Noël Coward ~ The Education of Rupert Plinge

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UNDER the blue-grey shadow of the Didcot Bowles bungalow, with beech trees and pussy willows fringing the banks of the river Sippe which runs, or ran before it was dammed, down past old Caesar Earwhacker’s bicycle shed, three miles from the village of Sagrada, Conn., to the West and eight miles from Roosefelt under the hill to the North leaving the South free for a Black Rising and the East for the Civil War;—there in the seventeenth cottage, with green shutters, below the bridge—with the pine cones occasionally tap-tapping against the pantry window—owing to a strange combination of circumstances Rupert Plinge’s elder sister first saw the light of day. Rupert himself being born ten months later at Guffle Hoe.

Had he been born on the lower reaches of the Yukon and baptised by a remittance man in a Wesleyan Chapel, he would probably not have suffered so acutely from the cold as he did at Guffle Hoe, nor could he have been more persistently victimised and handicapped in after life by bronchial asthma and pyorrhœa of the gums.

Though coldness for a baby was unpleasant in 1870 it was infinitely more tiresome in 1592 and perfectly devastating in 1306. But Guffle Hoe—try to reflect if possible the troglodytic fun of being born within earshot and eyeshot of people such as Granville Boo, General Udby, Ex-President Sumplethock, Senator Mills-Tweeper and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and places such as Mount Knitting, Mudlake West, Pigeon Park and Appleblossom Villa. These influential factors combined were undoubtedly the foundations of the enormous mathematical ability which became apparent long before the boy attained the age of three, but unfortunately for the level development of his mentality, the repulsive plainness of Senator Mills-Tweeper coupled with the innate idiocy of General Udby, completely overshadowed the girlish charm of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Had Rupert been consulted would he have liked playing the game at all—holding the cards in the wrong hand as he did from the very start without the slightest conception of what the game really was and why they were playing it? But it is quite obvious now to anyone looking back over the years that had the cards of his life been shuffled by his Auntie Gracie before her elopement to the Klondyke with Ex-Senator Fortescue, the ultimate stakes would have been immeasurably dissimilar. At this time the harsh political spirit of Guffle Hoe was morally if not physically and perhaps mentally inflamed by the appearance of several tramp steamers in the mouth of the Sippe, a new hay-cart at Oozeworthy Farm, and the flashing of the electrifying news across the newly erected telegraph wires that Peter Rotepillar and Henry Plugg had, apart from their dramatic refusal to enter themselves as candidates for the Presidency, declined to take any further interest in politics at all and had set up a flourishing bee nursery in Bokewood, Mass. This was on a Friday. Rupert was two months old and naturally sensitive—living and sometimes breathing in such a political atmosphere—to the far-reaching effects of such a shattering blow to the constituency. Of all this that was being performed to complicate his education he became suddenly conscious of an innate sense of the roundness of the whole universe. He began to find himself continually oppressed by the protuberant nearness and corresponding magnitude of his mother’s face, which grafted itself upon his infant psychology by looming with maddening regularity over his cot and consciousness. The peculiar rotundity of this good woman’s countenance seemed to illustrate to the rising sun of his genius the ethics of that science at which—had he but lived seventy years later—he might have become so famous:—Geography.

On September 9th, 1871, he developed croup, which in due course promoted him to one of the first steps of artistic education—Colour.

For several days he hung between life and death, turning an exquisite shade of purple and black as each new coughing fit seized him. This not unusual phenomenon impressed its vivid seal upon the plastic wax of his unfledged memories with extraordinary precision. In after life, for a long while, he was quite unable to gaze at an ordinary muscat grape or a coal-scuttle without either biting his comforter right through or being extremely sick. Naturally this disability coupled with the physical weakness and sense of impotence that he invariably experienced when in the company of his older companions occasioned him much unhappiness; in fact, many of the intense sorrows of his childhood were caused by the thoughtless mockery of his sister Leah Clara, aged nineteen months.

To the uninitiated spectator it would appear when gazing casually at young Rupert Plinge that the psychologically educational environment surrounding him was deeply impregnated with the spirit of political reformation which, though neither Elizabethan in tone nor strictly Cromwellian in atmosphere, was strongly suggestive to the lay mind of the Second Empire. The subconscious force of this abstract influence went far toward moulding the delicate shoots of his rapidly developing mentality into a brilliant knowledge of weights and measures, decimals, and the native population of Borneo.

