Sunday, December 30, 2007


The day which had begun so promisingly soon darkened precipitously. Black Ethel stood in anxious conferral with the mysterious bosun and her pilot as the winds began to whip about them. Lizzie looked at the small huddle with some trepidation. She was loathe to imagine even a fine ship like the Bonny Read tossed about by a tempest on the wild seas. No Prospero she to command the winds and no Ariel flew to their behest on the bat’s back.

Her anxious glance toward Alice revealed her cousin to be in unaccustomed deep thought. Perhaps it was for the best, Lizzie reflected, as usual sheltering her younger cousin from harsh realities of life. Let her preserve the time remaining in pleasant ignorance, free from concern about the dangers of the ocean. Truth to tell, however, it did seem that Alice had some thoughts that pressed upon her heart with rather more pressure than usual.

Lizzie considered simply turning back to her stitching without distracting her cousin’s musings. They had volunteered to do some mending for the sailors and were quite overwhelmed by the volume of shirts and inexpressibles that had been heaped upon them. Nonetheless, Lizzie had set to work with her usual efficient sense of duty and they had begun making headway despite Alice’s tendency to sew poorly and very slowly, necessitating the removal of many of her mended patches. Lizzie was no brilliant seamstress herself, but long term need had supplied her with sure skills if no great love for the tedious work.

Indeed, Lizzie had once more bent her head to her work -- a rather well-worn elbow of the third mate’s attire -- when Alice herself broke from her reverie and turned to her cousin. “Lizzie, dear, do you suppose that dreams can mean any thing of import?”

“You’ve dropped your mending,” Lizzie said first, pointing to the inexpressibles that had fallen to the deck while Alice had meant to be repairing one leg that was frayed at the bottom. As Alice retrieved the fallen garment, Lizzie cast her mind back to her own reading and quickly recalled a suitable analog.

“In the Odyssey,” Lizzie said with a pleasant sense of authority, something long missing from the tumultuous ordeals of late, “Homer has Penelope talk about the two kinds of dreams.”

“Are there only two?” Alice said, sounding somewhat disappointed.

“Two types, but far more many individual dreams,” Lizzie answered, snipping a length of thread from a spool. “But Penelope says -- ”

“Was she very clever? Was she a professor? I only ask,” Alice said shyly, “because I hope to know the truth.”

Lizzie smiled. “Penelope is not a professor but I will certainly argue that she is indeed clever. And if you recall Professor Slough, you will also recall that the title need not confer wit.” Alice nodded, abashed. Her pupil now contrite, Lizzie continued. “Penelope spoke of the two types of dreams as those which came through the gateway of ivory and those which came through the gateway of horn.”

“Where did the gate lead from?” Alice could not resist from asking.

“From Elysium, which I’m sure you’ll remember from your lessons.”

Alice though it best to pretend that she did.

“The gate of ivory,” Lizzie continued, pleased with her avoidance of another digression, “brought dreams of foolish fancy that had no more substantial weight than a will o’the wisp. But through the gates of smoothened horn come dreams that offer truth to the dreamer.”

Alice seemed almost awed into silence. “How can you know which gate the dreams have passed through?” she said at last.

“It is very difficult to tell,” Lizzie said with a rotund echo of wisdom in her tone, for she could not immediately recall what, if anything, Penelope had had to say on the subject, although she had a vague notion that Chaucer might have been helpful at that moment. “Only time can make you certain.”

“What if the dream was a warning?” Alice asked with some anxiousness betrayed in her tone.

“What was your dream about Alice?” Lizzie asked with a small knell of foreboding. But before her cousin could answer the ship took a sudden pitch in to the air before falling with a sickening abruptness into a trough. A sudden din arose as enormous drops of rain began to pelt the deck.

“Quick, get below!” the third mate barked at the two women as they grabbed their pile of mending and rushed for safety.

Sunday, December 23, 2007


It was late morning when Alice heard the distinctive sound of horses’ hooves on a well-trod road. She turned on the sunny bench where she had slumbered in the afternoon light and shaded her eyes to see who was coming up the lane. Two young gentlemen on fine steppers, cutting very fine figures indeed, were trotting toward the garden bower. Alice squinted even though she knew it was not to her best advantage to be seen that way, as she was not able to discern who was coming her way looking so corky.

