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Jane's Gray Eyes by Sewell Ford

 

When The Insurgent took its place among the “best six sellers,” Decatur Brown formed several good resolutions. He would not have himself photographed in a literary pose, holding a book on his knee, or propping his forehead up with one hand and gazing dreamily into space; he would not accept the praise of newspaper reviewers as laurel dropped from Olympus; and he would not tell “how he wrote it.”

Firmly he held to this commendable programme, despite frequent urgings to depart from it. Yet observe what pitfalls beset the path of the popular fictionist. There came a breezy, shrewd-eyed young woman of beguiling tongue who announced herself as a “lady journalist.”

“Now for goodness' sake don't shy,” she pleaded. “I'm not going to ask about your literary methods, or do a kodak write-up of the way you brush your hair, or any of that rot. I merely want you to say something about Sunday Weeks. That's legitimate, isn't it? Sunday's a public character now, you know. Every one talks about her. So why shouldn't you, who know her best?”

It was the voice of the siren. Decatur Brown should have recognized it as such. But the breezy young person was so plausible, she bubbled with such enthusiasm for his heroine, that in the end he yielded. He talked of Sunday Weeks. And such talk!

Obviously the “lady journalist” had come all primed with the rather shop-worn theory that the Sunday Weeks who figured as the heroine of The Insurgent must be a real personage, a young woman in whom Decatur Brown took more than a literary interest. Possibly the cards were ready to be sent out.

Had she put these queries point-blank, he would have denied them definitely and emphatically, and there would have been an end. But she was far too clever for that. She plied him with sly hints and deft insinuation. Then, when he began to scent her purpose, she took another tack. “Did he really admire women of the Sunday Weeks type? Did he honestly think that the unconventional, wilful, whimsical Sunday, while perfectly charming in the unmarried state, could be tamed to matrimony? Was he willing to have his ideal of womanhood judged by this disturbingly fascinating creature of the 'sober gray eyes and piquant chin'?”

Naturally he felt called upon to endorse his heroine, to defend her. Loyalty to his art demanded that much. Then, too, there recurred to him thoughts of Jane Temple. He could truthfully say that Sunday was a wholly imaginative character, that she had no “original.” And yet subconsciously he knew that all the time he was creating her there had been before him a vision of Jane. Not a very distinct vision, to be sure. It had been some years since he had seen her. But that bit about the sober gray eyes and the piquant chin Jane was responsible for. He could never forget those eyes of Jane's. He was not so certain about the chin. It might have been piquant; and then again, it might not. At any rate, it had been adorable, for it was Jane's.

So, while some of his enthusiasm in the defence of Sunday Weeks was due to artistic fervor, more of it was prompted by thoughts of Jane Temple. He did not pretend, he declared, to speak for other men; but as for himself, he liked Sunday—he liked her very much.

The shrewd eyes of the “lady journalist” glistened. She knew her cue when she heard it. Throwing her first theory to the four winds, she eagerly gripped this new and tangible fact.

“Then she really is your ideal?”

He had not thought much about it, but he presumed that in a sense she was.

“But suppose now, Mr. Brown, just suppose you should some day run across a young woman exactly like the Sunday Weeks you have described: would you marry her?”

Decatur Brown laughed—a light, irresponsible, bachelor laugh. “I should probably ask her if I might first.”

“But you would ask her?”

“Oh, assuredly.”

“And would you like to find such a girl?”

Decatur gazed sentimentally over the smart little polo-hat of the “lady journalist” and out of the window at a sky—a sky as gray as Jane's eyes had been that last night when they had parted, she to travel abroad with her aunt, he to become a cub reporter on a city daily.

“Yes, I would like very much to find her,” he replied.

Do you think, after this, that the interviewer waited for more? Not she. Leaving him mixed up with his daydream, she took herself off before he could retract, or modify, or in any way spoil the story.

Still, considering what she might have printed, she was really quite decent about it. Leaving out the startling head-lines, hers was a nice, readable, chatty article. It contained no bald announcement that the author of The Insurgent was hunting, with matrimonial intent, for a gray-eyed prototype of Sunday Weeks. Yet that was the impression conveyed. Where was there a girl with sober gray eyes and a piquant chin who could answer to certain other specifications, duly set forth in one of the most popular novels of the day? Whoever she might be, wherever she was, she might know what to expect should she be discovered.

