unreasonable about his spending so much time at the lake and on the tennis court. In this undertaking he got help and encouragement from his landlord, a retired German farmer, good-natured and lenient about everything but spending money. If the Professor happened to have a new baby at home, or a faculty dinner, or an illness in the family, or any unusual expense, Appelhoff cheerfully waited for the rent; but pay for repairs he would not. When it was a question of the garden, however, the old man sometimes stretched a point. He helped his tenant with seeds and slips and sound advice, and with his twisted old back. He even spent a little money to bear half the expense of the stucco wall.

The Professor had succeeded in making a French garden in Hamilton. There was not a blade of grass; it was a tidy half-acre of glistening gravel and glistening shrubs and bright flowers. There were trees, of course; a spreading horse-chestnut, a row of slender Lombardy poplars at the back, along the white wall, and in the middle two symmetrical, round-topped linden-trees. Masses of green-brier grew in the corners, the prickly stems interwoven and clipped until they were like great bushes. There was a bed for salad herbs. Salmon-pink geraniums dripped over the wall. The French marigolds and dahlias were just now at their best-such dahlias as no one else in Hamilton could grow. St. Peter had tended this bit of ground for over twenty years, and had got the upper hand of it. In the spring, when homesickness for other lands and the fret of things unaccomplished awoke, he worked off his discontent here. In the long hot summers, when he could not go abroad, he stayed at home with his garden, sending his wife and daughters to Colorado to escape the humid prairie heat, so nourishing to wheat and corn, so exhausting to human beings. In those months when he was a bachelor again, he brought down his books and papers and worked in a deck chair under the linden-trees; breakfasted and lunched and had his tea in the garden. And it was there he and Tom Outland used to sit and talk half through the warm, soft nights.

On this September morning, however, St. Peter knew that he could not evade the unpleasant effects of change by tarrying among his autumn flowers. He must plunge in like a man, and get used to the feeling that under his work-room there was a dead, empty house. He broke off a geranium blossom, and with it still in his hand went resolutely up two flights of stairs to the third floor where, under the slope of the mansard roof, there was one room still furnished-that is, if it had ever been furnished.

The low ceiling sloped down on three sides, the slant being interrupted on the east by a single square window, swinging outward on hinges and held ajar by a hook in the sill. This was the sole opening for light and air. Walls and ceiling alike were covered with a yellow paper which had once been very ugly, but had faded into inoffensive neutrality. The matting on the floor was worn and scratchy. Against the wall stood an old walnut table, with one leaf up, holding piles of orderly papers. Before it was a cane-backed office chair that turned on a screw. This dark den had for many years been the Professor's study.

Downstairs, off the back parlour, he had a show study, with roomy shelves where his library was housed, and a proper desk at which he wrote letters. But it was a sham. This was the place where he worked. And not he alone. For three weeks in the fall, and again three in the spring, he shared his cuddy with Augusta, the sewing-woman, niece of his old landlord, a reliable, methodical spinster, a German Catholic and very devout.

Since Augusta finished her day's work at five o'clock, and the Professor, on week-days, worked here only at night, they did not elbow each other too much. Besides, neither was devoid of consideration. Every evening, before she left, Augusta swept up the scraps from the floor, rolled her patterns, closed the sewing-machine, and picked ravellings off the box-couch, so that there would be no threads to stick to the Professor's old smoking-jacket if he should happen to lie down for a moment in working-hours.

St. Peter, in his turn, when he put out his lamp after midnight, was careful to brush away ashes and tobacco crumbs-smoking was very distasteful to Augusta-and to open the hinged window back as far as it would go, on the second hook, so that the night wind might carry away the smell of his pipe as much as possible. The unfinished dresses which she left hanging on the forms, however, were often so saturated with smoke that he knew she found it a trial to work on them next morning.

These "forms" were the subject of much banter between them. The one which Augusta called "the bust" stood in the darkest corner of the room, upon a high wooden chest in which blankets and winter wraps were yearly stored. It was a headless, armless female torso, covered with strong black cotton, and so richly developed in the part for which it was named that the Professor once explained to Augusta how, in calling it so, she followed a natural law of language, termed, for convenience, metonymy. Augusta enjoyed the Professor when he was risqu?, since she was sure of his ultimate delicacy. Though this figure looked so ample and billowy (as if you might lay your head upon its deep-breathing softness and rest safe forever), if you touched it you suffered a severe shock, no matter how many times you had touched it before. It presented the most unsympathetic surface imaginable. Its hardness was not that of wood, which responds to concussion with living vibration and is stimulating to the hand, nor that of felt, which drinks something from the fingers. It was a dead, opaque, lumpy solidity, like chunks of putty, or tightly packed sawdust-very disappointing to the tactile sense, yet somehow always fooling you again. For no matter how often you had bumped up against that torso, you could never believe that contact with it would be as bad as it was.

