Buck Mudgett and the Eighteenth Century
An Irish poet, author ,and surgeon, OLIVER ST. JOHN GOGARTY is almost as much at home in America as in Ireland. A gay, dynamic figure who pilots his own plane and loves archery, Dr. Gogarty was a fellow student with James Joyce and, so legend has it, the model for Buck Mulligan in Ulysses. He first unlatched our affections with his nitty semi-autobiography, As I Was Going Down Sackville Street, which appeared in 1937.
by OLIVER ST. JOHN GOGARTY
HAD you caught sight of him walking loosely in the shadows when the purple mist magnifies the old houses, you might have taken him for some scambling fellow ; but as he came nearer and the lamplighter lit lamp by lamp against him, you would have seen, now and again, a young pale face in the yellow light and a tall thin figure made taller by the length of the greatcoat he wore bill toned to the neck against the bleak November weather, He appeared to be what those who knew him called “delicate,” and the pallor of his face and his long eyelashes did not belie them; but the delicacy was more of his mind which loved to dwell on the graciousness of a century which was gone.
Young Simon Mudgett is coming up Temple Street. You can see that he is carrying a walking stick and that he turns out his left foot. It is this that gives him so strange a gait and makes his walk look purposeless. He glances at the yellow windows and his quick look takes in every detail of the life within the tenements. You would not have taken those sharp eyes of his for the eyes of a dreamer. Yet a dreamer he is who is living again in the splendor that reigned two hundred years ago before the city widened and, one by one, the stalely mansions were lelt for a while unoccupied until they became tenements at last, and families lived in every room of a house where but one family had lived before. All that is left of that old majesty of eighteenth-century Dublin is the purple mist that lingers al this hour between the rose-red houses as fleeting as a memory before sleep.
Me stops in front of St . George’s Church set in its little square with its Corinthian façade facing the street on the opposite side of which the houses are built in a crescent to give more space to the church. He gazes up at the steeple set unbecomingly on a Greek temple; but the structure has been so long folded in the arms of Time that it is as acceptable to him as the century which made it.
As he gazes, the theme of one of his gentle essays floats into his mind. An essay on Dublin’s spires or steeples. He would tell how Dean Swift warded off the anachronism and excrescence of a brick spire from the tower of Comyn’s Early English great Church of St. Patrick. And how interesting he could make the attempt of the Georgian architects to keep within the classical and yet to provide a spire for the church in another crescent, that of Upper Mount Street. There stands the pleasant church shaped like a Greek temple, on which two other Greek buildings are superimposed, the Temple of the Winds and the Lanthorn of Demosthenes. Then he would bring in the sharp uncompromising spire of the perfect little Black Church to which no one has gone in this generation. The tops of some of the pinnacles are on the ground inside the railings. Was the church left unfinished and had its congregation faded away before it could be completed: Or he might write on Dublin’s “crescents.” The crescent opposite and the Mount Street Crescent he thought of and, above all, he must not fail to write of the crescent someone built at Clontarf to shut out the view of the bay from the fellow who owned the land behind. He could tell how the landowner as he was shaving could no longer let his eyes rove over the two conical mauve hills far off in Wicklow with the morning light on them and the twinkling bay between.
Yes, it could be all turned into a gentle essay that in spite of its treating of church spires would give no denomination offense. And that in itself would be no mean literary feat in Dublin. One of the bells in the belfry rings out the hour; six great sounds which echo confusedly from the houses in the crescent which are yet too close for such a bell. He passes on. His landlady will have “high tea” set for six-thirty and she likes her lodgers to be punctual. For this reason more than for the food of which he often fails to partake, he taps the broad flags and hurries on.
He lives in a cul-de-sac that is closed by iron railings which guard a little pond that was the city’s reservoir in the days in which his spirit lives. There is just room on the narrow path that rings its margin to walk around it. He loves to walk around it on Sundays with his friends. The little pond or “Basin” supplies one of Dublin’s great distilleries; but it is rather on the days when the water supply to the city was threatened that his mind prefers to dwell. Those were the days when Lord Santry was sentenced to be hanged for the murder of a servant. The fact that it was his privilege as a peer to be hanged with a silken rope did not mollify his lady. She threatened to shut off the water from the reservoir which was her property, so that she roused the citizens to agitate for a reprieve. In due course this was granted; but her husband was degraded, as anyone who reads Burke’s Peerage can see for himself.
