Here we sat and conversed. Our host entered into every subject gayly and familiarly, with an appreciating deference to differences of opinion, and an evident tenacity of his own, all the while, which surprised me, as the peculiarity of the most accomplished man of the world. There was a certain aristocratic hauteur in his manner, a constant sense of personal dignity, which comported with the reserve of his smile and the quiet welcome. His intellectual attitude seemed to be one of curious criticism, as if he were sharply scrutinizing all that his affability of manner drew forth. No one had a readier generosity of acknowledgment, and there was a negative flattery in his address and attention, which was very subtle and attractive. In all allusions to rural affairs, and matters with which he was entirely familiar, his conversation was not in the slightest degree pedantic, nor positive. He spoke of such things with the simplicity of a child talking of his toys. The workman, the author, the artist were entirely subjugated in him to the gentleman. That was his favorite idea. The gentleman was the full flower, of which all the others were suggestions and parts. The gentleman is, to the various powers and cultivations of the man, what the tone is to the picture, which lies in no single color, but in the harmony of the whole. The gentleman is the final bloom of the man. But no man could be a gentleman without original nobleness of feeling and genuineness of character. Gentleness was developed from that by experience and study, as the delicate tinge upon precious fruits, by propitious circumstances and healthy growth.
In this feeling, which was a constituent of his character, lay the secret of the appearance of hauteur that was so often remarked in him, to which Miss Bremer alludes, and which all his friends perceived, more or less distinctly. Its origin was, doubtless, twofold. It sprang first from his exquisite mental organization, which instinctively shrunk from whatever was coarse or crude, and which made his artistic taste so true and fine. That easily extended itself to demand the finest results of men, as of trees, and fruits, and flowers; and then committed the natural error of often accepting the appearance of this result, where the fact was wanting. Hence he had a natural fondness for the highest circles of society - - a fondness as deeply founded as his love of the best possible fruits. His social tendency was constantly toward those to whom great wealth had given opportunity of that ameliorating culture, - - of surrounding beautiful homes with beautiful grounds, and filling them with refined and beautiful persons, which is the happy fortune of few. Hence, also, the fact that his introduction to Mr. Murray was a remembered event, because the mind of the boy instantly recognized that society to which, by affinity, he belonged; and hence, also, that admiration of the character and the life of the English gentleman, which was life-long with him, and which made him, when he went to England, naturally and directly at home among them. From this, also, came his extreme fondness for music, although he had very little ear; and often when his wife read to him any peculiarly beautiful or touching passage from a book, he was quite unable to speak, so much was he mastered by his emotion. Besides this delicacy of organization, which makes aristocrats of all who have it, the sharp contrast between his childhood and his mature life doubtlessly nourished a kind of mental protest against the hard discomforts, want of sympathy, and misunderstandings of poverty.
I recall but one place in which he deliberately states this instinct of his, as an opinion. In the paper upon " Improvement of Vegetable Races," April, 1852, he says: "We are not going to be led into a physiological digression on the subject of the inextinguishable rights of a superior organization in certain men, and races of men, which Nature every day reaffirms, notwithstanding the socialistic and democratic theories of our politicians." But this statement only asserts the difference of organization. No man was a truer American than Downing; no man more opposed to all kinds of recognition of that difference in intellectual organization by a difference of social rank. That he considered to be the true democracy which asserted the absolute equality of opportunity; — and, therefore, he writes from Warwick Castle, a place which in every way could charm no man more than him: "but I turned my face at last westward toward my native land, and with uplifted eyes thanked the good God that, though to England, the country of my ancestors, it had been given to show the growth of man in his highest development of class or noble, to America has been reserved the greater blessing of solving for the world the true problem of all humanity, — that of the abolition of all castes, and the recognition of the divine rights of every human soul." On that May morning, in the library, I remember the conversation, drifting from subject to subject, touched an essay upon "Manners," by Mr. Emerson, then recently published; and in the few words that Mr. Downing said, lay the germ of what I gradually discovered to be his feeling upon the subject. This hauteur was always evident in his personal intercourse. In his dealings with workmen, with publishers, with men of affairs of all kinds, the same feeling, which they called "stillness," "coldness," "pride," "haughtiness," or "reserve," revealed itself. That first morning it only heightened in my mind the Spanish impression of the dark, slim man, who so courteously welcomed us at his door.
It was May, and the magnolias were in blossom. Under our host's guidance, we strolled about his grounds, which, although they comprised but some live acres, were laid out in a large style, that greatly enhanced their apparent extent. The town lay at the bottom of the hill, between the garden and the water, and there was a road just at the foot of the garden. But so skilfully were the trees arranged, that all suspicion of town or road was removed. Lying upon the lawn, standing in the door, or sitting under the light piazza before the parlor windows, the enchanted visitor saw only the garden ending in the thicket, which was so dexterously trimmed as to reveal the loveliest glimpses of the river, each a picture in its frame of foliage, but which was not cut low enough to betray the presence of road or town. You fancied the estate extended to the river; yes, and probably owned the river as an ornament, and included the mountains beyond. At least, you felt that here was a man who knew that the best part of the landscape could not be owned, but belonged to every one who could appropriate it. The thicket seemed not only to conceal, but to annihilate, the town. So sequestered and satisfied was the guest of that garden, that he was quite careless and incurious of the world beyond. I have often passed a week there without wishing to go outside the gate, and entirely forgot that there was any town near by. Sometimes, at sunset or twilight, we stepped into a light wagon, and turning up the hill, as we came out of the grounds, left Newburgh below, and drove along roads hanging over the river, or, passing Washington's Headquarters, trotted leisurely along the shore.