“It’s those two young gentlemen,” her father said unhelpfully as he continued to poke at the roots of the forsythia. “Those two dangling after you, not quite right, either of them. Ought to set them down.” He made as if to get up from his semi-recumbent position, but Alice shushed him with her fan and rose herself to greet the two gentlemen.

“Don’t make a cake of yourself,” Lady Mangrove said sharply from behind the fairy fountain, her head hidden by a satyr’s trumpet. “No mawkish trifles, now.”

Alice was stung both by the unkindness of her mother’s words and by her undignified use of cant. What is the world coming to, Alice thought peevishly, if one’s parents try to use the latest slang? It was entirely wrong, she could not help thinking, it was as bad as imagining her parents suddenly playing croquet with herons for mallets. Once she had put the image in her head, it refused to leave for some interminable moments.

She only succeeded in throwing it aside when she suddenly realized that the one young man was no other than the mysteriously handsome Kit Barrington, who was once more restored to vivid glory before her eyes. It is hard to believe that his brief absence had seemed so long, Alice thought in an agony of regret. How could she have forgotten those handsome black curls, those piercingly blue eyes and the jaw that promised firm decisiveness. Alice could see now that he rode magnificently upon his steed with a certain attitude that showed he had pluck to the backbone. How wonderful that he was calling on her.

It was another moment before she realized that Arthur Boylett rode beside him on a horse of far less striking beauty and without that set of the shoulders that presaged decisive boldness. If Mr. Barrington were the pinkest of the pink, then surely Arthur was the grey. Alice felt her smile withdraw into a frown of disappointment, until she recognized that it must be making her a shade less attractive. Her smile sprang back like a fresh young sapling in the wind. Mr. Barrington must find her to be admirably agreeable.

“The ants are returning,” Mr. Radley said by the wisteria, a trowel in one hand and a bottle of gin in the other. Alice was momentarily distracted. If Mr. Radley were taking to the gin that would be the end of their famed garden. Perhaps he was only using it to tease the ants. She had to think -- did ants drink gin? Would it lure them within range of the trowel?

“Alice!” It was Kit Barrington. Alice turned back, but he seemed farther away now. He and Arthur were riding at the same pace, but they seemed to be retreating from her nonetheless. Alice furrowed her brow, heedless of its unattractive pull at her features. She decided to walk toward the gentlemen as if she happened to be going that way, trying not to let her panic show.

Yet each step seemed to slow her further. The wisteria was spreading far too quickly, flopping across her path and impeding her progress with gentle insistence. “The seeds pods are poisonous,” Mr. Radley was saying somewhere in the distance but Alice was unable to hear his additional pronouncements on the progress of the ants. The elusive Mr. Barrington was nearly out of sight, yet his voice was becoming clearer all the time, calling “Alice, Alice!”

It was with great sadness and frustration that Alice opened her eyes to behold her cousin offering a plate of comestibles for a late breakfast. Alice sulked as she chewed on some jerky and did not notice the dark circles rounding Lizzie’s gentle eyes.

Monday, December 17, 2007


The orange tendrils of dawn were lifting across the sky as Black Ethel stretched and then stubbed out the last of her cigar. “Oh la la, we have talked a long time.”

Tired as she was, Lizzie could not conceal her curiosity about the adventure that had brought king and pirate together. “Is it a very long story?”

“Oh, oui, mademoiselle Lizzie,” the pirate queen assured, “It is rather complicated and quite intriguing tale, but it is late -- or rather, very early.” She chuckled quietly and pointed to Alice. “Besides, your young cousin has already fallen asleep.

True enough, Alice had finally succumbed to fatigue despite the exiting tale spun in the captain’s room that night. She would be sorely vexed to be awakened now, but Lizzie was quite practiced at maneuvering Alice in that condition, which took an application of firmness and gentle cajoling in equal parts. While Black Ethel made one last round of her ship, growling at the occasional laggard and clapping a few stalwart lads on the back, Lizzie coaxed Alice out of her much wrinkled day clothes and into one of the night gowns they had received from the kindly pirate queen.