Having survived the first shock to his reticence, Decatur Brown was inclined to dismiss the matter with a laugh. He had been cleverly exploited, but he could not see that any great harm had been done. He supposed that he must become used to such things. Anyway, he was altogether too busy to give much thought to the incident, for he was in the middle of another novel that must be ready for the public before The Insurgent was forgotten.

He was yet to learn the real meaning of publicity. First there appeared an old friend, one who should have understood him too well to put faith in such an absurdity.

“Say, Deck, you've simply got to dine with us Thursday night. My wife insists. She wants you to meet a cousin of hers—Denver girl, mighty bright, and”—this impressively—“she has gray eyes, you know.”

Decatur grinned appreciatively, but he begged off. He was really very sorry to miss a gray-eyed girl, of course, but there was his work.

One by one his other friends had their little shy at him. Mayhew sent by messenger a huge placard reading, “Wanted, A Wife.” Trevors called him up by telephone to advise him to see Jupiter Belles at once.

“Get a seat in A,” he chuckled, “and take a good look at the third from the left, first row. She has gray eyes.”

By the time he received Tiddler's atrocious sketch, representing the author of The Insurgent as a Diogenes looking for gray-eyed girls, he had ceased to smile over the thing. The joke was becoming a trifle stale.

Then the letters began to come in, post-marked from all over the country. They were all from young persons who had read The Insurgent, and evidently the interview; for, no matter what else was said, each missive contained the information that the writer of it possessed gray eyes. All save one. That was accompanied by a photograph on which an arrow had been drawn pointing towards the eyes. Under the arrow was naively inscribed, “Gray.”

Decatur was not flattered. His dignity suffered. He felt cheapened, humiliated. The fact that the waning boom of his novel had received new impetus did not console him. His mildly serious expression gave place to a worried, injured look.

And then Mrs. Wheeler Upton swooped down on him with a demand for his appearance at one of her Saturday nights. For Decatur there was no choice. He was her debtor for so many helpful favors in the past that he could not refuse so simple a request. Yet he groaned in spirit as he viewed the prospect. Once it would have been different. Was it not in her pleasant drawing-rooms that he had been boosted from obscurity to shine among the other literary stars? Mrs. Upton knew them all. She made it her business to do so, bless the kindly heart of her, and to see that they knew each other. No wonder her library table groaned under the weight of autographed volumes.

But to face that crowd at Mrs. Wheeler Upton's meant to run a rapid-fire gauntlet of jokes about gray-eyed girls. However, go he must, and go he did.

He was not a little relieved to find so few there, and that most of them were young women. A girl often hesitates at voicing a witticism, because she is afraid, after all, that it may not be really funny. A man never doubts the excellence of his own humor. So, when a quarter of an hour had passed without hint of that threadbare topic, he gradually threw off his restraint and began to enjoy himself. He was talking Meredith to a tall girl in soft-blue China silk, when suddenly he became aware that they had been left entirely to themselves. Every one else seemed to have drifted into an adjoining room. Through the doorway he could see them about Mrs. Upton, who was evidently holding their attention.

“Why, what's up, I wonder? Why do they leave us out, I'd like to know?” and he glanced inquiringly at the girl in soft blue. She flushed consciously and dropped her lashes. When she looked at him again, and rather appealingly, he saw that she had gray eyes.

It was Decatur's turn to flush. Could Mrs. Upton have done this deliberately? He was loath to think so. The situation was awkward, and awkwardly he got himself out of it.

“I say, let's see what they're up to in there,” he suggested, and marched her into the other room, wondering if he showed his embarrassment as much as she did. As he sidled away from her he determined to pick out a girl whose eyes were not gray, and to stick to her for the remainder of the evening. Accordingly he began his inspection. A moment later and the whole truth blazed enlighteningly upon him. They were all gray-eyed girls, every last one of them.

If he had been waiting for a climax, he was entirely satisfied. Of course it was rather silly of him to take it all so seriously, but, sitting safely in his rooms long after his panicky retreat from Mrs. Upton's collection, he could not make light of the situation. It was serious. He was losing sleep, appetite, and self-respect over it.

