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Chapter 18: certain clubs

At a tea-party which took place quite early in my club career, Dr. Holmes expatiated at some length upon his own unfitness for club association of any kind. He then turned to me and said, ‘Mrs. Howe, I consider you eminently clubable.’ The hostess of the occasion was Mrs. Josiah Quincy, Jr., a lady of much mark in her day, interested in all matters of public importance, and much given to hospitality.

I shall make the doctor's remark the text for a chapter giving some account of various clubs in which I have had membership and office.

The first of these was formed in the early days of my residence in Boston. It was purely social in design, and I mention it here only because it possessed one feature which I have never seen repeated. It consisted of ten or more young women, mostly married, and all well acquainted with one another. Our meetings took place fortnightly, and on the following plan. Each of us was allowed to invite one or two gentlemen friends. The noble pursuit of crochet was then [401] in great favor, and the ladies agreed to meet at eight o'clock, to work upon a crochet quilt which was to be made in strips and afterwards joined. At nine o'clock the gentlemen were admitted. Prior invitations had been given simply in the name of the club, and their names were not disclosed until they made their appearance. The element of comic mystery thus introduced gave some piquancy to our informal gathering. Some light refreshments were then served, and the company separated in great good humor. This little club was much enjoyed, but it lasted only through one season, and the crochet quilt never even approached completion.

My next club experience was much later in date and in quite another locality. The summers which I passed in my lovely Newport valley brought me many pleasant acquaintances. Though at a considerable distance from the town of Newport, I managed to keep up a friendly intercourse with those who took the trouble to seek me out in my retirement.

The historian Bancroft and his wife were at this time prominent figures in Newport society. Their hospitality was proverbial, and at their entertainments one was sure to meet the notabilities who from time to time visited the now reviving town.

Mrs. Ritchie, only daughter of Harrison Gray [402] Otis, of Boston, resided on Bellevue Avenue, as did Albert Sumner, a younger brother of the senator, a handsome and genial man, much lamented when, with his wife and only child, he perished by shipwreck in 1858. Colonel Higginson and his brilliant wife, a sad sufferer from chronic rheumatism, had taken up their abode at Mrs. Dame's Quaker boarding-house. The elder Henry James also came to reside in Newport, attracted thither by the presence of his friends, Edmund and Mary Tweedy.

These notices of Newport are intended to introduce the mention of a club which has earned for itself some reputation and which still exists. Its foundation dates back to a summer which brought Bret Harte and Dr. J. G. Holland to Newport, and with them Professors Lane and Goodwin of Harvard University. My club-loving mind found sure material for many pleasant meetings, and a little band of us combined to improve the beautiful summer season by picnics, sailing parties, and household soirees, in all of which these brilliant literary lights took part. Helen Hunt and Kate Field were often of our company, and Colonel Higginson was always with us. Our usual place of meeting was the house of a hospitable friend who resided on the Point. Both house and friend have to do with the phrase ‘a bully piaz,’ which has erroneously been supposed [403] to be of my invention, but which originated in the following manner: Colonel Higginson had related to us that at a boarding-house which he had recently visited, he found two children of a Boston family of high degree, amusing themselves on the broad piazza. The little boy presently said to the little girl:—

‘I say, sis, is n't this a bully piaz?’

My friend on the Point had heard this, and when she introduced me to the veranda which she had added to her house, she asked me, laughing, ‘whether I did not consider this a bully piaz.’ The phrase was immediately adopted in our confraternity, and our friend was made to figure in a club ditty beginning thus:—

There was a little woman with a bully piaz,
Which she loved for to show, for to show.

This same house contained a room which the owner set apart for dramatic and other performances, and here, with much mock state, we once held a ‘commencement,’ the Latin programme of which was carefully prepared by Professor Lane of Harvard University. I acted as president of the occasion, Colonel Higginson as my aid; and we both marched up the aisle in Oxford caps and gowns, and took our places on the platform. I opened the proceedings by an address in Latin, Greek, and English; and when I turned to Colonel Higginson, and called him, ‘Filie meum [404] dilectissime,’ he wickedly replied with three bows of such comic gravity that I almost gave way to unbecoming laughter. Not long before this he had published his paper on the Greek goddesses. I therefore assigned as his theme the problem, ‘How to sacrifice an Irish bull to a Greek goddess.’ Colonel Waring, the wellknown engineer, being at that time in charge of a valuable farm in the neighborhood, was invited to discuss ‘Social small potatoes; how to enlarge the eyes.’ An essay on rhinosophy was given by Fanny Fern, the which I, chalk in hand, illustrated on the blackboard by the following equation—

Nose + nose + nose = proboscis
Nose — nose — nose = snub.

A class was called upon for recitations from Mother Goose in seven different languages. At the head of this Professor Goodwin, then and now of Harvard, honored us with a Greek version of ‘The Man in the Moon.’ A recent Harvard graduate recited the following:—

Heu! iter didulum,
     Felis cum fidulum,
Vacca transiluit lunam,
     Caniculus ridet
Quum talem videt,
     Et dish ambulavit cum spoonam.

