His step was so leisurely, his manner so composed, there was always such total absence of weariness in all he said and did, that it was impossible to believe he was so diligent a worker.
But this composure, this reticence, this leisurely air, were all imposed upon his manner by his regal will. He was under the most supreme self-control. It was so absolute as to deprive him of spontaneity and enthusiasm. In social intercourse he was like two persons: the one conversed with you pleasantly upon every topic, the other watched you from behind that pleasant talk, like a sentinel. The delicate child, left much to himself by his parents, naturally grew wayward and imperious. But the man of shrewd common sense, with his way to make in the world, saw clearly that that waywardness must be sternly subjugated. It was so, and at the usual expense. What the friend of Downing most desired in him was a frank and unreserved flow of feeling, which should drown out that curious, critical self-consciousness. He felt this want as much as any one, and often playfully endeavored to supply it. It doubtless arose, in great part, from too fine a nervous organization. Under the mask of the finished man of the world he concealed the most feminine feelings, which often expressed themselves with pathetic intensity to the only one in whom he unreservedly confided.
This critical reserve behind the cordial manner invested his whole character with mystery. The long dark hair, the firm dark eyes, the slightly defiant brow, the Spanish mien, that welcomed us that May morning, seemed to me always afterward, the symbols of his character. A cloud wrapped his inner life. Motives, and the deeper feelings, were lost to view in that obscurity. It seemed that within this cloud there might be desperate struggles, like the battle of the Huns and Romans, invisible in the air, but of which no token escaped into the experience of his friends. He confronted circumstances with the same composed and indomitable resolution, and it was not possible to tell whether he were entertaining angels, or wrestling with demons, in the secret chambers of his soul. There are passages in letters to his wife which indicate, and they only by implication, that his character was tried and tempered by struggles. Those most intimate letters, however, are full of expressions of religious faith and dependence, sometimes uttered with a kind of clinging earnestness, as if he well knew the value of the peace that passes understanding. But nothing of all this appeared in his friendly intercourse with men. He had, however, very few intimate friends among men.
His warmest and most confiding friendships were with women. In his intercourse with them, he revealed a rare and beautiful sense of the uses of friendship, which united him very closely to them. To men he was much more inaccessible. It cannot be denied that the feeling of mystery in his character affected the impression he made upon various persons. It might be called as before, "haughtiness," "reserve," "coldness," or "hardness," but it was quite the same thing. It repelled many who were otherwise most strongly attracted to him by his books. In others, still, it begot a slight distrust, and suspicion of self-seeking upon his part.
I remember a little circumstance, the impression of which is strictly in accordance with my feeling of this singular mystery in his character. We had one day been sitting in the library, and he had told me his intention of building a little study and working-room, adjoining the house: "but I don't know," he said, "where or how to connect it with the house." But I was very well convinced that he would arrange it in the best possible manner, and was not surprised when he afterward wrote me that he had made a door through the wall of the library into the new building. This door occupied just the space of one of the book-cases let into the wall, and, by retaining the double doors of the book-case precisely as they were, and putting false books behind the glass of the doors, the appearance of the library was entirely unaltered, while the whole apparent book-case, doors and all, swung to and fro, at his will, as a private door. During my next visit at his house, I was sitting very late at night in the library, with a single candle, thinking that every one had long since retired, and having quite forgotten in the perfectly familiar appearance of the room, that the little change had been made, when suddenly one of the book-cases flew out of the wall, turning upon noiseless hinges, and, out of the perfect darkness behind, Downing darted into the room, while I sat staring like a benighted guest in the Castle of Otranto. The moment, the place, and the circumstance, were entirely harmonious with my impression of the man.
Thus, although, upon the bright May morning, I had crossed the river to see a man of transparent and simple nature, a lover and poet of rural beauty, a man who had travelled little, who had made his own way into polished and cultivated social relations, as he did into everything which he mastered, being altogether a self-made man - I found the courteous and accomplished gentleman, the quiet man of the world, full of tact and easy dignity, in whom it was easy to discover that lover and poet, though not in the form anticipated. His exquisite regard for the details of life, gave a completeness to his household, which is nowhere surpassed. Fitness is the first element of beauty, and every thing in his arrangement was appropriate. It was hard not to sigh, when contemplating the beautiful results he accomplished by taste and tact, and at comparatively little pecuniary expense, to think of the sums elsewhere squandered upon an insufficient and shallow splendor. Yet, as beauty was, with Downing, life, and not luxury, although he was, in feeling and by actual profession the Priest of Beauty, he was never a Sybarite, never sentimental, never weakened by the service.