The Tree of Heaven
The Tree of Heaven
Grannie took a long time crossing the lawn from the door in the lane to the tree of Heaven.
She came first. Her daughters followed, forced to her slow pace, advancing with an air of imperfect cohesion, of not really belonging to each other, as if they had been strangers associated by some accident. It had grown on them in their efforts to carry off the embarrassment of appearing as an eternal trio. Auntie Louie carried it off best. Sharp and rigid, Auntie Louie's figure never lent itself to any group. But for her black gown she really might not have belonged.
Mrs. Fleming went slowly, not because she was old, for she was only sixty, but because, though she said, and thought, that she was wrapped up in Frances and her children, she was still absorbed, fascinated by her sacred sense of bereavement. She moved as if hypnotized by her own sorrow.
To her three unmarried daughters she behaved with a sort of mystic hostility, a holy detachment and displeasure, as if she suspected them of getting over it, or of wanting to get over it if they could. But to her one married daughter and to her grand-children she was soft and gentle. So that, when they happened to be all together, her moods changed so rapidly that she seemed a creature of unaccountable caprice. One minute her small, white, dry face quivered with softness and gentleness, and the next it stiffened, or twitched with the inimical, disapproving look it had for Louie and Emmeline and Edith.
The children lifted up their pure, impassive faces to be kissed at. Old Nanna brought Baby John and put him on his grandmother's knee. Dorothy and Nicholas went off with Mary-Nanna to the party. Michael forgot all about playing with himself. He stayed where he was, drawn by the spectacle of Grannie and the Aunties. Grannie was clucking and chuckling to Baby John as she had clucked and chuckled to her own babies long ago. Her under lip made itself wide and full; it worked with an in and out movement very funny and interesting to Michael. The movement meant that Grannie chuckled under protest of memories that were sacred to Grandpapa.
"Tchoo--tchoo--tchoo--tchoo! Chuckaboo! Beautiful boy!" said Grannie.
Auntie Louie looked at her youngest nephew. She smiled her downward, sagging smile, wrung from a virginity sadder than Grannie's grief. She spoke to Baby John.
"You really are rather a nice boy," Auntie Louie said.
But Edie, the youngest Auntie, was kneeling on the grass before him, bringing her face close to his. Baby John's new and flawless face was cruel to Auntie Edie's. So was his look of dignity and wisdom.
"Oh, she says you're only rather nice," said Auntie Edie. "And you're the beautifullest, sweetest, darlingest that ever was. Wasn't she a nasty Auntie Louie? Ten little pink toes. And there he goes. Five little tootsies to each of his footsies."
She hid herself behind the Times disturbing Jane.
"Where's John-John?" she cried. "Where's he gone to? Can anybody tell me where to find John-John? Where's John-John? Peep- bo --there he is! John-John, look at Auntie Edie. Oh, he won't pay any attention to poor me."
Baby John was playing earnestly with Grannie's watch-chain.
"You might leave the child alone," said Grannie. "Can't you see he doesn't want you?"
Auntie Edie made a little pouting face, like a scolded, pathetic child. Nobody ever did want Auntie Edie.
And all the time Auntie Emmy was talking to Frances very loud and fast.
"Frances, I do think your garden's too beautiful for words. How clever of you to think of clearing away the old flower-beds. I hate flower-beds on a lawn. Yet I don't suppose I should have had the strength of mind to get rid of them if it bad been me."
As she talked Auntie Emmy opened her eyes very wide; her eyebrows jerked, the left one leaping up above the right; she thrust out her chin at yo