The question being asked whether this last line was in strict accordance with grammar, the [405] scholar gave the following rule: ‘The conditions of grammar should always give way to the exigencies of rhyme.’

A supposed graduate of the department of law coming forward to receive her degree, was thus addressed: ‘Come hither, my dear little lamb, I welcome you to a long career at the baa.’

As I record these extravagances, I seem to hear faint reverberations of the laughter of some who are no longer in life, and of others who will never again meet in such lightness of heart.

This brilliant conjunction of stars was now no more in Newport, and the delicious fooling of that unique summer was never repeated. Out of it came, however, the more serious and permanent association known as the Town and Country Club of Newport. Of this I was at once declared president, but my great good fortune lay in my having for vice-president Professor William B. Rogers, illustrious as the founder of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The rapid crescendo of the fast world which surrounded us at this time made sober people a little anxious lest the Newport season should entirely evaporate into the shallow pursuit of amusement. This rampant gayety offered little or nothing to the more thoughtful members of society,—those who love to combine reasonable intercourse with work and study. [406]

I felt the need of upholding the higher social ideals, and of not leaving true culture unrepresented, even in a summer watering-place. Professor Rogers entered very fully into these views. With his help a simple plan of organization was effected, and a small governing board was appointed. Colonel Higginson became our treasurer, Miss Juliet R. Goodwin, granddaughter of Hon. Asher Robbins, was our secretary. Samuel Powel, formerly of Philadelphia, a man much in love with natural science, was one of our most valued members. Our membership was limited to fifty. Our club fee was two dollars. Our meetings took place once in ten days. At each meeting a lecture was given on some topic of history, science, or general literature. Tea and conversation followed, and the party usually broke up after a session of two hours. Colonel Higginson once deigned to say that this club made it possible to be sensible even at Newport and during the summer. The names of a few persons show what we aimed at, and how far we succeeded. We had scientific lectures from Professor Rogers, Professor Alexander Agassiz, Dr. Weir Mitchell, and others. Maria Mitchell, professor of astronomy at Vassar College, gave us a lecture on Saturn. Miss Kate Hillard spoke to us several times. Professor Thomas Davidson unfolded for us the philosophy of Aristotle. Rev. George [407] E. Ellis gave us a lecture on the Indians of Rhode Island, and another on Bishop Berkeley. Professor Bailey of Providence spoke on insectivorous plants, and on one occasion we enjoyed in his company a club picnic at Paradise, after which the wild flowers in that immediate vicinity were gathered and explained. Colonel Higginson ministered to our instruction and entertainment, and once unbent so far as to act with me and some others in a set of charades. The historian George Bancroft was one of our number, as was also Miss Anna Ticknor, founder of the Society for the Encouragement of Studies at Home. Among the worthies whom we honor in remembrance I must not omit to mention Rev. Charles T. Brooks, the beloved pastor of the Unitarian church. Mr. Brooks was a scholar of no mean pretensions, and a man of most delightful presence. He had come to Newport immediately after graduating at Harvard Divinity School, and here he remained, faithfully at work, until the close of his pastoral labors, a period of forty years. He was remarkably youthful in aspect, and retained to the last the bloom and bright smile of his boyhood. His sermons were full of thought and of human interest; but while bestowing much care upon them, he found time to give to the world a metrical translation of Goethe's ‘Faust’ and an English version of the ‘Titan’ of Jean Paul Richter. [408]

Professor Davidson's lecture on Aristotle touched so deeply the chords of thought as to impel some of us to pursue the topic further. Dear Charles Brooks invited an adjourned meeting of the club to be held in his library. At this several learned men were present. Professor Boyesen spoke to us of the study of Aristotle in Germany; Professor Botta of its treatment in the universities of Italy. The laity asked many questions, and the fine library of our host afforded the books of reference needed for their enlightenment.

The club proceedings here enumerated cover a period of more than thirty years. The world around us meanwhile had reached the height of fashionable success. An entertainment, magnificent for those days, was given, which was said to have cost ten thousand dollars. Samuel Powel prophesied that a collapse must follow such extravagance. A change certainly did follow. The old, friendly Newport gradually disappeared. The place was given over to the splendid festivities of fashion, which is ‘nothing if not fashionable.’ Under this influence it still abides. The fourin-hand is its climax Dances can be enjoyed only by those who can begin them at eleven o'clock at night, and end in the small hours of the morning. If one attends a party, one sees the hall as full of lackeys as would be displayed at a London entertainment [409] in high life. They are English lackeys, too, and their masters and mistresses affect as much of the Anglican mode of doing things as Americans can fairly master. The place has all its old beauty, with many modern improvements of convenience; but its exquisite social atmosphere, half rustic, half cosmopolitan, and wholly free, is found no longer. The quiet visitors of moderate fortunes find their tastes better suited across the bay, at Jamestown and Narragansett Pier. Thus whole generations of the transients have come and gone since the time of my early memories.

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