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From Cather Studies Volume 8

The Fire in the Ash

Dissent and Progressivism in Cather's "Double Birthday"

Willa Cather’s characterization of her childhood uprooting from Virginia and arrival in Nebraska as an “erasure of personality” (“Willa Cather Talks of Work” 10) underscores an existential anxiety that seems to have engendered much of her fiction. Consequently, Cather’s work has been thought to emphasize memory and history by seeking sanctuary in factual and remembered pasts. Cather acknowledged a theme of escape in her work and asked in a letter to The Commonweal, “What has art ever been but escape? . . . [T]he world has a habit of being in a bad way from time to time, and art has never contributed anything to help matters—except escape” (“Escapism” 19). The critical consensus for many years claimed that Cather’s later work was concerned with retreat from the disagreeable present and, implicitly, with dismissal of the future. Indeed, the frequent note of dissent in Cather’s later work prompted E. K. Brown to wonder if Cather meant to suggest in her prefatory note to Not Under Forty (1936) that the “forward-looking, who were under forty, were perhaps in the truest sense the most backward” (332). While this view persists, scholarship has steadily warmed to the progressive possibilities of Cather’s later stories. A thoroughgoing progressivism is difficult to reconcile with Cather’s self-identification as “backward,” but this conflict may be partially resolved, as Guy Reynolds suggests, by reading Cather “in conjunction with progressivism but notas a straightforward progressive” (14). Cather was a paradox in life and remains so in art. Her vision of a future world accompanies memory and history from her earliest stories onward, which is to say that she was in some senses progressive but that she looked ahead by looking back.

“Double Birthday” (1929) suggests that Cather’s treatment of time coheres throughout her oeuvre, as the story may be read as an outgrowth of earlier stories and a close companion to her later texts. The Professor’s House (1925) concludes with Godfrey St. Peter’s resolution to be “outward bound” (281) and to “face with fortitude . . . the future” (283); Jean Latour’s final days in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) lift him beyond “calendared time” into the “middle of his own consciousness,” a transcendental mode where “none of his former states of mind were lost or outgrown[,] . . . all within reach of his hand, and all comprehensible” (288). When Latour bids farewell to his fellow visionary, Joseph Vaillant, the two men embrace “for the past— for the future” (275). Shadows on the Rock (1931) ends with Auclair’s anticipation of his grandsons as the “Canadians of the future” (320) and recalls Ántonia Cuzak’s children at the close of My Ántonia. Likewise, Cather’s short fiction from 1929 to 1932 reaches beyond the borders of memory and history. “Double Birthday” opens and closes with meditations on the future, and all three stories in Obscure Destinies (1932) address a world yet to come. In these stories, Cather reveals a vision of time that is not politically fashionable by the standards of her time or ours and has been variously dismissed for that reason as either naive or misinformed—and in some cases as patently offensive. Cather was aware of these criticisms and parodied the cry of the “radical editor” in her letter to The Commonweal: “Face the stern realities, you skulking Escapist!” (“Escapism” 20). Cather’s stance toward the envisioned future becomes clearer when underscored by cultural dissent rather than political reform.

Accordingly, a later story like “Double Birthday” celebrates a household of nonconformists whose resistance to cultural faddism is reminiscent of Annie Fields, whom Cather describes in “148 Charles Street” as “greeting . . . the new [with] all the richness of her rich past: a long, unbroken chain of splendid contacts, beautiful friendships” (71). The distinction between dissent and reform is crucial to Cather’s sense of time, as the dissenters in her stories engage twentieth-century concerns without the myopia of the political activist. Their future world is born of a synergistic view of time, which regards innovation and tradition as interdependent catalysts of progressivism. “Double Birthday” is one of the few later works that Cather set in her own time; like “Coming, Aphrodite!” it commingles literary modes, bringing the ageless to bear on the contemporary. The story was likely written during the summer of 1928, first appearing in Forum magazine in 1929 (Woodress 417). While the piece did not appear in any of Cather’s short fiction collections during her lifetime, Edward O’Brien anthologized it in The Best Short Stories of 1929 and again in Fifty Best American Short Stories, 1915–1939. John Updike and Katrina Kenison have lauded “Double Birthday” more recently by including it in the 1999 collection Best American Short Stories of the Century, and Michael Gorra was so taken with the story’s opening sentence that he used it as the lead in his review of the volume for the New York Times.