“I know I shall have the most peculiar dreams,” Alice yawned as she collapsed into nearly instantaneous sleep. Lizzie looked down at her young cousin and sighed slightly before pulling the covers up to her shoulders. Alice seemed to pay it no mind, but said groggily, “Mother, please, I don’t want any treacle,” before turning over and beginning to snore softly.

Lizzie smiled and turned to prepare herself for bed as well. Out the window she could see the clear signs of dawn, but she did not care two pins for propriety. If they could be spirited away from her uncle’s funeral, kidnapped twice and caught in the midst of pirates, Lizzie could reconcile sleeping late on a weekday. She thought it was perhaps a weekday, anyway. It was increasingly difficult to be certain.

Lizzie got into bed, glancing over at her cousin and making certain she was safely in Slumberland before she reached once more for the much-read letter secreted as always in her sleeve. But as she ran her eyes over the neatly formed words, they failed to give her the usual thrill she would feel on most occasions.

For the first time Lizzie experienced a twinge of doubt. It wasn’t the king himself, of course. He was sublime. She still found his words stirring, especially when she dared to read between the lines. But for the first time she doubted it would all work out somehow. How could the king find her in the middle of the wild seas? The pirate queen was kindly enough -- far more so than they had any right to expect -- but what were they to do? No one knew where they were; no one might even be looking for them anymore, supposing perhaps they had perished, if not when sold into the white slave trade as had been planned, then certainly once they had boarded a pirate vessel.

Lizzie sat up anxiously, the thoughts preying on her consciousness. What is to become of me? What is to become of us? Will the king forget me before he has had a chance to even make my direct acquaintance. He had letters, a lock of hair -- was it enough to bind her love to him when all hope seemed lost?

Unable to bear the weight of her thoughts, Lizzie sank back to the supine position, tears dampening her pale cheeks. As the sun rose, her hopes fell and she slipped into a fitful slumber.

Sunday, December 09, 2007


“Did he have his ship waiting there in Paris?” Alice asked the pirate queen as she recalled the day she met her mentor, the legendary pirate Lafitte.

Lizzie coughed to cover her inadvertent chuckle at Alice’s seemingly bottomless ignorance. Poor Miss Travers must not have worked her way through much in the way of geography with her young pupil. Black Ethel narrowed her eyes at the guileless Miss Mangrove, but perceiving only ignorance in the question, at last deigned to answer.

“No, ma petite. He had only a barge there and a handful of his crew. The crew were picking up various supplies and while Lafitte himself had been delivering a rather special item.”

“Special item?” Lizzie said, trying in vain to smother an inadvertent yawn. Surely that was not the first rosy light of dawn brightening the ink dark sky? Could they have talked all night?

“I did not learn this until much later, of course,” Black Ethel said as she opened a drawer in her massive desk. “But Lafitte had met with no less a person than the king himself.” She smiled expectantly at the two listeners.

“Our king?” Alice asked breathlessly, daring to hope.

The pirate queen frowned. “No, mademoiselle! Our king.”

“Oh.” Alice immediately perceived the frown lengthening, so she added, “How lovely!”

“Quite gratifying, I’m sure,” Lizzie added quickly, her ability to size up awkward social situations benefiting her as always. “What a surprise, too, to know that the king was intimate with the man who terrorized the seas across the world! Such a brave man.”

The buccaneer leaned back and nodded appreciatively. “He had rescued a rather important item for his majesty and was being appropriately rewarded. I don’t suppose that either of you have been in such a situation, but it is quite a thing to be in the presence of a king.” She leaned forward to fish through the open drawer, obviously seeking something special.

“Well, as a matter of fact,” Lizzie started cautiously, as the late hour and the thrilling conversation had made her somewhat indecorously reckless regarding her secret understanding with the King of Naples. She had been just bursting to tell about the many months of letters back and forth, the detailed information exchanged about the habits of certain spindly-legged insects, and the growing feeling of esteem so beautifully shared over the lengthy and rather well-spelled (for a foreign national) letters. “I must confess—”

“Ah, voilà!” With a flourish, Black Ethel withdrew the item she had been in search of. “See here, given from the king’s own hand.” She repeated the gesture, passing the object to Alice because she was the closer of the two.