Not that he was vain enough to imagine that every gray-eyed girl in the country, or any one of them, wished to marry him. No; he was fairly modest, as men go. He suspected that the chief emotions he inspired were curiosity and mischievousness. It was the thought of what those uncounted thousands of gray-eyed girls must conceive as his attitude towards them that hurt. Why, it was almost as though he had put a matrimonial advertisement in the newspapers. When he pictured himself looked upon as assuming to be a connoisseur of a certain type of femininity he felt as keenly disgraced as if he had set himself up for an Apollo.

In next morning's mail he noted an increased number of letters from unknown gray-eyed correspondents. That settled it. Hurriedly packing a capacious kit-bag, with the uncompleted manuscript on top, he took the first train for Ocean Park. Where else could he find a more habitable solitude than Ocean Park in early June? Once previously he had gone there before the season opened, and he knew. Later on the popular big seashore resort would seethe with vacationists. They would crowd the hotels, over-flow the board walk, cover the sands, and polka-dot the ocean. But in June the sands would be deserted, the board walk untrod, the hotels empty.

And so it was. The landlord of The Empress welcomed him effusively, not as Decatur Brown, author of The Insurgent and seeker of an ideal girl with gray eyes, but as plain, every-day Mr. Brown, whom Providence had sent as a June guest. Decatur was thankful for it. The barren verandas were grateful in his sight. When he had been installed in a corner suite, spread out his writing things on a flat-topped table that faced the sea, filled his ink-well, and lighted his pipe, he seemed to have escaped from a threatening presence.

He could breathe freely here, thank goodness, and work. He was just settling down to it when through the open transom behind him came the sound of rustling skirts and a voice which demanded:

“But how do you suppose he found that we were here? You're certain that it was Decatur Brown, are you?”

“Oh yes, quite certain. He has changed very little. Besides, there was the name on the register.”

Decatur thrilled at the music of that answering voice. There was a little quaver in it, a faint but fascinating breaking on the low notes, such as he had never heard in any voice save Jane Temple's.

“Then Mabel must not come down to dinner to-night. She must—” The rest was lost around the corner of a corridor.

What Mabel must do remained a mystery. Must she go without her dinner altogether? He hoped not, for evidently his arrival had something to do with it. Why? Decatur gave it up. Who was Mabel, anyway? The owner of the other voice he could guess at. That must be Mrs. Philo Allen, Jane's aunt Judith, the one who had carried her off to Europe and forbidden them to write to each other. But Mabel? Oh yes! He had almost forgotten that elaborately gowned miss who at sixteen had assumed such young-ladyfied airs. Mabel was Jane's young cousin, of course, the one to whom he used to take expensive bonbons, his intent being to propitiate Aunt Judith.

So they were guests at The Empress, too—Jane and her aunt and the pampered Mabel? Chiefly, however, there was Jane. The others did not matter much. Ah, here was a gray-eyed girl that he did not dread to meet. And she had not forgotten him!

An hour later he was waiting for her in the lower hallway. Luckily she came down alone, so they had the hall seat to themselves for those first few minutes. She was the same charming Jane that he had known of old. There was an added dignity in the way she carried her shapely little head, a deeper sweetness in the curve of her thin lips. Perhaps her manner was a little subdued, too; but, after all those years with Mrs. Philo Allen, why not?

“How nice of you,” she was saying, “to hunt us up and surprise us in this fashion. Auntie has been expecting you at home for weeks, you know, but when Mabel's rose-cold developed she decided that we must go to the seashore, even though we did die of lonesomeness. And here we find you—or you find us. The sea air will make Mabel presentable in a day or so, we hope.”

“I'm sure I hope so, too,” he assented, without enthusiasm. Really, he did not see the necessity of dragging in Mabel. Nor did he understand why Mrs. Allen had expected him, or why Jane should assume that he had hunted them up. Now that she had assumed it, though, he could hardly explain that it was an accident. He asked how long they had remained abroad.

“Oh, ages! There was an age in France, while Mabel was perfecting her accent; then there was another age in Italy, where Mabel took voice-culture and the old masters; and yet another age in Germany, while Mabel struggled with the theory of music. Our year in Devon was not quite an age; we went there for the good of Mabel's complexion.”

“Indeed! Has she kept those peaches-and-cream checks?”

“Ah, you must wait and see,” and Jane nodded mysteriously.

“But I—” protested Decatur.

