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Worldly Ways and Byways (chapter 37)

2006-07-09 20:39

  CHAPTER     37- The Newport of the Past

  FEW of the “carriage ladies and gentlemen” who disport themselves  in Newport during the summer months, yachting and dancing through the  short season, then flitting away to fresh fields and pastures new, realize  that their daintily shod feet have been treading historic ground, or care to  cast a thought back to the past. Oddly enough, to the majority of people  the past is a volume rarely opened. Not that it bores them to read it, but  because they, like children, want some one to turn over its yellow leaves  and point out the pictures to them. Few of the human motes that dance in  the rays of the afternoon sun as they slant across the little Park, think of  the fable which asserts that a sea-worn band of adventurous men, centuries  before the Cabots or the Genoese discoverer thought of crossing the  Atlantic, had pushed bravely out over untried seas and landed on this  rocky coast. Yet one apparent evidence of their stay tempts our thoughts  back to the times when it is said to have been built as a bower for a king's  daughter. Longfellow, in the swinging verse of his “Skeleton in Armor,”  breathing of the sea and the Norseman's fatal love, has thrown such a  glamour of poetry around the tower, that one would fain believe all he  relates. The hardy Norsemen, if they ever came here, succumbed in their  struggle with the native tribes, or, discouraged by death and hardships,  sailed away, leaving the clouds of oblivion to close again darkly around  this continent, and the fog of discussion to circle around the “Old Mill.”

  The little settlement of another race, speaking another tongue, that  centuries later sprang up in the shadow of the tower, quickly grew into a  busy and prosperous city, which, like New York, its rival, was captured  and held by the English. To walk now through some of its quaint, narrow  streets is to step back into Revolutionary days. Hardly a house has  changed since the time when the red coats of the British officers  brightened the prim perspectives, and turned loyal young heads as they  passed.

  At the corner of Spring and Pelham Streets, still stands the residence

  of General Prescott, who was carried away prisoner by his opponents, they  having rowed down in whale-boats from Providence for the attack.  Rochambeau, our French ally, lodged lower down in Mary Street. In the  tower of Trinity, one can read the epitaph of the unfortunate Chevalier de  Ternay, commander of the sea forces, whose body lies near by. Many years  later his relative, the Duc de Noailles, when Minister to this country, had  this simple tablet repaired and made a visit to the spot.

  A long period of prosperity followed the Revolution, during which  Newport grew and flourished. Our pious and God-fearing “forbears,”  having secured personal and religious liberty, proceeded to inaugurate a  most successful and remunerative trade in rum and slaves. It was a  triangular transaction and yielded a three-fold profit. The simple  population of that day, numbering less than ten thousand souls, possessed  twenty distilleries; finding it a physical impossibility to drink ALL the rum,  they conceived the happy thought of sending the surplus across to the  coast of Africa, where it appears to have been much appreciated by the  native chiefs, who eagerly exchanged the pick of their loyal subjects for  that liquid. These poor brutes were taken to the West Indies and exchanged  for sugar, laden with which, the vessels returned to Newport.

  Having introduced the dusky chieftains to the charms of delirium  tremens and their subjects to life-long slavery, one can almost see these  pious deacons proceeding to church to offer up thanks for the return of  their successful vessels. Alas! even “the best laid schemes of mice and  men” come to an end. The War of     , the opening of the Erie Canal and  sundry railways struck a blow at Newport commerce, from which it never  recovered. The city sank into oblivion, and for over thirty years not a  house was built there.

  It was not until near      that the Middletons and Izzards and other  wealthy and aristocratic Southern families were tempted to Newport by  the climate and the facilities it offered for bathing, shooting and boating. A  boarding-house or two sufficed for the modest wants of the new-comers,  first among which stood the Aquidneck, presided over by kind Mrs.  Murray. It was not until some years later, when New York and Boston  families began to appreciate the place, that the first hotels were built, - the

  Atlantic on the square facing the old mill, the Bellevue and Fillmore on  Catherine Street, and finally the original Ocean House, destroyed by fire in       and rebuilt as we see it to-day. The croakers of the epoch considered  it much too far out of town to be successful, for at its door the open fields  began, a gate there separating the town from the country across which a  straggling, half-made road, closed by innumerable gates, led along the  cliffs and out across what is now the Ocean Drive. The principal roads at  that time led inland; any one wishing to drive seaward had to descend  every two or three minutes to open a gate. The youth of the day discovered  a source of income in opening and closing these for pennies.

  Fashion had decreed that the correct hour for dancing was    A.M.,  and MATINEES DANSANTES were regularly given at the hotels, our  grandmothers appearing in DECOLLETE muslin frocks adorned with  broad sashes, and disporting themselves gayly until the dinner hour. Low- neck dresses were the rule, not only for these informal entertainments, but  as every-day wear for young girls, - an old lady only the other day telling  me she had never worn a “high-body” until after her marriage. Two o'clock  found all the beauties and beaux dining. How incredulously they would  have laughed if any one had prophesied that their grandchildren would  prefer eight forty- five as a dinner hour!

