A remarkable feature of the Cornish village of Rederring is that it possesses an endowed corps of professional bridesmaids on duty every day from ten to four, ready dressed, in case their services should be needed. They complain, however, that there has been no wedding in the village for at least six months. They suggest to old Dame Hannah that she might marry, but Hannah, the victim of an unhappy girlish romance, is pledged to eternal spinsterhood. She had fallen in love with a young man who courted her under an assumed name but who, on their wedding day, she discovered to be no other than Sir Roderic Murgatroyd, one of the bad Baronets of Ruddigore and the uncle of the man who now bears that title. As a son of that accursed race, he was no husband for an honest girl, and madly as she loved him she left him there and then. The girls crowd round curiously as Dame Hannah tells them the legend of the curses.
- "Sir Rupert Murgatroyd, his leisure and his riches
- He ruthlessly employed in persecuting witches."
But one of his victims while being burned at the stake laid a dreadful curse upon him: that he and all his line must commit at least one deadly crime each day or perish in agony. And so it has come to pass.
As Hannah finishes her story, her neice, Rose Maybud, arrives. Rose is a foundling. She was discovered in a plated dish-cover hung on the door of the workhouse; her only possessions a change of baby-linen and a book of etiquette, to which, whenever in doubt, she refers. Rose is fond of a young farmer, and when he appears on the scene Hannah leaves the young people together. Now this young farmer, who calls himself Robin Oakapple, is in reality Ruthven Murgatroyd. In dread of the terrible curse, he fled from home, while his younger brother, Despard, believing him to be dead, succeeded to the family title and the curse. Robin is greatly attracted to Rose, but he is too shy to tell her that he loves her. So he pretends to ask her advice as to how he can bring a bashful friend of his to the point of proposing to the girl he loves, in a duet which finishes with oblique encouragement from Rose and a broad hint to her from Robin to meet him half-way.
A stir in the village heralds the arrival of Richard Dauntless, a blue-jacket, on leave. He is Robin's foster-brother and closest friend, and Robin enlists his services to propose to Rose on his behalf. In doing so, however, Richard falls in love with Rose himself, proposes on his own account and is accepted. But when Rose learns the true state of affairs she transfers her affections to the shy and modest Robin, and Richard in pique reveals the identity of Robin, who in consequence has to assume his family title with its terrible curse. Sir Despard Murgatroyd, now free, proposes to Mad Margaret, a poor, crazed creature whose brain has been turned by his previous heartless conduct; while Rose, in horror of the dreadful curse, once more bestows her affections on Richard.
As Act II begins, the scene is the picture-gallery in Ruddigore Castle. On the walls hang full-length family portraits of the baronets of Ruddigore since the reign of James I, the first being that of Sir Rupert of the legend, and the last that of the deceased Baronet, Sir Roderic. Robin is now in residence as Sir Ruthven Murgatroyd, with his faithful servant, old Adam Goodheart. They are discussing what the crime of today is to be. Robin asks for suggestions, and Adam proposes that, as Richard and Rose have called to ask for Robin's approval of their marriage, he might like to poison their beer. Robin will not hear of such a suggestion and counters with the proposal to tie Richard to a post and curdle his blood by making hideous faces at him, which Adam dismisses as merely rude. Alone before the portraits of his ancestors, Robin confides to them his detestation of his accursed doom and begs to be released from having to commit his daily crime. As he speaks the lights dim, the family portraits become animated and, stepping from their frames, they sing:
- "Painted emblems of a race,
- All accursed in days of yore,
- Each from his accustomed place,
- Steps into the world once more."
The ancestors make it clear to Robin that he has so far woefully failed to observe the terms of the curse and threaten him that unless he is prepared to set upon a course of evil he will suffer untold agonies. Robin attempts to win their sympathy by pitying their ghastly state, but Sir Roderic, in one of Sullivan's most masterly songs, assures him that the spectres are a jolly crew, especially
- "When the night wind howls
- In the chimney cowls
- And the bat in the moonlight flies."
Robin attempts to rebel, but Sir Roderic merely exclaims: "Very good, let the agonies commence," and Robin is soon writhing in torment, shrieking for mercy. He is ordered for his next crime to carry off a lady, and after Robin has promised to be obedient in the future, the ancestors return to their frames and change once more into pictures. Adam finds poor Robin in a shattered state and, learning that he has agreed to carry off a lady as today's crime, volunteers to oblige and sets off to find the lady.
While Adam is absent Robin receives a visit from his brother Despard and Mad Margaret, who are now married and devoted to good works. Margaret is a District Visitor and she has discovered a recipe to recover her saner self. Whenever madness threatens she merely repeats the word "Basingstroke" and she is immediately in control of herself. Despard points out to Robin that he must realize that he is morally responsible for all crimes committed during Despard's occupation of his place, and Robin is more than ever determined to find some means of freeing himself from the conditions of this dreadful curse.
Old Adam, who has performed his task of carrying off a lady with more zeal and discretion, now returns to Ruddigore Castle, hustling Dame Hannah. She is in a rage at the treatment she has received and after an angry passage of words attacks Robin with a formidable dagger. Robin in alarm calls to his uncle Roderic for help, and once again Sir Roderic Murgatroyd comes to life and descends from his picture-frame. He denounces Robin for carrying off the lady who was once engaged to him, and turning tenderly to Hannah joins her in a duet about the pretty little flower and the great oak-tree.
- "There grew a little flower neath a great oak tree
- When the tempest 'gan to lower, little heeded she."
Seeing their happiness in their reunion, Robin has a brilliant idea. He puts it to Sir Roderic that a Baronet of Ruddigore can only die by refusing to commit a crime and that is tantamount to suicide. But suicide itself is a crime. They ought therefore never to have died at all. Consequently they are all alive. It is obviously impossible to contradict this sound logic of Gilbert's and all ends on the happiest of notes with Rose united to Robin, and Richard to the prettiest of the bridesmaids, while Sir Roderic, assuming his fleshly garb, is reunited to Hannah.
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