The second form was more self-revelatory; a full-length female figure in a smart wire skirt with a trim metal waist line. It had no legs, as one could see all too well, no viscera behind its glistening ribs, and its bosom resembled a strong wire bird-cage. But St. Peter contended that it had a nervous system. When Augusta left it clad for the night in a new party dress for Rosamond or Kathleen, it often took on a sprightly, tricky air, as if it were going out for the evening to make a great show of being harum-scarum, giddy, folle. It seemed just on the point of tripping downstairs, or on tiptoe, waiting for the waltz to begin. At times the wire lady was most convincing in her pose as a woman of light behaviour, but she never fooled St. Peter. He had his blind spots, but he had never been taken in by one of her kind!

Augusta had somehow got it into her head that these forms were unsuitable companions for one engaged in scholarly pursuits, and she periodically apologized for their presence when she came to install herself and fulfil her "time" at the house.

"Not at all, Augusta," the Professor had often said. "If they were good enough for Monsieur Bergeret, they are certainly good enough for me."

This morning, as St. Peter was sitting in his desk chair, looking musingly at the pile of papers before him, the door opened and there stood Augusta herself. How astonishing that he had not heard her heavy, deliberate tread on the now uncarpeted stair!

"Why, Professor St. Peter! I never thought of finding you here, or I'd have knocked. I guess we will have to do our moving together."

St. Peter had risen-Augusta loved his manners-but he offered her the sewing-machine chair and resumed his seat.

"Sit down, Augusta, and we'll talk it over. I'm not moving just yet-don't want to disturb all my papers. I'm staying on until I finish a piece of writing. I've seen your uncle about it. I'll work here, and board at the new house. But this is confidential. If it were noised about, people might begin to say that Mrs. St. Peter and I had-how do they put it, parted, separated?"

Augusta dropped her eyes in an indulgent smile. "I think people in your station would say separated."

"Exactly; a good scientific term, too. Well, we haven't, you know. But I'm going to write on here for a while."

"Very well, sir. And I won't always be getting in your way now. In the new house you have a beautiful study downstairs, and I have a light, airy room on the third floor."

"Where you won't smell smoke, eh?"

"Oh, Professor, I never really minded!" Augusta spoke with feeling. She rose and took up the black bust in her long arms.

The Professor also rose, very quickly. "What are you doing?"

She laughed. "Oh, I'm not going to carry them through the street, Professor! The grocery boy is downstairs with his cart, to wheel them over."

"Wheel them over?"

"Why, yes, to the new house, Professor. I've come a week before my regular time, to make curtains and hem linen for Mrs. St. Peter. I'll take everything over this morning except the sewing-machine-that's too heavy for the cart, so the boy will come back for it with the delivery wagon. Would you just open the door for me, please?"

"No, I won't! Not at all. You don't need her to make curtains. I can't have this room changed if I'm going to work here. He can take the sewing-machine-yes. But put her back on the chest where she belongs, please. She does very well there." St. Peter had got to the door, and stood with his back against it.

Augusta rested her burden on the edge of the chest.

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The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Willa Cather's My Antonia and The Professor's House. We hope that they will provide you with new ways of looking at—and talking
about—two novels that represent Cather's astonishing powers of narrative selection and juxtaposition; her ability to create believably complex characters who take on mythic dimensions in the reader's imagination, and the historical vision that could celebrate the American past without minimizing its hardships and moral ambiguities.

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1. For discussion: The Professor's House

This novel is named, not after its protagonist, but after his house. It is a house in which no one lives, that has been "dismantled" [3], and that, even when inhabited, was "almost as ugly as it is possible for a house to be." Why, then, is it so important to Professor St. Peter—and, indeed, appear to become more so in the course of the novel? How does Cather establish the house's character and use it to indicate the character of her protagonist? Compare her description of St. Peter's old house to her treatment of the family's new residence and other houses, like Louie Marsellus's "Outland" and the abandoned cliff-dwellings on the Blue Mesa.

2. Although St. Peter has pursued a life of the mind, Cather describes him in highly sensual terms: "for looks, the fewer clothes he had on, the better." [4] He luxuriates in the ornamental shrubs and flowers of his French garden, and in swimming. His keenest memories—of his youthful voyage along the coast of Spain and the dahlias he bought as a student in Paris—vibrate with sensuous detail. Why does such a sensual—and in some ways even hedonistic—man seem to disapprove of his family's pursuit of worldly pleasures and possessions? In what ways does St. Peter's hedonism—if such it is—differ from theirs?