Alice gazed at the small metal disk with something approaching concentration. “How very lovely and that’s the king’s imagine is it not?” She bit her lips hoping she had guessed correctly. Black Ethel nodded curtly. It was not the time to wish that she had paid more attention in her interminable French lessons. The language always sounded better when Miss Travers spoke it with her elegant Stratford accent. When Alice tried to repeat the words they failed to sound as trippingly from her tongue, instead bumping into one another in a rush as the servants did back home when Mrs. Perkins was in a foul mood.

Lizzie took the disk from Alice’s outstretched hand while the pirate queen awaited a more suitably effusive response. Lizzie was ready to oblige despite smarting under the abruptness with which the subject had once more wheeled away from her secret correspondence. But she was no rag-mannered chit and had had many of her years devoted to the concealing of disappointment.

“Medal of honor,” Lizzie read off the top of the disk, which despite its rather unkempt look, she saw was made of solid gold. “From the king himself—look Alice, there’s his name.”

Alice nodded with what she hoped looked like confidence.

“For extraordinary valour, to M. Jean Lafitte,” Lizzie continued on the back of the disk. Despite its missing a ceremonial ribbon of some kind, this was indeed a precious object. The buccaneer captain herself smiled with reflected glory at this acknowledgment of respect. “Whatever had he done?” she could not help asking.

“He delivered a most important article to the king. It was… a woman!”

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Alice drew back in horror. “Did he quail before your daring?” She thrilled to think of the bravery of the pirate queen, holding a knife to the throat of the renowned buccaneer. Lafitte himself -- such daring! Alice longed to be such a heroine herself, but she was hampered by the prime defect of being quite cowardly. It was so inconvenient.

Black Ethel meanwhile had allowed a lazy grin to move across her features as she contemplated this episode from her youth. The young orphan had indeed possessed daring. She shook her head in response to Alice’s question. “Indeed he did not, he never moved or showed the least bit of worry.”

Lizzie smiled. Although he was admittedly a pirate, she could not help a thrill of admiration for the unflappable rapscallion. “What a man of considerable mettle he must have been to remain so complaisant in the face of a wild young thing.”

“C’est vrai!” Black Ethel continued, taking another puff on her latest cigar. The hour had grown late but none of the three seemed the least bit tired. The thrilling narrative had kept them all rapt with a fervor to let the yarn unfurl. “He simply reached for his spoon and began to eat once more, keeping a weather eye on my hand to see if it would tremble. I suppose now that he was more concerned with my fear leading to his injury rather than my wrath.

“After a time, when I had demonstrated that I was no less stubborn than he, Lafitte pushed the empty bowl away from him, grabbed the mug of ale and took a deep draft, my knife still at his throat. When he set down the empty glass, he looked once more into my blazing eyes and grunted.

“’What is your name, cherie?’ he asked me. I gave him the name my dear parents had bequeathed me, but he shook his head. ‘That is no name for a pirate.’ My heart leaped of course to know that he would accept me into his crew.

“’Merci, mon capitán! I shall do all that you ask, I shall work hard, I shall be ruthless…’ I was effusive in my delight, but the old reprobate merely grunted again and asked for more food. I sprang to work finding him sustenance, rooting through the cabinets with alacrity. He said nothing more until he had devoured some Bretagne ham and half a loaf of pumpernickel. And all he said then was that I must disguise myself as a boy.

“I laughed, because I had already anticipated that possibility. In my bindle I had stuffed such clothes as would fit the life of the cabin boy for some time to come. It took only a few minutes to run and fetch the rucksack, but I feared the whole time that the bloody pirate would abandon me to the ravages of the Gorgon once more, but he was still filling his pockets with smoked meats when I returned breathless. He looked at my bindle and wordlessly handed me a string of sausages. I took it upon myself to liberate the few good wedges of cheese to be found in that sorry excuse for a kitchen, and turned to follow at Lafitte’s heel as he strode once more out of the infirmière.

“As we walked down the filthy streets of Paris, I turned once more to look at the workplace that had oppressed me for a time and spat on the ground with contempt. Lafitte saw me do so and laughed out loud as we walked toward the banks of the Seine.”