On its surface, “Double Birthday” appears to rehash the familiar theme of escapism, which is perhaps the reason it has been thought less noteworthy than other works. James Woodress argues that the “entire story is an evocative remembrance of things past” (418), and Curtis Bradford styles the story as “characteristic” of Cather, both “bitter and nostalgic” (547). However, a remarkable synergism of past and future is evident in the story’s hook: “Even in American cities, which seem so >much alike, where people seem all to be living the same lives, striving for the same things, thinking the same thoughts, there are still individuals a little out of tune with the times—there are still survivals of a past more loosely woven, there are disconcerting beginnings of a future yet unforeseen” (41). The passage recalls Cather’s traumatic childhood uprooting, as she still faced the future with trepidation yet sensed at that early age that the fortitude required for this forward-looking vision was grounded in the survival of the past. The complexity of the opening of “Double Birthday” suggests that more is at work in the narrative than a reiteration of bygone themes. The dissonance of the individual to her time, the instability of a shape-changing past, and the unreliability of the future promise no easy recuperation of cultural or personal losses. Joseph C. Murphy characterizes the aesthetics of “Double Birthday” as dialectical, “in Walter Benjamin’s sense that capitalist society can be reimagined by reading its fragmentary forms against the grain of progress” (254). Thus Benjamin’s angel of history, who faces the rubble of the past and is “propelled reluctantly” by time’s storm into the future, serves as Murphy’s metaphor for historical disintegration and reintegration in Cather’s story (264). Benjamin’s narrow description of capitalistic progress as “one single catastrophe . . . piling wreckage upon wreckage” (“Theses” 682) resonates shrilly with Cather’s broader nuances of psychic renewal, yet “Double Birthday” begins with tensions that move, as Murphy notes, from conflict toward “a remote harmony” (260). The story’s lead has a progressive tenor; the modifier “even,” coupled with the past’s “survival” in the face of “disconcerting beginnings,” intensifies the polarity between the narrator and mainstream American culture (constituted by the same lives, same things, and same thoughts), sounding the note of resistance.

Later, in a 1933 speech for the Friends of the Princeton Library in New York, Cather acknowledged the synergistic relationship of past and future by characterizing the great Russian writers of the nineteenth century as “novelists who flashed out in the north like a new constellation . . . [and] did more for the future than they knew” (“On the Novel” 170). The groundbreakers of the nineteenth century “had a glorious language, new to literature, but old in human feeling and wisdom and suffering” (170). At the close of her speech, Cather reinforced her progressive view of history, translating a Latin inscription from the Luxembourg art gallery in Paris as follows: “Because of the past, we have hope for the future” (170). This principle echoes her 1923 essay “Nebraska: The End of the First Cycle,” where she writes: “I have always the hope that something went into the ground with [the] pioneers that will one day come out again . . . not only in sturdy traits of character, but in elasticity of mind, in an honest attitude toward the realities of life, in certain qualities of feeling and imagination” (237). Likewise, “Double Birthday” reflects the optimism generally regarded as more characteristic of her early work. Alongside the ill-fated Emil and Marie of O Pioneers! stands Alexandra, whose spirit is to be reborn in the “shining eyes of youth” (274). Ray Kennedy’s death, Wunsch’s self-destruction, and the tramp’s suicidal revenge in The Song of the Lark are subplots to Thea’s artistic growth, which itself is auxiliary to the future, as news of her fame trickles back to the hometown, “bring[ing] to the old, memories, and to the young, dreams” (407). Similarly, the suicides in My Ántonia are swept beneath the heroine’s “immemorial human attitudes” (342), which engender the “explosion of life” that Jim Burden witnesses near the novel’s close (328). The casualties in these stories are often dreamers, but the impressions they leave behind motivate those characters whose futures remain and who must rely on their own creative energies to face the unknown.