“Oh, it will be only for a day or so. Rose-colds are so hard on the eyes, you know. In the mean time perhaps you will tell us how you happened to develop into a famous author. We are immensely proud of you, of course. Aunt Judith goes hardly anywhere without a copy of The Insurgent in her hand. If the persons she meets have not read it, she scolds them good. And you must hear Mabel render that chapter in which Sunday runs away from the man she loves with the man she doesn't.”

There they were, back to Mabel again.

“But what about yourself, Jane?” suggested Decatur.

“About me! Why, I only—Oh, here is Aunt Judith.”

Yes, there was no mistaking her, nor overlooking her. She was just as colossally commanding as ever, just as imperious. At sight of her, Decatur understood Jane's position clearly. She was still the dependent niece, the obscure satellite of a star of the first magnitude. Very distinctly had Mrs. Philo Allen once explained to him this dependence of Jane's, incidentally touching on his own unlikely prospects. That had been just before she had swept Jane off to Europe with her.

All this Aunt Judith now seemed to have forgotten. In her own imperial way she greeted him graciously, inspecting him with critical but favorable eyes.

“Really, you do look quite distinguished,” was her verdict, as she took his arm in her progress towards her dinner. “I am sure Mabel will say so, too.”

Whereupon they reverted once more to Mabel. The maid was bathing Mabel's eyes with witch-hazel and trying to persuade her to eat a little hot soup. Such details about Mabel seemed to be regarded as of first importance. By some mysterious reasoning, too, Mrs. Allen appeared to connect them with Decatur Brown and his presence at Ocean Park.

“To-morrow night, if all goes well, you shall see her,” she whispered, exultantly, in his ear, as they left the dining-hall.

Decatur was puzzled. What if he could see Mabel the next night? Or what if he could not? He should survive, even if the event were indefinitely postponed. What he desired just then was that Jane should accompany him on an early-evening tramp down the board walk.

“Wouldn't it be better to wait until to-morrow evening?” asked Jane. “Perhaps Mabel can go then.”

“The deuce take Mabel!” He half smothered the exclamation, and Jane appeared not to hear, yielding at last to his insistence that they start at once. But it was not the kind of a talk he had hoped to have with Jane Temple. The intimate and personal ground of conversation towards which he sought to draw her she avoided as carefully as if it had been stuck with the “No Trespassing” notices. When they returned to the hotel, Decatur felt scarcely better acquainted with her than before he had found her again.

Next evening, according to schedule, Mabel appeared. She was an exquisite young woman, there was no doubt about that. She carried herself with an almost royal air which impressed even the head waiter. Her perfect figure, perfectly encased, was graceful in every long curve. Her Devon-repaired complexion was of dazzling purity, all snowy white and sea-shell pink. One could hardly imagine how even so aristocratic a malady as a rose-cold could have dared to redden slightly the tip of that classic nose.

Turning to Decatur with languid interest she murmured:

“Ah, you see I have not forgotten you, although I often do forget faces. You may sit here, if you please, and talk to me.”

It was quite like being received by a sovereign, Decatur imagined. He did his best to talk, and talk entertainingly, for no other reason than that it was expected of him. At last he said something which struck the right chord. The perfect Mabel smiled approvingly at him, and he noticed for the first time that her eyes were gray. Suspiciously he glanced across the table at Jane. Was that a mocking smile on her thinly curved lips, or was it meant for kindly encouragement?

Little by little during the succeeding two days he pieced out the situation. It was not a plot exactly, unless you could dignify Mrs. Philo Allen's confident plans by such a name. But, starting with what basis Heaven only knew, she had reached the conclusion that when the author of The Insurgent had described Sunday Weeks he could have had in mind but one person, the one gray-eyed girl worthy of such distinction, the girl to whom he had shown such devotion but a few years before—her daughter Mabel. Then she had begun expecting him to appear. And when he had seemingly followed them to the seaside—well, what would any one naturally think? Flutteringly she had doubtless put the question to Jane, who had probably replied as she was expected to reply.

The peerless Mabel, of course, was the only one not in the secret. Anyway, she would have taken no interest in it. Her amazing egoism would have prevented that. Nothing interested Mabel acutely unless it pertained to some attribute of her own loveliness.

