The zest of the Atlantic wafts over the cliff walk at Newport today as it has done ever since the continents assumed their present position, and it is a zest without equal. Small wonder, then, that Mrs. John Jacob Astor decided to have a summer home built on the promontory so that she could come out from New York City and breathe what, very nearly, corresponds to the elixir of life.
Today one can push open the little gate in the fence abutting the cliff walk, and stroll over the lawn toward the house, just as though one were visiting Mrs. Astor. There are no guards, no questions, no formalities. At the front door one rings the bell and, while waiting, admires the gleaming horseless carriage that stands in the driveway. Then the door opens and a replica of a Victorian manservant stands there, in faded black jacket and high wing collar, asking with apparent seriousness whether one has come to visit Mrs. Astor.
This is no ordinary museum, but a house where the past is being re-enacted and, as one steps over the threshold, one begins to be caught up in the spirit of another era. The manservant explains that ''the Grande Dame'' is at present in New York, but he and the housekeeper will be delighted to show one around. A picture of the lady herself hangs in the hall, painted only ''recently'' by one of the best French artists of the day - a day which, it emerges, is 1892.
By now the front door has closed, shutting out one's own world. The manservant offers one the chance to attend a magic lantern show later on, and introduces the housekeeper, resplendent in her special Astor uniform. She seems to be assuming that one has come to stay, for she offers to show one the rooms that have been set aside. One follows her with an increasingly creepy sensation, listening to her chatter of how seldom Mr. Astor comes down here but how, in the season, Mrs. Astor always comes to stay, bringing with her a selection of ninety gowns.
At the doorway to the bedroom that has been set aside for one's wife, the housekeeper pauses and, following the direction of her eyes, one is startled by the sight of a young girl sitting on a sofa and caught in the act of sewing. ''Your wife's maid seems to have arrived already, sir,'' says the housekeeper and, so hypnotic has the visit become, one almost accepts her remark.
Thus one is led on through the house in a state of suspended disbelief. One admires Mrs. Astor's collection of lace (while noting the opened book awaiting her return) and one views the very latest bioptic photographs of the family and the beach at Newport. One even begins to sympathize with the housekeeper as she complains of how her staff of twenty or so girls grow tired and dilatory when, late at night, they are yearning for the beds they left at 5 a.m. In the kitchen the cook, too, talks of the strain of catering for all the guests when Mrs. Astor is giving a ball, and emphasizes her point by showing the hand-written menu of an elaborate eight-course dinner.
It is a claustrophobic world that one has entered, a world in which the sunlight is always out of reach and the laws of the master and mistress are supreme. Yet, although one is only a cursory visitor from 1982, it is difficult to resist its potency. The standards are demanding, the work is laborious, and the social differences are extreme but, if it were really possible to travel back in time, would this world not soon become familiar? Just as when visiting another country today one is careful to observe the etiquette of the inhabitants and to honor their conventions, so one would fall in with the attitudes that were common in Mrs. Astor's day. Indeed, if one stayed long enough these attitudes would surely become one's own in the same way that, after living for a while abroad, one finds on returning home that it seems unexpectedly foreign.
And so, as one emerges from the Astor house into the sunshine, and walks back across the lawn toward the sea, it is with a sense of shock that one sees the youth of today strolling along the cliff walk clad in their jeans and sneakers. Like some soldier returning from the battlefield, one has had a glimpse of a world beyond their ken, a strong and formidable world in which duty is paramount.
The expectations of that world have, thanks to the actors and actresses of Beechwood, become more familiar and the mystery of human history has become alleviated. One now knows that, however alien the past may seem, it would be as familiar to one if one lived in it as the present is to us today. And so, as one walks away from the house, with the sunlight agelessly glinting on the ocean below, it is hard not to look back and imagine the face of someone at the window looking out from the world of 1892 - a face that one can easily recognize, since it belongs to someone remarkably like oneself.