The biographical context of “Double Birthday” reinforces Cather’s coupling of temporal modes. Doctor Albert Engelhardt, the story’s protagonist, is styled after Julius Tyndale, the physician and obstreperous drama critic whom Cather befriended during her university years in Lincoln (Woodress 419). Cather saw herself, in part, as an extension of Tyndale’s spirit, as she indicated in a letter to her sister Elsie in September 1922, noting that she was the only success that came of his life. Cather’s allusions to Tyndale in Engelhardt’s character bring recollections of her formative years into conversation with the cultural poverty that she saw in the decade preceding the Depression Era. “Double Birthday” is set in Pittsburgh during Prohibition, as is evident from the opening conversation between the Doctor’s nephew, also named Albert Engelhardt, and Judge Hammersley. The younger Albert shares a birthday with his uncle, the double birthday for which the story is named, and in his preparations for the celebration he has found it difficult to locate quality wine in “these dirty bootlegging times” (42). Judge Hammersley offers to share “something from [his] cellar” if Albert drops by “with a gripsack of some sort” (42). Cather’s humor is muted, but her nuances satirize the cultural climate that criminalized such characters as these.

Because of its impermanence, political activism repulsed Cather; she “despised political art,” as Joan Acocella notes (17). Among her caricatured reformers is Mrs. James Burden, a suffragist and labor activist whom the first narrator of My Ántonia describes as “handsome, energetic, executive, but . . . unimpressionable and temperamentally incapable of enthusiasm” (x). Perhaps more chilling is Cather’s portrait of Enid Royce in One of Ours as a vegetarian and teetotaler who locks her husband, Claude, out of their railcar berth on their honeymoon night, eventually leaving him to join her sister as a missionary in China. In contrast to Cather’s lampooned activists, Albert’s conversation with the Judge typifies the quiet nonconformity that has fueled his lifelong preference for art and culture over material wealth. After their father’s death, Albert and his brothers converted much of the family fortune into cash for travel and entertainment. Eventually the family was left with no more property than the “little two-story brick house” where Albert resides with his uncle, who has retired from his medical practice (45). Despite the public opinion that he has squandered his inheritance, Albert is comfortable sharing the “workingman’s house” with the Doctor: “He had not gone there in any mood of despair. . . . He was delighted to have a home again, to unpack his own furniture and his books and pictures—the most valuable in the world to him, because they were full of his own history and that of his family, were like part of his own personality. All the years and the youth which had slipped away from him still clung to these things” (45). While the strongest biographical parallels in the story surface in Doctor Engelhardt’s resemblance to Julius Tyndale, this passage also implies affinity between Cather and Albert’s character, as they are the same age (Albert is about to turn fifty-five, Cather’s age when the story appeared in February 1929) and share a similar disposition toward cultural criticism.

Albert’s cache of cultural relics, like the story’s hook, implies that the tale develops a more complex sense of history than mere nostalgia. Albert owns the “complete file of the Yellow Book,” ostensibly all sixteen volumes of that short-lived journal (45). Above his piano hangs a “Degas drawing in black and red— three ballet girls at the bar” (45). His books cause him to reflect on Aubrey Beardsley, Ernest Dowson, and “Oscar Wilde, whose wickedness was now so outdone that he looked like the poor old hat of some Victorian belle, wired and feathered and garlanded and faded” (46). Like these keepsakes, Albert is an aging progressive whose cultural currency has expired. On the surface this all seems pathetic, but the allusion to Degas, whom George E. Smith describes as “one of the most revolutionary painters of the French avant-garde” (57), is particularly portentous. Albert’s personal museum typifies the ephemeral nature of fashion, yet it also suggests that progressivism can have staying power. While Dowson and Beardsley may have fallen into historical eddies, along with the Yellow Book, Degas and Wilde have endured. There are, in this clutch of decadents and early moderns, glimmers of what Cather would call genius (or immemorial human feeling) which transcends temporal modes.