As for Jane Temple's view of this business, that remained an enigma. Had she grown so accustomed to her aunt Judith's estimate of Mabel that she could accept it? That was hardly possible, for Jane had a keen sense of humor. Then why should she help to throw Mabel at his head, or him at Mabel's?

Meanwhile he walked at Mabel's side, carrying her wraps, while her mother and Jane trailed judiciously in the rear. He drove out with Mabel, Mabel's mother sitting opposite and smiling at him with an air of complacent proprietorship. He stood by the piano and turned the music while Mabel executed sonatas and other things for which he had not the least appreciation. He listened to solos from Lucia, which Mabel sang at Jane's suggestion. Also, Jane brought forth Mabel's sketch-books and then ostentatiously left them alone with each other.

There was much meekness in Decatur. When handled just right he was wonderfully complaisant. But after a whole week of Mabel he decided that the limit had been reached. Seizing an occasion when Mabel was in the hands of the hairdresser and manicurist, he led her mother to a secluded veranda corner and boldly plunged into an explanation.

“I have no doubt you thought it a little strange, Mrs. Allen,” he began, “my appearing to follow you down here, but really—”

“There, there, Decatur, it isn't at all necessary. It was all perfectly natural and entirely proper. In fact, I quite understood.”

“But I'm afraid that you—”

“Oh, but I do comprehend. We old folks are not blind. When it was a matter of those foreign gentlemen, German barons, Italian counts, Austrian princes, and so on, I was extremely particular, perhaps overparticular. Their titles are so often shoddy. But I know all about you. You come from almost as good New England stock as we do. You are talented, almost famous. Besides, your attachment is of no sudden growth. It has stood the test of years. Yes, my dear Decatur, I heartily approve of you. However”—here she rested a plump forefinger simperingly on the first of her two chins, “your fate rests with Mabel, you know.”

Once or twice he had gaspingly tried to stop her, but smilingly she had waved him aside. When she ended he was speechless. Could he tell her, after all that, what a precious bore her exquisite Mabel was to him? It had been difficult enough when the situation was only a tacit one, but now that it had been definitely expressed—well, it was proving to be a good deal like those net snares which hunters of circus animals use, the more he struggled to free himself the more he became entangled.

Abruptly, silently, he took his leave of Mrs. Allen. He feared that if he said more she might construe it as a request, that she should immediately lay his proposal before Mabel. With a despairing, haunted look he sought the board walk.

Carpenters were hammering and sawing, painters were busy in the booths, a few old ladies sat about in the sun, here and there a happy youngster dug in the sand with a tin shovel. Decatur envied them all. They were sane, rational persons, who were not likely to be interviewed and trapped into saying fool things. Their acts were not liable to be misconstrued.

Seeing a pier jutting out, he heedlessly followed it to the very end. And there, on one of the seats built for summer guests, he found Jane.

“Where is Mabel?” she asked, anxiously.

“She is having her hair done and her nails polished, I believe,” said Decatur, gloomily, dropping down beside Jane. “She is being prepared, as nearly as I can gather, to receive a proposal of marriage.”

“Ah! Then you—” She turned to him inquiringly.

“It appears so now,” he admitted. “I have been talking to her mother.”

“Oh, I see.” She said it quietly, gently, in a tone of submission.

“But you don't see,” he protested. “No one sees; that is, no one sees things as they really are. Do you think, Jane, that you could listen to me for a few moments without jumping at conclusions, without assuming that you know exactly what I am going to say before I have said it?”

She said that she would try.

“Then I would like to make a confession to you.”

“Wouldn't it be better to—to make it first to Mabel?”

“No, it would not,” he declared, doggedly. “It concerns that interview in which I was quoted as saying things about gray-eyed girls.”

“Yes, I read it. We all read it.”

“I guessed that much. Well, I said those things, just as I was quoted as saying them, but I did not mean all that I was credited with meaning. I want you to believe, Jane, that when I admitted my preference for gray eyes and—and all that, I was thinking of one gray-eyed girl in particular. Can you believe that?”

“Oh, I did from the very first; that is, I did as soon as Aunt Judith—”

“Never mind about Aunt Judith,” interrupted Decatur, firmly. “We will get to her in time. We are talking now about that interview. You must admit, Jane, that there are many gray-eyed girls in the country; I don't know just how many, thank Heaven, but there are a lot of them. And most of them seem not only to have read that interview, but to have made a personal application of my remarks. Have you any idea what that means to me?”

