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XIV. one of Thackeray's women

Some years since, there passed away, at Newport, Rhode Island, one who could justly be classed with Thackeray's women; one in whom Lady Kew would have taken delight; one in whom she would have found wit and memory and audacity rivaling her own; one who was at once old and young, poor and luxurious, one of the loneliest of human beings, and yet one of the most sociable. Miss Jane Stuart, the only surviving daughter of Gilbert Stuart, the painter, had dwelt all her life on the edge of art without being an artist, and at the brink of fashion without being fashionable. Living at times in something that approached poverty, she was usually surrounded by friends who were rich and generous; so that she often fulfilled Motley's famous early saying, that one could do without the necessaries of life, but could not spare the luxuries. She was an essential part of the atmosphere of Newport; living near the “Old Stone Mill,” she divided its celebrity and, as all agreed, its doubtful antiquity; for her most intimate friends could not really guess within fifteen years how old she was, and [186] strangers placed her anywhere from sixty to eighty. Her modest cottage, full of old furniture and pictures, was the resort of much that was fashionable on the days of her weekly receptions; costly equipages might be seen before the door; and if, during any particular season, she suspected a falling off in visitors, she would try some new device,--a beautiful girl sitting in a certain carved armchair beneath an emblazoned window, like Keats's Madeline, -or, when things grew desperate, a bench with a milk-pan and a pumpkin on the piazza, to give an innocently rural air. “My dear,” she said on that occasion, “I must try something: rusticity is the dodge for me” ; and so the piazza looked that summer like a transformation scene in “Cinderella,” with the fairy godmother not far off.

She inherited from her father in full the Bohemian temperament, and cultivated it so habitually through life that it was in full flower at a time when almost any other woman would have been repressed by age, poverty, and loneliness. At seventy or more she was still a born mistress of the revels, and could not be for five minutes in a house where a charade or a mask was going on without tapping at the most private door and plaintively imploring to be taken in as one of the conspirators. Once in, there [187] was nothing too daring, too grotesque, or too juvenile for her to accept as her part, and successfully. In the modest winter sports of the narrowed Newport circle, when wit and ingenuity had to be invoked to replace the summer resources of wealth and display, she was an indispensable factor. She had been known to enact a Proud Sister in “Cinderella,” to be the performer on the penny whistle in the “Children's Symphony,” to march as the drum major of the Ku-Klux Klan with a muff for a shako, and to be the gorilla of a menagerie, with an artificial head. Nothing could make too great a demand upon her wit and vivacity, and her very face had a droll plainness more effective for histrionic purposes than a Grecian profile. She never lost dignity in these performances, for she never had anything that could exactly be described by that name; that was not her style. She had in its stead a supply of common sense and ready adaptation that took the place, when needed, of all starched decorum, and quite enabled her on serious occasions to hold her own.

But her social resources were not confined to occasions where she was one of an extemporized troupe: she was a host in herself; she had known everybody; her memory held the adventures and scandals of a generation, and these [188] lost nothing on her lips. Then when other resources were exhausted, and the candles had burned down, and the fire was low, and a few guests lingered, somebody would be sure to say, “Now, Miss Jane, tell us a ghost story.” With a little, a very little, of coy reluctance, she would begin, in a voice at first commonplace, but presently dropping to a sort of mystic tone; she seemed to undergo a change like the gypsy queen in Browning's “Flight of the Duchess” ; she was no longer a plain, elderly woman in an economical gown, but she became a medium, a solemn weaver of spells so deep that they appeared to enchant herself. Whence came her stories, I wonder? not ghost stories alone, but blood-curdling murders and midnight terrors, of which she abated you not an item,--for she was never squeamish,--tales that all the police records could hardly match. Then, when she and her auditors were wrought up to the highest pitch, she began to tell fortunes; and here also she seemed not so much a performer as one performed upon,--a Delphic priestess, a Cassandra. I never shall forget how she once made our blood run cold with the visions of coming danger that she conjured around a young married woman on whom there soon afterwards broke a wholly unexpected scandal that left her an exile in a foreign land. No one ever knew, I [189] believe, whether Miss Stuart spoke at that time with knowledge; perhaps she hardly knew herself; she always was, or affected to be, carried away beyond herself by these weird incantations.

She was not so much to be called affectionate or lovable as good-natured and kindly; and with an undisguised relish for the comfortable things of this world, and a very frank liking for the society of the rich and great, she was yet constant, after a fashion, to humbler friends, and liked to do them good turns. Much of her amiability took the form of flattery,--a flattery so habitual that it lost all its grossness, and became almost a form of good deeds. She was sometimes justly accused of applying this to the wealthy and influential, but it was almost as freely exercised where she had nothing to gain by it; and it gave to the humblest the feeling that he was at least worth flattering. Even if he had a secret fear that what she said of him behind his back might be less encouraging, no matter: it was something to have been praised to his face. It must be owned that her resources in the other direction were considerable, and Lord Steyne himself might have applauded when she was gradually led into mimicking some rich amateur who had pooh-poohed her pictures, or some intrusive dame who had patronizingly [190] inspected her humble cot. It could not quite be said of her that her wit lived to play, not wound; and yet, after all, what she got out of life was so moderate, and so many women would have found her way of existence dreary enough, that it was impossible to grudge her these trifling indulgences.

Inheriting her father's love of the brush, she had little of his talent; her portraits of friends were generally transferred by degrees to dark corners; but there existed an impression that she was a good copyist of Stuart's pictures, and she was at one time a familiar figure in Boston, perched on a high stool, and copying those of his works which were transferred for safekeeping from Faneuil Hall to the Art Museum. On one occasion, it was said, she grew tired of the long process of copying and took home a canvas or two with the eyes unpainted, putting them in, colored to please her own fancy, at Newport. Perhaps she invented this legend for her own amusement, for she never spared herself, and, were she to read this poor sketch of her, would object to nothing but the tameness of its outlines. [191]

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