While Albert seems sentimental about these artifacts and is as much in denial about their antiquated status as about the “shiver waiting around the corner” that his own birthday prefigures (57), Cather’s language suggests that her descriptions have a double voice. On the one hand she caricatures idealism, as she would later parody the “radical editor” in her letter to The Commonweal. On the other, she suggests that what seems outmoded may, in fact, be forward-looking. Impressionism was not dead in 1929; it was a crucial precursor to abstract art rather than its antithesis. The playfulness of Cather’s language in her description of Wilde (whom she had attacked years before in a Nebraska State Journal column as having squandered his life) suggests that she has not yielded to the “bitter courage” that Stout attributes to her later years (218). The self-directed humor evident in Cather’s characterization of Albert is coupled with a more serious, though understated, celebration of dissent. Albert’s resistance to the popular culture of the 1920s and to his family’s commercial drift is best understood as a continuation of his uncle’s nonconformity, as they share a name, a birthday, and an impatience for superficiality. Doctor Engelhardt chose a far different path from that of his brother, Gus, who served as a “gallant officer in the Civil War,” later becoming a “public-spirited citizen and a generous employer of labor” at his glass factory (43). The Doctor was a throat specialist, and not merely a master of the throat’s mechanism but a great admirer of the human voice. “This passion for the voice,” Cather writes, “had given him the feeling of distinction, of being unique in his profession, which had made him all his life a well-satisfied and happy man, and had left him a poor one” (48). The Doctor and his nephew have both remained dedicated to art at the expense of wealth and now share their shabby living quarters as a result.

A good portion of the narrative is devoted to explaining how these circumstances have come to be, including a long flashback to the Doctor’s past that poignantly illustrates the synergism of time. The throat doctor lost his most precious voice, as his favorite young singer and protégée died at the peak of her success. He first heard Marguerite Thiesinger singing during a morning walk near Allegheny High School,[1] and he was so moved that he introduced himself and became her mentor. Their relationship was temporarily severed when Marguerite eloped with an insurance agent, but she returned unexpectedly after three years with renewed plans to make what she could of her voice. Doctor Engelhardt persuaded a friend just retiring from the opera to take her on as a student, and Marguerite’s rise to stardom seemed assured. This was “the dream of a lifetime,” and Engelhardt took to “gloat[ing] over his treasure,” comparing her potential to that of renowned divas of the period, including Emma Eames and Geraldine Farrar (51, 52). But it was a shortlived dream, as Marguerite soon developed an incurable form of cancer. Her decline throughout the following year was swift, and the Doctor could only watch powerlessly. Marguerite’s last word to Doctor Engelhardt was an apology for having disappointed him, which caused him to wander grief-stricken through Central Park, where he sank onto a bench to weep. “Youth, art, love, dreams, true-heartedness,” he wondered, “—why must they go out of the summer world into darkness?” (52). The scene carries faint echoes of Christ’s lament that he had been forsaken: “The tortured man looked up through the linden branches at the blue arch that never answers. As he looked, his face relaxed, his breathing grew regular. His eyes were caught by puffy white clouds like the cherub-heads in Raphael’s pictures, and something within him seemed to rise and travel with those clouds” (53). Cather’s description—the upward glance, ensuing calm, and internal ascension—suggests the transport characteristic of an epiphany. Engelhardt entered Raphael’s vision, saw with the painter’s eyes, and was upheld by the thought that Cather would later weave into her 1933 speech, namely, that the rebirth of the past carries one purposefully into the unforeseen.

Despite the transcendental flavor of the scene, Doctor Engelhardt’s ostensible awakening is elusive, more symbolic than literal. “Double Birthday” falls between two novels, Shadows on the Rock and Death Comes for the Archbishop, that have generated the majority of Cather scholarship on religion and belief. The association of Central Park with Golgotha would seem to ironically play on similar themes, and Engelhardt’s cryptic reflection on the experience intensifies the biblical parallels. He later indicates to Albert that his agony was sacrificial: “Anyway, I died for her; that was given to me. She never knew a death-struggle— she went to sleep. That struggle took place in my body. Her dissolution occurred within me” (53). Yet what transpires between Marguerite and the Doctor is a figurative transition; her death is the end of his vicarious artistic aspirations and the central catalyst in his retirement from medical practice. The selfishness of Engelhardt’s vision also undermines the spiritual integrity of Cather’s allusions. When he first heard Marguerite sing after she had fled her soured marriage to the insurance agent, Engelhardt sneered to himself at the salesman, who had become an unwitting instrument to Marguerite’s coming-of-age: “So we get that out of you, Monsieur le commis voyageur, and now we throw you away like a squeezed lemon” (51). The Doctor’s ambitions apprehend little more than the present and the short-term future, a superficial stance that prefigures his disillusionment as surely as Marguerite’s resemblance to Gounod’s Marguerite character in Faust foreshadows her tragic fate.

