April 23, 2000

London, 1888. Popular young illustrator Montague Barstow and Emmuska Orczy, his Hungarian-born wife of one week, are returning to their Kensington flat after spending the evening with his terminally ill mother. As their carriage approaches the house through the fog, they become aware of people milling about, neighbors, passers-by, constables. A friend tells them the Ripper has struck again. In front of their home. As her husband hurries her inside, the young woman's mind begins racing, but not with panic, or even fear. She's seen violence before.

She's three. Her older sister celebrates her fifth birthday at their father's country estate. Birthdays are always marked with aristocratic friends and relatives gathering from miles around, wearing bejeweled ball gowns (these are on the men; the concept is for everything to be turned topsy-turvy) most of the company disguised in masks, whirling wildly to Hungarian folk dances. Suddenly the family butler whispers something in her father's ear and the children are whisked off to their bedrooms. They become aware of a large number of frenzied, unfestive voices, quickly increasing in intensity. A steam mill had been recently introduced on the estate and a mob of workers are making their feelings toward this device of the devil known, setting fire to the barn and stables. The girls watch from their window as the flames attack the outbuildings, then spread to the crops. The house itself is not touched, but most of the rest of the estate is destroyed. Ironically, the steam mill also survives. The family leaves Hungary, eventually settles in London, where Emmuska is to study art. While at Heatherley's studio school she meets Montague and they marry a few years later. By this time she's decided that painting, at least with oils, is not her forte. She'd rather paint with words.

Her first success comes with The Old Man in the Corner, featuring an eccentric, scrawny oddball, solving murders while sitting in a teashop - the first armchair detective. The series catches on with the public; fame comes quickly. But the baroness wants a more ambitious, grander, heroic project. Inspired by a trip to Paris (perhaps with a Tale of Two Cities lurking in the back of her mind) she begins thinking of the aristocrats of her childhood, the farces and melodramas she and her husband both love, burning stables, mysterious masked and disguised strangers, violent death slashing out of the night fog. In her autobiography, Links in the Chain of Life, she tells of the culmination of her quest. Standing on the underground station platform at Temple Bar, "It was foggy, and smelly and cold. But I give you my word as I was standing there, I saw-yes, I saw-Sir Percy Blakeney, just as you know him now...it was a mental vision, of course, and lasted but a few seconds...the birth of the Scarlet Pimpernel." This same Pimpernel stalks the Broadway stage and the late movie, right up to our own time. It turns out that none of Jack the Ripper's murders took place within five miles of the Barstow flat. But no one knew that while they were happening. Even if they had known, the baroness wasn't one to let a little matter like that get in the way of a good, ripping yarn.

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor


© 2000 David Minor / Eagles Byte