Whether Rupert was enjoying his rubber comforter on the cool green grass, or on the slightly painful gravel, or on the fiercely hot asphalt, summer was to him a season of unsurpassed sensuality, flooding his character with rich productive thought and a passionate adoration for his great-aunt Maud, who was wont to beguile the long sun-stained hours by lying amid cushions among the foliage, humming “The Star-Spangled Banner,” while she removed with the point of her nail-scissors caramels and other adhesive morsels from the gutta-percha plate of her new false teeth which lay in her lap.

With an amazing clarity of perception which, though generally supposed to be inherited from his great-uncle Miles, for fifty-four years Unitarian minister in the Red Lamp district of Honolulu, would undoubtedly in the searching light of twentieth century vision be mainly attributed to prenatal influences and astronomical premonitions, he realised that the atmosphere was exceedingly chilly in the winter.

Later biographists have exposed with somewhat malicious emphasis the one weak point in an otherwise magnificently constructed intelligence—to wit, the peculiar inability to recognise the inner psychology and spiritual determination of his great-grandfather—Bobbie Plinge—who as all the world knows met a tragic death at the hands of Great Brown Spratt, the last but one of the Mohicans, some fifteen years before the birth of Rupert himself. This deficiency in one of the greatest of all American characters was in a measure remedied by his excessive appreciation of his grandfather O’Callaghan Soddle’s luxurious house in Boob Street, later on when the abode of stupendous intellect had been completely gutted by fire and soaked in water. The boy Rupert, then aged two years and a fortnight, exercised a fiercely dominant influence upon the ground charts, plans, etc., for the new palatial residence which was soon to rear its mighty pillars and porticos not so very far from the ivy-grown cottage which in the past had on several occasions sheltered the wistful personality of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

The inherent passion for beauty thus crystallized in the mellowing virility of the boy’s finely wrought temperament went far toward satisfying his deep-rooted and well-nigh insatiable yearning for city splendour.

In the strange juxtaposition to his unequalled comprehension of national political problems was a surprising streak of frank insouciance and happy-hearted boyishness, which frequently expressed itself in the open defiance of authority in the shape of his great-aunt Maud, his slightly dropsical mother (née Sheila Soddle) and his two resident cousins, Alexander Chaffinch and Dorothy Bonk, who at moments were entirely unable even to bend the finely tempered steel of his inflexible will, therefore on the one occasion when his decisive plans were unexpectedly frustrated an impression was photographed with extraordinary bas-relief upon his mind of the omnipotence of his quite infirm Grandfather Soddle—and of power as a concrete argument. The incident being the removal of a half-sucked tin soldier from his hand by the subtle device of striking his knuckles sharply with the fire tongs. Then and always the boy insisted that this method of reprimand justified his apparent submission; the emptiness of his hand and the smarting of his knuckles indubitably marking probably the only occasion in his life when all his strategical points abruptly turned inward. Contrary to the suppositions of impartial psychologists, far from breeding the slightest resentment against old Mr. Soddle, this occurrence inspired an active dislike to great-aunt Maud who had indulged in her ever-irritating laugh at his expense. He expressed his natural anger by filling her handkerchief-case with bacon fat, and other boyish revenges of a like nature.

A child whose soaring entity had been nourished and over tended in such an exotic forcing house of accumulated endeavour and democratic emancipation must indubitably have been the first to realise that the austerity of his massive intellect was within measurable distance of completing that predestined cycle of universal knowledge and aspiring ultimately to the glorious pinnacle of political achievement.

Rupert Plinge’s fourth birthday had scarce dawned across the hills of time when the long drawn out shadow of earthly obscurity completely enveloped the brightest flower of nineteenth century America. The almost morbid cultivation of his superluminary brain reached its devastating climax while committing to memory the anatomy of the common grub in order to demonstrate to the Eastern constituency the fundamental principles of fiscal autonomy. Lying in his cot, his large pale eyes fixed grimly on a visionary goal, he realised with an intuitive pang that the hour of dismissal was at hand. Calling his mother to him he asked his last illuminating question, his mind groping still in search of truth’s flaming beacon:

“Mother, why am I dying?”

Mrs. Plinge leant over him and whispered impressively, “You are dying of dropsy caused by over-education!” And turning on her heel she went slowly out of the room.

Delirium entered the darkening nursery. Rupert, clasping his hot-water bottle raptly, murmured dreamily as he merged into the Great Unknown, the crystallisation of the subconscious influence which had permeated his whole career—

“Dropsy, Dropsy,
Topsy, Topsy—
Harriet Beecher Stowe.”

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