He knew perfectly well that there is a time for discords, and a place for departures from rule, and he understood them when they came, - which was peculiar and very lovely in a man of so delicate a nervous organization. This led him to be tolerant of all differences of opinion and action, and to be sensitively wary of injuring the feelings of those from whom he differed. He was thus scientific in the true sense. In his department he was wise, and we find him writing from Warwick Castle again, thus: "Whoever designed this front, made up as it is of lofty towers and irregular walls, must have been a poet as well as architect, for its composition and details struck me as having the proportions and con-gruity of a fine scene in nature, which we feel is not to be measured and defined by the ordinary rules of art".
His own home was his finest work. It was materially beautiful, and spiritually bright with the purest lights of affection. Its hospitality was gracious and graceful. It consulted the taste, wishes, and habits of the guest, but with unobtrusiveness, that the favorite flower every morning by the plate upon the breakfast-table, seemed to have come there as naturally, in the family arrangements, as the plate itself. He held his house as the steward of his friends. His social genius never suffered a moment to drag wearily by. No man was so necessarily devoted to his own affairs, - no host ever seemed so devoted to his guests. Those guests were of the most agreeable kind, or, at least, they seemed so in that house. Perhaps the interpreter of the House Beautiful, she who - in the poet's natural order - was as "moonlight unto sunlight," was the universal solvent. By day, there were always books, conversation, driving, working, lying on the lawn, excursions into the mountains across the river, visits to beautiful neighboring places, boating, botanizing, painting, - or whatever else could be done in the country, and done in the pleasantest way.
At evening, there was music, - fine playing and singing, for the guest was thrice welcome who was musical, and the musical were triply musical there, - dancing, charades, games of every kind, - never suffered to flag, always delicately directed, - and in due season some slight violation of the Maine Law. Mr. Downing liked the Ohio wines, with which his friend, Mr. Longworth, kept him supplied, and of which he said, with his calm good sense, in the "Horticulturist," August, 1850, - "We do not mean to say that men could not live and breathe just as well if there were no such thing as wine known; but that since the time of Noah men will not be contented with merely living and breathing; and it is therefore better to provide them with proper and wholesome food and drink, than to put improper aliments within their reach." Charades were a favorite diversion, in which several of his most frequent guests excelled. He was always ready to take part, but his reserve and self-consciousness interfered with his success. His social enjoyment was always quiet. He rarely laughed loud. He preferred rather to sit with a friend and watch the dance or the game from a corner, than to mingle in them. He wrote verses, but never showed them.
They were chiefly rhyming letters, clever and graceful, to his wife, and her sisters, and some intimate friends, and to a little niece, of whom he was especially fond. One evening, after vainly endeavoring to persuade a friend that he was mistaken in the kind of a fruit, he sent him the following characteristic lines:
"to the doctor, on his passion for the 'duchess of oldenburgh.'"
"Dear Doctor, I write you this little effusion, On learning you're still in that fatal delusion Of thinking the object you love is a Duchess, When 'tis only a milkmaid you hold in your clutches; Why, 'tis certainly plain as the spots in the sun, That the creature is only a fine Dutch Mignonne. She is Dutch - there is surely no question of that, - She's so large and so ruddy - so plump and so fat; And that she's a Mignonne - a beauty - most moving, Is equally proved by your desperate loving; But that she's a Duchess I flatly deny, There's such a broad twinkle about her deep eye; And glance at the russety hue of her skin - A lady - a noble - would think it a sin! Ah no, my dear Doctor, upon my own honor, I must send you a dose of the true Bella donna!"
I had expressed great delight with the magnolia, and carried one of the flowers in my hand during our morning stroll. At evening he handed me a fresh one, and every day while I remained, the breakfast-room was perfumed by the magnolia that was placed beside my plate. This delicate thoughtfulness was universal with him. He knew all the flowers that his friends especially loved; and in his notes to me he often wrote, "the magnolias are waiting for you," as an irresistible allurement - which it was very apt to prove. Downing was in the library when I came down the morning after our arrival. He had the air of a man who has been broad awake and at work for several hours. There was the same quiet greeting as before - a gay conversation, glancing at a thousand things - and breakfast. After breakfast he disappeared; but if, at any time, an excursion was proposed, - to climb some hill, to explore some meadows rich in rhododendron, to visit some lovely lake, - he was quite ready, and went with the same unhurried air that marked all his actions. Like Sir Walter Scott, he was producing results implying close application and labor, but without any apparent expense of time or means.