Thus Doctor Engelhardt’s park bench epiphany suggests an ambiguous transcendentalism. It may be that “something within him seemed to rise and travel with [the] clouds” that he associated with Raphael’s artistic vision, but the fact that he was distracted from Marguerite’s death by a reverie could suggest the escapism that Cather parodied in her letter to The Commonweal. Like his nephew, Doctor Engelhardt has dodged despair, avoiding the dreadful fate of Joseffy, Albert’s old music teacher, who serves as a foil for both Engelhardts. The old musician’s depression is so deep that “the human face ha[s] become hateful to him—and the human voice” (62). Whereas Joseffy is a romantic bereft of the sublime, Doctor Engelhardt retains an outlook that allows him to look beyond grief and his own decline. The cherubic clouds typify the “past more loosely woven” that Cather describes in the story’s lead, lifting Engelhardt’s vision from the dissonant present into an immemorial temporal mode. And while this brand of transcendentalism alone—Albert’s nostalgia, Doctor Engelhardt’s detachment—would merely reinforce the conventional sense of escapism attributed to Cather’s later work, progressive engagement of the “future yet unforeseen” brings the story’s conflict to its peak and revives both Engelhardts at the narrative’s close.

The ultimate scene in “Double Birthday” is a celebration; like many of Cather’s stories, this develops a rising arc. Albert has procured champagne from the Judge, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Rudder, has dressed the table with linen remaining from the Engelhardts’ former affluence. The only anticipated guests are Mrs. Rudder’s granddaughter Elsa and her fiancé, Carl, who is planning to make his way in the world as a butcher, so it is with some reluctance that the Doctor prepares to meet them. As Albert sits at the piano to play, he feels that the party will be “much ado about nothing, after all” (58). The scene seems pitiful, but once again the nuances are more complex than they seem. Doctor Engelhardt has been reading Schiller, one of the reputed founders of German literature and a champion of romanticism, a forward thinker for his time whose early work challenged the monarchy in Austria, fusing aesthetics with politics (Lamport 25). The birthday celebration that Albert has arranged for himself and his “Uncle Doctor” includes a muted progressivism in their resistance to Prohibition and general dissent from the Jazz Age. Likewise, the party’s initiation with the arrival of a young couple highlights the subtle shift to the future that Cather employs at the end of many of her narratives.

The party begins as a sham. Elsa and Carl are on the way to a “masquerade,” so both are in costume (58). Albert has been halfheartedly playing the piano, and the Doctor has struggled into his best clothes for Elsa’s sake. And the conversation is sarcastic, as if everyone understands that the party itself is in jest, the young people present only to humor the doddering old man, who teases Carl and Elsa about her slenderness: “A man will always want something to take hold of, till Hell freezes over! Is dat so, Carl?” (59). The innuendo jars the scene out of nostalgia. But the unexpected arrival of Marjorie Parmenter, the Judge’s daughter, transforms it by bringing the Engelhardts’ past back into the present, pushing the story toward the unforeseen future. The effect is mildly tragicomic, as the narrative averts catastrophe in its sixth act. Marjorie represents the bourgeois world from which Albert and Doctor Engelhardt have voluntarily exiled themselves by privileging art over wealth. Because her visit creates a sharp juxtaposition of class, it is a shock to everyone, causing Carl and Elsa to fade into the background and elevating the Doctor momentarily to his former status. But he is “not so exalted that he [does] not notice his little friend of many lonely hours slipping out of the entry-way” (59). Kissing Elsa on the forehead, the Doctor blesses her in German: “If the next nineteen [years] are as happy, we won’t bother about the rest. Behüt dich, Gott!” (59). Since he has no children of his own and since Albert has also reached his declining years, Elsa is to be Engelhardt’s heir. The young people are crucial to the story’s conclusion, as Elsa and Carl recall the Cuzak children in My Ántonia and the youth of Moonstone, who might dream of their own aspirations in the epilogue to The Song of the Lark. Amid the misgivings Cather faced throughout her later years, this vision of history as the seedbed of the future remains consistent.

