Among these I may mention, as among the last and finest, the summer residence of Daniel Parish, Esq., at Newport, R. I. Mr. Downing knew that Newport was the great social exchange of the country, that men of wealth and taste yearly assembled there, and that a fine house of his designing erected there would be of the greatest service to his art. This house is at once simple, massive, and graceful, as becomes the spot. It is the work of an artist, in the finest sense, harmonious with the bare cliff and the sea. But even where his personal services were not required, his books were educating taste, and his influence was visible in hundreds of houses that he had never seen. He edited, during this year, Mrs. Loudon's "Gardening for Ladies," which was published by Mr. John Wiley. No man was a more practically useful friend to thousands who did not know him. Yet if, at any time, while his house was full of visitors, business summoned him, as it frequently did, he slipped quietly out of the gate, left the visitors to a care as thoughtful and beautiful as his own, and his house was made their home for the time they chose to remain. Downing was in his thirty-seventh year, in the fulness of his fame and power.
The difficulties of the failure were gradually disappearing behind him like clouds rolling away. He stood in his golden prime, as in his summer garden; the Future smiled upon him like the blue Fishkill hills beyond the river. That Future, also, lay beyond the river.
At the end of June, 1852, I went to pass a few days with him. He held an annual feast of roses with as many friends as he could gather and his house could hold. The days of my visit had all the fresh sweetness of early summer, and the garden and the landscape were fuller than ever of grace and beauty. It was an Arcadian chapter, with the roses and blossoming figs upon the green-house wall, and the music by moonlight, and reading of songs, and tales, and games upon the lawn, under the Warwick vase. Boccaccio's groups in their Fiesole garden, were not gayer; nor the blithe circle of a summer's day upon Sir Walter Vivian's lawn. Indeed it was precisely in Downing's garden that the poetry of such old traditions became fact - or rather the fact was lifted into that old poetry. He had achieved in it the beauty of an extreme civilization, without losing the natural, healthy vigor of his country and time.
One evening - the moon was full - we crossed in a row-boat to the Fishkill shore, and floated upon the gleaming river under the black banks of foliage to a quaint old country house, in whose small library the Society of the Cincinnati was formed, at the close of the Revolution, and in whose rooms a pleasant party was gathered that summer evening. The doors and windows were open. We stood in the rooms or loitered upon the piazza, looking into the unspeakable beauty of the night. A lady was pointed out to me as the heroine of a romantic history - a handsome woman, with the traces of hard experience in her face, standing in that little peaceful spot of summer moonlight, as a child snatching a brief dream of peace between spasms of mortal agony. As we returned at midnight across the river, Downing told us more of the stranger lady, and of his early feats of swimming from Newburgh to Fishkill; and so we drifted homeward upon the oily calm with talk, and song, and silence - a brief, beautiful voyage upon the water, where the same summer, while yet unfaded should see him embarked upon a longer journey. In these last days he was the same generous, thoughtful, quiet, effective person I had always found him. Friends peculiarly dear to him were in his house.
The Washington work was advancing finely: he was much interested in his Newport plans, and we looked forward to a gay meeting there in the later summer. The time for his monthly trip to Washington arrived while I was still his guest. "We shall meet in Newport," I said. "Yes," he answered, "but you must stay and keep house with my wife until I return".
I was gone before he reached home again, but, with many who wished to consult him about houses they were building, and with many whom he honored and wished to know, awaited his promised visit at Newport.
Mr. Downing had intended to leave Newburgh with his wife upon Tuesday, the 27th of July, when they would have taken one of the large river steamers for New York. But his business prevented his leaving upon that day, and it was postponed to Wednesday, the 28th of July, on which day only the two smaller boats, the "Henry Clay" and the "Armenia" were running. Upon reaching the wharf, Mr. and Mrs. Downing met her mother, Mrs. De Wint, with her youngest son and daughter, and the lady who had been pointed out as the heroine of a tragedy. But this morning she was as sunny as the day, which was one of the loveliest of summer.
The two steamers were already in sight, coming down the river, and there was a little discussion in the party as to which they would take. But the "Henry Clay" was the largest and reached the wharf first. Mr. Downing and his party embarked, and soon perceived that the two boats were desperately racing. The circumstance was, however, too common to excite any apprehension in the minds of the party, or even to occasion remark. They sat upon the deck enjoying the graceful shores that fled by them - a picture on the air. Mr. Downing was engaged in lively talk with his companion, who had never been to Newport and was very curious to see and share its brilliant life. They had dined, and the boat was within twenty miles of New York, in a broad reach of the river between the Palisades and the town of Yonkers, when Mrs. Downing observed a slight smoke blowing toward them from the centre of the boat. She spoke of it, rose, and said they had better go into the cabin. Her husband replied, no, that they were as safe where they then were as anywhere. Mrs. Downing, however, went into the cabin where her mother was sitting, knitting, with her daughter by her side. There was little time to say anything. The smoke rapidly increased; all who could reach it hurried into the cabin.