Sunday, November 25, 2007


“Lafitte!” Lizzie said with alarm and disbelief. “The horrible pirate? Oh, I beg your pardon.” How awkward it was to suddenly find themselves rescued by a pirate from what had appeared to perfectly respectable men. As fixed as her ideas had been about pirates and highway men, Lizzie could not keep herself from regarding Black Ethel with a mixture of puzzlement and admiration. She would be loathe to admit it even to her dear cousin, but Lizzie was quite fascinated and intrigued by the free life the pirate queen lived, not only freed from the bonds of tutelary but also from the restrictions of family and town. She wore what she liked, spoke as she wished and was entirely careless of housekeeping details.

It was quite dizzying to consider.

Black Ethel continued to suck on her cigar thoughtfully. “He was certainly notorious, c’est vrai. All those who faced him in the corridor that day eagerly gave way after one glare from his glittering eyes.”

Alice quailed visibly. “Were you not frightened?” she asked with awe.

Black Ethel waved her hand dismissively. “He was the one person who could take me away from the all that drudgery into a life of freedom and adventure. I knew that the fusty luggs who ran the infirmière had long been his paramour, so I decided to make the most of his brief visit to Paris.”

“Paramour?” said Alice, her brow furrowing.

“Paramour!” said Lizzie, her cheeks blushing pink.

“Indeed,” said Ethel, oblivious to the reactions of the two young women as she warmed to the telling of her story. “By listening to the gossip of the staff, I knew that it was the habit of M. Lafitte to visit the kitchen first and obtain a little sustenance from the gallimaufry that served as the primary meal of the infirmière—except of course for those too ill or injured to eat.”

“Was there a war on?” Alice asked hesitantly, afraid that she might be asked to name the particular war and aware that she could only remember the battles that had interesting names like Marathon and Waterloo but had no memory to recall the other wars categorical.

“There is always a war on,” Lizzie said with some bitterness, all too aware how the current situation in the Mediterranean affected her own romantic interests.

Black Ethel nodded sagely. “Quel dommage, eh? It was fortunate for Lafitte, as it was far easier to recruit men to the piratical life once they had seen action in the armed forces. They knew how to use pistols and they were accustomed to the sight of blood. Quite often, too, they were somewhat less idealistic and more eager for results.

“I left my linens behind and sneaked into the kitchen. The usual Gorgon who ran that sweaty room had departed for fear of Lafitte, who sat on a chair shoveling some food into a bowl with a mug of ale at his side. He was everything the tales had told: surely six feet tall or more, with an ugly scar down the left side of his face, blocked only by a jet black patch where his eye ought to have been. I quailed at the thought of his roughness, but I was determined to join the pirate life and lay waste to all that my blackguard relatives held dear.

“I gathered my courage and at last said, ‘M. Lafitte, I wish to join your crew!’ He looked at me through his single eye, set down the bowl of gallimaufry and then burst into loud guffaws of laughter.

“This only made me more determined. Quick as a fox, I snatched a knife from the cutting board and held it to his throat. ‘M. Lafitte,’ I said triumphantly, ‘I suggest you consider my offer!’”

Sunday, November 18, 2007


“Fifteen—and on your own!” Lizzie could not help uttering those words with a tone of disapproval, although whether she truly disparaged Black Ethel’s wayward independence or simply envied her boldness, it was hard to tell. She was beginning to form a distinct sense of awe before the fearlessness of this raven-haired buccaneer.

“Indeed!” chuckled the pirate queen as she lit another cigar and turned down the wick of the lamp. It was becoming quite late indeed, but neither of the two young women seemed the least bit tired as Black Ethel related her exciting adventures. “Although I was of course rather tall for my age. It is all in the bones,” she said, turning to Alice. “Cheese is good for the bones!”

Alice winced although she tried not to show it. She had always been somewhat delicate around the subject of cheese. Her parents had tried all the types to find a flavour she would enjoy, but she had tasted them all and continued to demur. It was always the same: Wensleydale, cheddar, Stilton, Derbyshire, brie, gouda, Dachsteiner, Herve, Havarti, Lappi, Beaufort, Camembert, Desmond, Kilcummin, Shropshire Blue or Double Gloucester, Alice had nibbled a bit from one side or the other and yet had seen no perceptible change in her feelings. It is quite possible that she would always remain recalcitrant when it came to fermented curd.