The birthday that Albert and Doctor Engelhardt share implies that the commemoration of their ages also represents a revitalization. What began as a shabby dinner with costumed guests blossoms into an earnest renewal of friendship. Marjorie lifts everyone’s spirits by proposing a toast, suggesting that each of them drinks to “something [they] care for” (62). The defiance of Prohibition law in this act indicates the larger practice of cultural dissent the ceremony represents. Doctor Engelhardt drinks melodramatically “to a memory; to the lost Lenore,” and Albert drinks more unambiguously to his “youth, to [his] beautiful youth!” (62). Closing the circle, Marjorie says, “And I . . . will drink to the future; to our renewed friendship, and many dinners together. I like you two better than anyone I know” (62). She joins this household of exiles in a small but earnest declaration of nonconformity, and her promise to remain faithful to their renewed friendship ensures that the party will be no charade. Thus reborn, the three of them will live out what days remain with their characteristic independence. In a final joke on her characters and a subtle tug on her opening theme, Cather makes the Doctor an inadvertent plagiarist. He tells Albert, after Marjorie has left, “good wine, good music, beautiful women; that is all there is worth turning over the hand for” (62). Albert laughs, as this is a line identified with Martin Luther,[2] whom his uncle regards as “a vulgarian of the first water” (63). Cather’s levity in the final scene assuages the angst with which the story begins, reinforcing her broader implication that the past insinuates itself into the present and the future.

“Double Birthday” concludes with another, more serious allusion to Thomas Gray’s eighteenth-century poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” as the Doctor looks forward to his next meeting with Marjorie by quoting Gray in the story’s punch line: “Even in our ashes” (63). The narrator of Gray’s “Elegy,” surrounded by graves, begins his meditation by recognizing the “short and simple annals of the poor,” acknowledging those that are ostensibly forgotten, and noting that “Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid / Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire; / Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway’d, / Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre” (ll. 32, 45–48). Such thoughts of past passion and latent genius suggest that they have been rekindled in the narrator, who warns against “dumb forgetfulness” (l. 85). “E’en from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,” he says, “E’en in our ashes live their wonted fires” (ll. 91, 92). The significance of this line for Albert and for Doctor Engelhardt rests in its implication that they have lived their lives deliberately, without regret, and would do the same again. The very passions that have produced their financial penury—wine, women, and song—have yielded great personal satisfaction despite the cultural disarray that surrounds them, and Marjorie’s return has fanned these “wonted fires.”

But Doctor Engelhardt’s vision would lack resonance if it did not include Elsa. Like the narrator of Gray’s poem, who is writing an elegy not only for the dead but also for himself, the Doctor has bequeathed the remains of his life to his young heiress, a working girl whom he hopes will preserve the principle that friendship and art show the way forward in bitter days. And Cather herself, facing the imminent death of her old friend Julius Tyndale as well as her own physical decline, answers these existential dilemmas with the transcendental view that she believed would endure beyond the nihilistic climate of her milieu. While Cather might have been mistaken to regard political consciousness within artistic circles as ephemeral, and while her defiant attitude toward activism has rendered her vulnerable to the “one-note criticism” that Acocella describes as “all excoriation, all easy triumphs” (68), Cather’s later stories suggest that she was as engaged with her milieu as other, more politically minded writers, looking toward the past as a touchstone for rebirth. What emerges in “Double Birthday” is not political progressivism so much as a coupling of worlds in time, the way Cather believed Thomas Mann could belong to the “forward-goers” while also going “back a long way” (Prefatory Note v). The double birthday is time’s synergy: the simultaneity of past and present, the forward arc of memories, the fire in the ash.


 1. The line Cather quotes from Marguerite’s song is “Still wie die Nacht, tief wie das Meer” (48), which translates roughly as “Still as the night, calm as the sea.” The love song includes an appropriate metaphor for a story set in Pittsburgh, as its closing line is: Glowing as steel, as rock firm and free, Should love, thy love. . .aye be. Still wie die Nacht” was composed by Carl Böhm and published in the United States by the McKinley Music Company in 1895 (“Still wie die Nacht”). (Go back.)
 2. Though no evidence of its authorship is known, Elizabeth Knowles bases the identification of the following couplet with Luther on its appearance in the Luther room at the Wartburg: “Who loves not wine, women, and song / Remains a fool his whole life long” (496). (Go back.)


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