3. Although the St. Peters initially seem happy, the reader gradually realizes that the family is torn by jealousy and resentment, and that its patriarch has effectively withdrawn from its affairs. At what points do these characters become aware of their emotionaldisconnection? Why are they unable—or unwilling—to overcome it?

4. One reason for the divisions in the St. Peter family is Tom Outland, who was Godfrey's pupil, his daughter's fiancé, and, ultimately, her benefactor. In what ways has Outland fragmented the family, both while alive and after his death, and why did the family let him do so? Why do nearly all the members of the household stake some kind of claim on him, as evidenced by Kathleen's remark to her father: "Our Tom is much nicer than theirs"? [113]

5. Why does St. Peter remain so strongly attached to Tom Outland almost a decade after the young man's death? Cather equates the boy with the Professor's discarded younger self: "He was a primitive. He was only interested in earth and woods and water. Wherever sun sunned and rain rained and snow snowed...places were alike to him. He was not nearly so cultivated as Tom's old cliff-dwellers must have been—and yet he was terribly wise." [241] What other reasons might there be for the Professor's devotion? To what kind of wisdom is Cather referring in the preceding passage? How did St. Peter lose it as he grew older and what did he acquire in its place? In what ways does Tom Outland's story recapitulate the older man's?

6. Alongside the spartan Outland, who refused to contaminate his friendships with any element of self-interest, Cather gives the professor a son-in-law, Louie Marsellus, who is unabashedly materialistic. In marrying Tom's one-time fiancée, Louie has also become the main beneficiary of his discoveries. But wealth alone may be insufficient: Louie seems intent on replacing Tom in the professor's affections, just as he jokes about having Tom's talismanic blanket made into a dressing-gown. Does Cather want the reader to dislike Louie, as his brother-in-law Scott McGregor does? In what way does Louie conform to period stereotypes of the social-climbing, luxury-loving nouveau riche? Why does the professor feel affection for him, even though Louie's values seem diametrically opposed to his?

7. Is St. Peter subconsciously attempting suicide when he falls asleep without turning off the gas stove in his old study? What significance do you find in the fact that he is saved by a woman? How clearly does Cather allow us to know the motives of any of her characters?

8. The Professor's House is a novel of oppositions—youth vs. age, instinct vs. contemplation, solitude vs. domesticity. Yet we should be careful not to read those oppositions too simplistically. Although St. Peter mourns the way he has sacrificed his truest self to the demands of society and family, Tom Outland is equally haunted by the way he betrayed his friendship with Roddy Blake, who had committed the crime of selling Indian relics to a German buyer: "Anyone who requites faith and friendship as I did, will have to pay for it." [229] Does Tom suffer from his inhuman idealism just as the professor suffers from his unthinking compromises? In what other ways does Cather introduce ambiguity into this novel's moral scheme? Does she suggest any way in which her opposing values might be reconciled?

9. Where does Cather draw analogies between St. Peter's betrayal of his ideals and events in the larger world? In what ways does the novel's milieu function as a macrocosm of its protagonist's psyche?

Comparing My Antonia and The Professor's House:

1. How does the small university town in The Professor's House resemble or differ from My Antonia's Black Hawk? To what extent are those differences due to the different historical eras in which the two novels are set? Read together, what kind of relationship do these novels posit between towns and the prairie? Which region does Cather seem to identify with the "best times" of My Antonia's Virgilian epigraph?

2. How do the female characters in The Professor's House compare with those in My Antonia? How do both sets of women confirm or challenge stereotypes about their gender? What significance do you see in the fact that Antonia marries relatively late, and her friends Lena and Tina not at all, while the St. Peter women have married early? What role does class play in Cather's treatment of her female characters?

3. Why is suicide a theme in both novels? What do Cather's suicides appear to have in common? Does she seem to associate the act with moral failure or mental breakdown or portray it as a natural, and even honorable, response to intolerable circumstances? What role did suicide play in the age and society in which Cather wrote? (You may want to look at such novels as Sister Carrie to see how some of her contemporaries treated the same theme.)

4. Given the evidence of these novels, how does Cather seem to view relations between the sexes? What prospects of happiness and fulfillment do they hold for both men and women? Which of her characters ends up happily married and for what reasons? Why do so many others—from Jim Burden to Godfrey St. Peter—end up regretting their attachments?