“Then you think that they are all in—”

“No, no! I don't imagine there's a single one that cares a bone button for me. But each and every one of them thinks that I am in love with her, or willing to be. If she doesn't think so, her friends do. They expect me to propose on sight, simply because of what I have said about gray eyes. You doubt that? Let me tell you what occurred just before I left town: A person whom I had counted as a friend got together a whole houseful of gray-eyed girls, and then sent for me to come and make my choice. That is what drove me from the city. That is why I came to Ocean Park in June.”

“But the one particular gray-eyed girl that you mentioned? How was it that you happened to—”

“It was sheer good fortune, Jane, that I found you here.”

Decatur had slipped a tentative arm along the seat-back. He was leaning towards Jane, regarding her with melancholy tenderness.

“That you found me?” she said, wonderingly. “Oh, you mean that it was fortunate you found us here?”

“No, I don't. I mean you—y-o-u, second person singular. Haven't you guessed by this time who was the particular gray-eyed girl I had in mind?”

“Of course I have; it was Mabel, wasn't it?”

“Mabel! Oh, hang Mabel! Jane, it was you.”

“Me! Why, Decatur Brown!” Either surprise or indignation rang in her tone. He concluded that it must be the latter.

“Oh, well,” he said, dejectedly, “I had no right to suppose that you'd like it. It's the truth, though, and after so much misunderstanding I am glad you know it. I want you to know that it was you who inspired Sunday Weeks, if any one did. I have never mentioned this before, have not admitted it, even to myself, until now. But I realize that it is true. We have been a long time apart, but the memory of you has never faded for a day, for an hour. So, when I tried to describe the most charming girl of whom I could think, I was describing you. As I wrote, there was constantly before me the vision of your dear gray eyes, and—”

“Decatur! Look at me. Look me straight in the eyes and tell me if they are gray.”

He looked. As a matter of fact, he had been looking into her eyes for several moments. Now there was something so compelling about her tone that he bent all his faculties to the task. This time he looked not with that blindness peculiar to those who love, but, for the moment, discerningly, seeingly. And they were not gray eyes at all. They were a clear, brilliant hazel.

“Why—why!” he gasped out, chokingly. “I—I have always thought of them as gray eyes.”

“If that isn't just like a man!” she exclaimed, shrugging away from him. Her quarter profile revealed those thinly curved lips pursed into a most delicious pout. “You acknowledge, don't you, that they're not gray?” she flung at him over her shoulder—an adorable shoulder, Decatur thought.

“Oh, I admit it,” he groaned.

“Then—then why don't you go away?” It was just that trembling little quaver on the low notes which spurred him on to cast the die.

“Jane,” he whispered, “I don't want to go away, and I don't want you to send me. It isn't gray eyes that I care for, or ever have cared for. It's been just you, your own dear, charming self.”

“No, it hasn't been. I haven't even a piquant chin.”

“That doesn't matter. What is a piquant chin, anyway?”

“You ought to know; you wrote it.”

“So I did, but I didn't know what it meant. I just knew that it ought to mean something charming, which you are.”

“I'm not. And I am not accomplished. I don't sing, I don't play, I don't draw.”

“Thanks be for that! I don't, either. But I think you are the dearest girl in the world.”

At that she turned to him and smiled a little as only Jane could smile.

“You told me that once before, a long time ago, you know.”

“And you have not forgotten?”

“No. I—you see—I didn't want to forget.”

Had it been August, or even July, doubtless a great number of vacationists would have been somewhat shocked at what Decatur did then. But it was early June, you remember, and on the far end of the Ocean Park fishing-pier were only these two, with just the dancing blue ocean in front.

“But,” she said at length, after many other and more important things had been said between them, “what will Aunt Judith say?”

“I suppose she'll think me a lucky dog—and slightly color-blind,” chuckled Decatur, joyously. “But come,” he went on, helping her to rise and retaining both her hands, swaying them back and forth clasped in his, as children do in the game of London Bridge,—“come,” he repeated, impulsively, “while my courage is high let us go and break the news to your aunt Judith.”

There was, however, no need. Looming ponderously in the middle distance of the pier's vista, a lorgnette held to her eyes, and a frozen look of horror on her ample features, was Aunt Judith herself.