He can tell you in his quiet voice, in short allusive sentences, of another peer who ran another flunky through and bade the expostulating innkeeper to “put it on the bill.” “Which showed that he was prepared to make amends,” he will remark slyly.
It is strange that so gentle a nature should love to recall those florid, full-eyed men and to take vicarious satisfaction in their violent ways. Maybe he is a throwback to the time when the house with which he claims relationship reigned in Mudgettstown — a would-be cavalier.
He can tell you (and point out the place of reference which is the distinguishing trait of the scholar) where the first flight or glide took place and it was long before the Wright brothers got off the ground. His long lingers will reach unerringly for an old volume, “ Here it is. Projector Pockrich. Inventors were called ‘projectors’ in those days, and Pockrich certainly ‘projected’ himself, as St. Audoen’s Parish Record tells, ‘From Thomas Street to Meath Street.’ Here is the reference: ‘The famous Flying Man flew twice, in a very extraordinary manner, from the lop of King John’s Castle in Thomas Street to a post set up in Meath Street.’ To the same Pockrich was due the invention of musical boxes, musical glasses, iron boats, and, as is supposed, a flying machine. He it was who recommended blood transfusion and prophesied iron battleships and declared that men Would one day call for their wings in the same casual voice in which they now call for their boots. He lived just two hundred years, before his time. Vet Dublin is still rich in ‘projectors.’ Here it was that Thwaites invented soda water which can turn whiskey into champagne. I leave you to decide which was the most important.”
Such companionable occasions are few. That must be admitted, for he spends most of his time reading and collecting books. He is an authority on almost every publication of the century he loves, He has engravings of Peg Woflington, Maria Gunning, Lady Blessington. It was for the beauty of its name and its association with her that he chose for his lodging Blessington Street. By day he reads and by night he dreams of satins and laces, silk stockings and velvet clothes, patches and fans, perukes and swords and gorgeous colors, card playing, quick tempers and duels in the morning carried out in accordance with the rules on the ceremony laid down at Clonmel.
But if there were transmigration backwards in time, it is into the person of Buck Whaley he would be reincarnated, for Buck Whaley played handball for a wager against the walls of Jerusalem without troubling to ask permission of the Grand Turk. When hauled before the Grand Turk he produced a brace of dueling pistols so that honor should be satisfied: but the Turk let him go for a madman — “for no one,” said he, “but one demented would offer arms to his foe.” He would jump through the window of his aunt’s house (if he were Buck Whaley) on his horse from the first-story lobby window onto matrasses in St. Stephen’s Green.
But perhaps 1 he most attractive feat to him would be the tooling Whaley caused to be made on the binding of his memoirs, which is the finest example in existence of the Dublin bookbinder’s art. Buck Whaley combined wildness with good taste and so recommended himself all the more to Simon Mudgett. And there was an additional fact which commended him more: in spile of his gambling, Buck Whaley did not die in squalor or disgrace like so many of the eighteenth-century Bucks. So Mudgett could keep his self-respect intact after a life of recklessness and derring-do.
IT is said, and it is a cheering thought, that if the will be bent continually on a purpose. Destiny will yield and the wisher gain his wish. Without Good Luck, which may be held to be a part of man’s Destiny, there is not much to be expected from extraordinary demands. Simon Mudgett had Good Luck. A fortune came his way.
It is a story in itself but it will be enough to state that the Irish Land Commission, a body of officials without land themselves who are the landlords of Ireland since the old landed gentry have disappeared, came upon a document which pointed to the fact that a sum of money lying for years in the Court of Chancery belonged to Simon Mudgett. Even the Dublin lawyers and Ali Baba and his forty income-tax officers could not utterly despoil his estate; so Simon Mudgett became a man of ample means. Now was his chance and he prepared to take it. Reluctantly he left his lodgings in quiet Blessington Street. He reached this wrenching decision chiefly out of considerations of space for his books. He wanted a library. What country mansion in the eighteenth century was without a library?