The pirate queen returned to her narrative with no knowledge of the curdly tumult in Alice’s brain. “I knew that I would never find my dreams in the town of my birth, so I began the long trek to Paris, sure that something there would lead to the wonderful life I knew awaited me.”

“How could you be so certain?” Lizzie asked, thinking pensively of her own doubts and fears.

Black Ethel laughed. “Paris was the city of lights! I had heard about it since childhood. I was not foolish enough to think the streets were paved with gold, though I had hopes nearly as unrealistic. For the first month I was there, I swept the floors in a café so dirty that the very rats would not eat off the floor. In the second month, I kneaded dough in a boulangerie where cockroaches routinely substituted for sultanas.”

“Oh my,” Alice said, turning a rather pale shade of green.

“Oh, that was not the worst!” Black Ethel gave a sinister laugh. “In the third month, I was hired to beat linens in a laundry that supplied the local infirmière, although they were less than scrupulous about the care they gave the linens. How many time the cruel madame barked at me not to waste the bleach that might have saved one more of the soldiers from horrible infection, I cannot have kept count.”

“How horrid!” Lizzie said, aghast in her gentle heart.

“Indeed,” the buccaneer agreed. “I knew that it was not to be my life’s work. But one day I saw a glimmer of hope. A man walked into the infirmière while I was delivering linens. He was grim-faced and bearded with huge guns at his side and all the hallways filled with whispers of his name.

“It was…the pirate Lafitte!”

Sunday, November 11, 2007


“One day,” Black Ethel continued as Lizzie and Alice drew closer with the excitement of her tale, “when we were all in the main hall where we received our paltry meals and did our endless tatting, I made a decision. No more would I tat for this horrible woman who leeched the vital souls of innocent children, no more would I work for anyone but me as the beneficiary.”

“How brave you must have been!” Lizzie said with undisguised admiration. The pirate queen was like a novel’s heroine come to life. How pale the stories of Miss Radcliffe seemed in comparison, whereas once she devoured them by candlelight when the sun had long since gone to sleep. Perhaps when she has finished relating her adventures, Lizzie mused, I can trust my great secret to her bosom. Surely she can be a stalwart confidant! The young woman turned to the tale once more with an even greater excitement.

“I could do nothing alone. That was the lynchpin, as we say. I needed a few confederates to join me. This would be difficult,” the pirate queen said confidentially to the pair raptly listening. “I was not known as a kindly sort, I must admit. I was quick to temper, eager to use my fists and the envy of all because of my beautiful long hair the color of a raven’s wing.” Black Ethel swept her long locks over one shoulder, combing her fingers through the ringlets to emphasize her point.

Lizzie and Alice both cooed appreciatively, although the latter might be excused for thinking her own golden locks were more attractive. She associated this shade of hair with the chimera of Kit Barrington, now sadly fading from memory with only the light anchor of black hair and blue eyes to tie him to her memory and the vague thought that he had been so charming, though truth to tell, Alice was unable to recall a single witty remark or clever observation. She would have to quiz Lizzie later and see if her memory were better (it generally was).

“However, as I spread the word about my desire for rebellion, I found there were many who desired an opportunity to rise up against the despot, Mme. de Pautonnier, and to break free of that horrid place. They only lacked a leader. I decided to embrace the necessity and draw them together for the attack. Our plans were laid in the dark of the night. Whispers floated from bed to bed and room to room. At last on a night with the full moon’s light, we struck.

“Our attack began in the kitchen. Without the sour-faced staff who usually tortured us, the place was cavernous and foul-smelling. We filled our shirts or kerchiefs with what food we could find, slinging it over our backs for the night. Tripping past the sleeping Francis, Madame’s lazy cousin with his short sight and his cruel stick, we filed into the great hall and gathered our tatting work into a pile, throwing onto it all the shuttles, a few wooden buckets and some small kindling from the woodstove. I drizzled some olive oil over the combustibles and then I drew out the box of matches I had liberated from the kitchen, right under the nose of the chef.”