5. The Professor's House has as its epigraph, "A turquoise set in silver, wasn't it?...Yes, a turquoise set in dull silver." Although these words of Louie's describe a ring that Tom once gave Rosamund and thus allude to the abandoned cliff-dwelling where Tom presumably unearthed it, they may also refer to the structure that Cather uses in this novel. Discuss the way in which the author embeds Tom Outland's narrative within the professor's story. What similarity do you see between this strategy and the embedded narratives in My Antonia?

6. In both My Antonia and The Professor's House Cather uses two sorts of language, one conventional and expository, the other heightened and rhapsodically sensual, a language attuned to colors, fragrances, and grand effects of light and shadow. Where does she employ these different kinds of prose, and to what effect?

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Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are designed to enhance your group's reading of Willa Cather's My Antonia and The Professor's House. We hope that they will provide you with new ways of looking at—and talking about—two novels that represent Cather's astonishing powers of narrative selection and juxtaposition; her ability to create believably complex characters who take on mythic dimensions in the reader's imagination, and the historical vision that could celebrate the American past without minimizing its hardships and moral ambiguities.
Read More Show Less

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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 11, 2001

    Worth Owning in Hardback

    This is not the most accessible work to every generation of readers. It speaks to a very specific time in a person's life. Also, it should not be seen as apocrypha to Cather's other works and is worth owning because you will get to that point when you will want to re-read this story.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 13, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    A House with Many Levels

    I had a hard time deciding how to review <i>The Professor's House</i>. The plot itself is very straightforward and easy to describe. But it seems to me that the meat of this novel is in the themes and nuances.

    The writing vibrantly presents minute details to the reader.from the shape and texture of a hand to the nature of a dress or necklace to the depiction of setting both in and out of doors.

    Her characters are likewise detailed. We are held at a close third person so we don't actually get into the characters' heads, but the detailed account of appearance and action allows the reader to feel very intimate with the characters.

    The layout of the book is interesting in that it consists of three "books." The first book is entitled "The Family" and follows the Professor as he works to finish his own writing while teaching and balancing the various dramas unfolding in his life and the lives of his family members. The second book is "Tom Outland's Story" and is the first person narrative of Tom, an old student of the Professor and friend of the family who is now dead (from WWI) but left behind an invention and legacy that resulted in great wealth for one of the Professor's daughters. The final book is entitled "The Professor" and is a very short wrap up of the novel which focusses on thoughts, emotions and actions of the professor after he reads and ponders Outland's story.

    The overarching plot of the book is interesting if not terribly engaging. There were moments of drama and emotion that drew me in, but there were other segments that were almost boring with the mundane interactions.

    Looking to the themes, part of this book seems to be an exploration of emotional displacement and emotional paralysis or release. The Professor is very attached to his old house and his work and doesn't want to move into the new house with his family. Outland is almost a portrayal of a return to the past for the professor and in the end, Outland's story provides an almost existential release to the professor. The claustrophobia of the old house and the room in which the professor works serve as a metaphorical trap that is holding the professor hostage in his current/past life/behavior and causing emotional turmoil and angst from which he can't see a clear escape.

    At a higher, more sociological level, the novel portrays some interesting counterpoints on society. The Professor is doing well enough off teaching at the university and does even better once he receives an award for his writing. His two daughters are well enough off as well though one is moving into the "upper class" while the other is sitting fairly "middle." The family interactions and conversations give interesting insight into the class reactions of the era and some of the internal and external results of class mobility. As the professor's daughter and son-in-law gain their wealth and rise to a higher social status, there are jealousies and even some resentment and anger both within and outside of the family.

    Looking at the writing, it is clear that there are MANY levels at work in this novel. Cather's frequent use of color helps categorize different themes or values. Her descriptions of the houses, rooms and other settings set the balance between the different classes or social situations. So even though the book's plot isn't terribly engaging, it provides valuable ins

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 16, 2006

    Fascinating Character Study!

    In the distinctive Cather tradition, this is a story of real people in a midwestern college town. Reminiscent of Chekov's tales of the Russian people, Miss Cather captures the spirit of life as it truly is. Your sense of these characters will remain with you long after you close the book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2001

    Could be better....

    I found it very difficult to get through this novel. It drags, especially in the beginning. By the end, when it finally picks up speed, I just wanted the book to be over with. Willa Cather is a great writer, I loved O, Pioneers! and My Antonia, but this book leaves a lot to be wanted. I was disappointed.

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    Posted October 16, 2008

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    Posted February 27, 2009

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