Certainly he had ample time to make the change or to make up his mind to leave, for he spent half a year before he could acquire some Buck’s country seat. It had to be repaired and furnished; and to collect and to put into position all the trappings of the period took more time. Then there was the cellarage to consider. He collected claret and port. Port could be purchased of a date far older than that of claret. The claret had to come from Bordeaux to Galway and to remain there until it could be “broken" while a favoring south wind prevailed.
It is a difficult task, this living in a past century; but with his knowledge of detail, at length all was to his mind and he moved in. He was neither eccentric enough nor sufficiently courageous to drive about in a costume of the period and in a four-inhand coach or a coach-and-six as he longed to do; but his gentle and retiring nature made a pleasing compromise. His cravat suggested the period, and his avoidance of the modern means of travel compensated in some degree for the absence of ostentation. When he visited the city he sought its more ancient inns and taverns. There were left but few. Daly’s Coffee House had long ago disappeared, so he was forced to seek consolation in taverns of the time or at least in those which were owned by some Benedict not working for a company.
But with the change in his circumstances a change in his character came. It may be that his want of recklessness and his inability fully to satisfy his predilections caused an exasperalion of spirit which showed itself in a certain tartness to his friends and impatience with strangers. The years that improved his wines did not add to his mellowness. They had the opposite effect. He grew waspish and pursy though meanness was not in him. One critical companion discovered that he resented the presence of women in a bar and that he blamed them for the change in taverns, too many of which had become “lounges" fitted with armchairs, divans, and sheltered lights. When women were about he never stood his round. He “had to be going.”
In spite of his shyness and his objection to women, at least to women in bars, he married a charming young woman. He kept the marriage from his friends. It was not until a public ball in which the guests were to appear in costume was held at Ballsbridge that the news of his marriage was made public. Some say that he would not have turned up had the ball not been a costume ball. He could not resist the chance of dressing at last in the costume he admired. A coat of yellow satin, gold-buttoned, skirted, and deeply cuffed, worn over a long poplin waistcoat, plum knee breeches, white silk stockings and silver buckled shoes, clothed him at last as he would be. His peruke was powdered and his sword shone with its jeweled hilt and scabbard tipped with gold.
His lady wore not two patches but three, for he was well aware of the language of patches and he would not have her signal to other Bucks even though none else knew the language of patches. He danced minuets until he could stand no longer upright in that slow and stately measure. In accordance with the customs of the time he was carried to his carriage; his shoulders wore white with powder and his sword was held by a friend.
The ball was a success and though there was no one to challenge to a duel in the morning, he never forgave his helping friends.
Two things maintained his good luck: his wife entered into the spirit of the century of her husband’s adoption so heartily that she became as devoted to him as any dutiful lady of the courts of the first or second George, aye, back even to Queen Anne. There was but one rumor of resistance and it must have been passive. It was against the employment of a Negro page. And, secondly, his friends did not shun him. Instead, they sought his company for the sake of his sallies (even though they were at their expense) and his quaintly decorous behavior. He wore no sword, it is true; but his tongue became a rapier with which he transfixed his friends, especially as the evenings wore late; but even then they refused to lake umbrage. This made him all the more brittle and acerb.
It is a sorry plight when no one takes you seriously enough to be offended by your insults. To be thus popular for insociability, even when metaphorically he had run all his friends through, brought on a feeling of impotence to which was added a strange asceticism: he resented being found in a tavern, though he had not the will power to keep out. His friends got their own back by nicknaming him “Buck.”
To HAVE achieved your ambition and to have been unable to fulfill it is surely among the ironies of life. Mudgett became portion and parcel of the eighteenth century; but he failed to fill its day. Instead of some daring feat of horsemanship, he could not ride a horse; instead of staking a county on a card, he never gambled; instead of calling a man out, he “called him down,”to use popular parlance; instead of being swift and indifferent, he was slowgoing and cautious. His soul lived in the eighteenth century; but his body stayed outside. And this leads to a conclusion which is nothing short of metaphysical. To explain such an extraordinary occurrence us that of which he was the victim, the father of modern psychoanalysis, Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, called Paracelsus, must he consulted.