  The opening of Bellevue Avenue marked another epoch in the history  of Newport. About that time Governor Lawrence bought the whole of  Ochre Point farm for fourteen thousand dollars, and Mr. de Rham built on  the newly opened road the first “cottage,” which stands to-day modestly  back from the avenue opposite Perry Street. If houses have souls, as  Hawthorne averred, and can remember and compare, what curious  thoughts must pass through the oaken brain of this simple construction as  it sees its marble neighbors rearing their vast facades among trees. The  trees, too, are an innovation, for when the de Rham cottage was built and  Mrs. Cleveland opened her new house at the extreme end of Rough Point  (the second summer residence in the place) it is doubtful if a single tree  broke the rocky monotony of the landscape from the Ocean House to  Bateman's Point.

  Governor Lawrence, having sold one acre of his Ochre Point farm to

  Mr. Pendleton for the price he himself had paid for the whole, proceeded  to build a stone wall between the two properties down to the water's edge.  The population of Newport had been accustomed to take their Sunday  airings and moonlight rambles along “the cliffs,” and viewed this  obstruction of their favorite walk with dismay. So strong was their feeling  that when the wall was completed the young men of the town repaired  there in the night and tore it down. It was rebuilt, the mortar being mixed  with broken glass. This infuriated the people to such an extent that the  whole populace, in broad daylight, accompanied by the summer visitors,  destroyed the wall and threw the materials into the sea. Lawrence, bent on  maintaining what he considered his rights, called the law to his aid. It was  then discovered that an immemorial riverain right gave the fishermen and  the public generally, access to the shore for fishing, and also to collect  seaweed, - a right of way that no one could obstruct.

  This was the beginning of the long struggle between the cliff- dwellers  and the townspeople; each new property-owner, disgusted at the idea that  all the world can stroll at will across his well-kept lawns, has in turn tried  his hand at suppressing the now famous “walk.” Not only do the public  claim the liberty to walk there, but also the right to cross any property to  get to the shore. At this moment the city fathers and the committee of the  new buildings at Bailey's Beach are wrangling as gayly as in Governor  Lawrence's day over a bit of wall lately constructed across the end of  Bellevue Avenue. A new expedient has been hit upon by some of the  would-be exclusive owners of the cliffs; they have lowered the “walk” out  of sight, thus insuring their own privacy and in no way interfering with the  rights of the public.

  Among the gentlemen who settled in Newport about Governor  Lawrence's time was Lord Baltimore (Mr. Calvert, he preferred to call  himself), who remained there until his death. He was shy of referring to  his English peerage, but would willingly talk of his descent through his  mother from Peter Paul Rubens, from whom had come down to him a  chateau in Holland and several splendid paintings. The latter hung in the  parlor of the modest little dwelling, where I was taken to see them and  their owner many years ago. My introducer on this occasion was herself a

  lady of no ordinary birth, being the daughter of Stuart, our greatest portrait  painter. I have passed many quiet hours in the quaint studio (the same her  father had used), hearing her prattle - as she loved to do if she found a  sympathetic listener - of her father, of Washington and his pompous ways,  and the many celebrities who had in turn posed before Stuart's easel. She  had been her father's companion and aid, present at the sittings, preparing  his brushes and colors, and painting in backgrounds and accessories; and  would willingly show his palette and explain his methods and theories of  color, his predilection for scrumbling shadows thinly in black and then  painting boldly in with body color. Her lessons had not profited much to  the gentle, kindly old lady, for the productions of her own brush were far  from resembling her great parent's work. She, however, painted cheerfully  on to life's close, surrounded by her many friends, foremost among whom  was Charlotte Cushman, who also passed the last years of her life in  Newport. Miss Stuart was over eighty when I last saw her, still full of  spirit and vigor, beginning the portrait of a famous beauty of that day,  since the wife and mother of dukes.

  Miss Stuart's death seems to close one of the CHAPTER s in the history of  this city, and to break the last connecting link with its past. The world  moves so quickly that the simple days and modest amusements of our  fathers and grandfathers have already receded into misty remoteness. We  look at their portraits and wonder vaguely at their graceless costumes. We  know they trod these same streets, and laughed and flirted and married as  we are doing to-day, but they seem to us strangely far away, like  inhabitants of another sphere!

  It is humiliating to think how soon we, too, shall have become the  ancestors of a new and careless generation; fresh faces will replace our  faded ones, young voices will laugh as they look at our portraits hanging  in dark corners, wondering who we were, and (criticising the apparel we  think so artistic and appropriate) how we could ever have made such guys  of ourselves.

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