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The Professor's House

Willa Cather


  Title: The Professor's House (1925)

  Author: Willa Cather

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  Language: English

  Date first posted: November 2006

  Date most recently updated: November 2006

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  Title: The Professor's House (1925)

  Author: Willa Cather


  For Jan, because he likes narrative.


  Chapter 1

  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


  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 l
ike 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 home-sickness 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 the next


  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 risque 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 a
n 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


  "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.

  "But next week I'll be working on Mrs. St. Peter's clothes, and I'll

  need the forms. As the boy's here, he'll just wheel them over," she said


  "I'm damned if he will! They shan't be wheeled. They stay right there in

  their own place. You shan't take away my ladies. I never heard of such a


  Augusta was vexed with him now, and a little ashamed of him. "But,

  Professor, I can't work without my forms. They've been in your way all

  these years, and you've always complained of them, so don't be contrary,


  "I never complained, Augusta. Perhaps of certain disappointments they

  recalled, or of cruel biological necessities they imply--but of them

  individually, never! Go and buy some new ones for your airy atelier, as

  many as you wish--I'm said to be rich now, am I not?--Go buy, but you

  can't have my women. That's final."

  Augusta looked down her nose as she did at church when the dark sins

  were mentioned. "Professor," she said severely, "I think this time you

  are carrying a joke too far. You never used to." From the tilt of her

  chin he saw that she felt the presence of some improper suggestion.

  "No matter what you think, you can't have them." They considered, both

  were in earnest now. Augusta was first to break the defiant silence.

  "I suppose I am to be allowed to take my patterns?"

  "Your patterns? Oh, yes, the cut-out things you keep in the couch with

  my old note-books? Certainly, you can have them. Let me lift it for

  you." He raised the hinged top of the box-couch that stood against the

  wall, under the slope of the ceiling. At one end of the upholstered box

  were piles of notebooks and bundles of manuscript tied up in square

  packages with mason's cord. At the other end were many little rolls of

  patterns, cut out of newspapers and tied with bits of ribbon, gingham,

  silk, georgette; notched charts which followed the changing stature and

  figures of the Misses St. Peter from early childhood to womanhood. In

  the middle of the box, patterns and manuscripts interpenetrated.

  "I see we shall have some difficulty in separating our life work,

  Augusta. We've kept our papers together a long while now."

  "Yes, Professor. When I first came to sew for Mrs. St. Peter, I never

  thought I should grow grey in her service."