Paracelsus states that the soul has an all-embracing love for the body and the body an allembracing love for the soul. Whether the body revenged itself upon the soul, or the yeuius temporis of the eighteenth century revenged ilself upon the body, is a moot point; but whatever brought the tragedy about may bo investigated later by consulting those skilled in explaining in terms of psychoanalysis this psychosomatic phenomenon. The tragedies of life are not enacted on the stage but in the greenroom.
One night as Buck Mudgett lay awake in bed thinking what he would say to his friend the editor of a popular newspaper, he felt a little stab at the side of his great toe where it joins the foot. At first he was about to blame his wife for leaving a hairpin in the bed, or a needle, but she was soon exonerated by a repetition of the pain. It came with much greater intensity. It soon ceased to be repeated but rose in a crescendo lancinating as if a thousand rapiers were thrust all at once. Next it seemed as if all the rapiers were red-hot. All the wounds of all the duels of the eighteenth century had met in his toe.
He pulled off the clothes and examined his foot. It was red and shining and appeared to swell under his eyes, but he could not stare at it long, for his eyes were shut fast as paroxysm upon paroxysm besieged him. What had beset him? He pulled the bellpull. His wife entered the room. The pallor of his face alarmed her and was reflected upon her own. This exasperated him. “Don’t look so haggard but send for Dr. Little at once and be quick about it,”he said testily; then he relapsed upon the pillow, wan with pain. “A bandbox, or some protection for this foot of mine,”he ordered.
Dr. Little was the oldest physician in Dublin. He was over ninety years old, lean and long-headed, with a fresh complexion. He had at one time ordered Mudgett to go to Bath, and Mudgett was so pleased with the place sacred to Beau Nash that he forgot the rigors of the regime to which the wise old doctor had committed him. There was something of the eighteenth century about the doctor who was born at the end of it. He never flattered a patient. His honesty was almost unethical. He used the medical language of that century, and this to Buck Mudgett was half the cure.
After an hour carriage wheels were heard upon the gravel, and soon the old physician appeared with his long frock coat and high cravat. Mudgett was full of pity for himself but he roused himself to alertness at the sight of the doctor. But the doctor, ignoring his greeting, commanded: -
“Lie down now. You need not try to help me.
I know what is wrong with you. You have the gout; and indeed you earned it. You cannot be a threebottle man without inviting it. Had your parents not been long-lived and abstemious you would have had an attack long ago.”
“Oh, but doctor, what has the cause got to do with it? Can’t you cure this raging pain?”
“’The cause has everything to do with it. There are three causes — Indolence, Intemperance, Vexation. But I will first exhibit a slowly-operating laxative, neither hot nor cold, but warm in doses sufficient to move you twice in twenty-four hours, or a larger dose if you cannot contain your impatience.
“This will be followed by a lenient absorbent corrector of acrimony and a gentle anodyne. A cataplasm for the raging part which will surprise you by the way it assuages pain.”
“For God’s sake,” Buck Mudgett interrupted, but the doctor went remorselessly on.
“Mild and spontaneously dissolving nourishment . .
“Can’t you send your coachman for the cataplasm at once?”
“Vexation, I think you will remember, is one of the three cardinal causes. That is the causa proegumena. The causa procatarctica in your case is port wine. Unless I point the cause I cannot prescribe the remedy. Your diet will be milk and whey, but to refocillate your spirits I will allow you one dram of Jameson’s whiskey with cold water, to be taken at night. If you adhere strictly to my prescription you should be about in a week. Then it will be time to talk about exercise and rubbing. That will, I hope, get rid of the Indolence. Your Intemperance I am now treating. Your Vexation will abate with the pain and with the absence of rich food and spices.”
Is there a moral in all this? That is in itself an eighteenth-century question.
The bartender who compensated for his extroverted life by studying psychiatry in his stillest hours in the stillroom — for he found that contemplation was as liable to be interrupted as conversation at the bar — said, “It’s a psychosomatic case all right. Ye see, it was like this: his psyche lived altogether in the eighteenth century and his body — that is, his soma — tried to follow it but could not, being a body and not a soul that can go backwards and forwards in time. So all the body could contribute to the situation was a dose of gout which every gentleman affected in the eighteenth century, He’s a nice gentleman. I’ve been missing him lately. Give him time and he’ll be back all right.