“Oh, no!” Lizzie could not help herself but gasp.

“Oh yes,” Black Ethel said with a wicked smile. “I set fire to the pile there and then, and laughed aloud as the flames shot into the air.”

“Goodness,” said Alice, gobsmacked with pure admiration for the destructive young girl.

“Goodness had very little to do with it,” the pirate queen said with a wave of her hand. “I admit my motives were good, but what happened next turned the night into a mêlée.”

“Oh dear!”

“Yes, the other children equally enraptured with the flames, grabbed their uncomfortable stools and chairs where they had spent hour after miserable hour tatting, and thrust them onto the pyre as well. Within moments the fire was blazing out of the control. Madame de Pautonnier and her staff were roused from their own comfortable beds and desperately tried to extinguish the flames but it was far, far too late.

“In the helter skelter of the noise and panic, as the fire brigade arrived tardily and began to try to contain the fire, most of us children escaped from our overlords, nipping out into the streets and running into dark corners to await the morning light and the freedom it brought us. I breathed in the night air, and though it was choked with burning tat, it smelled like freedom. I was fifteen and the world lay before me like a lazy opponent whom I had every expectation of besting at the first match.”

Sunday, November 04, 2007


“My thoughts were less confident when I was ushered brutally to the doorsteps of the grim orphanage,” Black Ethel continued. “While I had been eager to leave my unkind relatives and their uneasy scorn, I was somewhat abashed when the tall black doors loomed before me.”

“I have never seen an orphanage,” Alice said, her voice betraying a curiosity she was little able to hide. “It sounds perfectly monstrous, though.”

“I shudder to consider your fate,” Lizzie added, thanking her lucky stars once more for the sometimes tiresome but always cushy home of her aunt and uncle.

“It is to be shuddered at,” Black Ethel agreed, tossing her tricorne onto her desk and tousling her long black hair. Lizzie noted that the pirate queen looked much less intimidating with her hair down and her face relaxed from the scowl she often wore on deck. Nevertheless, Lizzie suspected that it would not be wise to remember the ruthlessness of which she could be capable.

“I was admitted to the grey walls of the institution and immediately sized up the situation. Most of the children appeared to have been beaten into a sullen submission by the head of the orphanage, Madame de Pautonnier. While the orphanage may have been founded by the holy man who had been a friend to children everywhere and an artiste of bon repute, this leader seemed to have come from the opposing camp.

“Only infernal realms could have been responsible for this dictator in a redingote. I can see her dull grey eyes before me in my worst dreams and hear that piercingly high-pitched voice. Her cruelty was legendary, her conscience non-existent. Pautonnier’s only concern was making the most of the stipend the city offered her for caring for the cast off children without a sou or a relative. Thus she clothed us as meagerly as possible and fed us little more than gruel and vegetable soup. A lump of meat was a rarity that might turn up in the bowl of an unfortunate only at odd intervals, and often resulting in an impromptu battle.”

“How awful,” Alice said, appearing to be genuinely shaken by this picture of the rough life. Cosseted in her stately home, she had had no idea of the lives of others beyond her class. Although a very ignorant girl, her heart responded with lively empathy and she vowed, “I shall make sure we have no such horrors in our village! When I return,” she added someone more somberly, dabbing at her eyes with a mixture of sympathy and self-pity.

“That would be a good thing,” Black Ethel agreed. “We were poorly fed, beaten and used as cheap labour. Hour after hour we girls were forced to tat.”

“To what?” asked Lizzie. Alice looked on with alarm, fearful what the answer might be.

Black Ethel looked at the two of them with surprise. “Tatting? Frivolité? The horrible lace with which one makes collars and doilies?”

Lizzie could feel a sense of indignation building. “Children are labouring to make lace? It’s an outrage!”

“And we have so many,” Alice said wonderingly, before blushing and begging the pirate queen to continue. “Why were children particularly used for this?”

The buccaneer raised her rough but petite hands for their inspection. “Our fingers were tiny and nimble. We could move the shuttles to and fro with alacrity. The hooks would not catch on our short sleeved garments and our young eyes could see in the faint light allowed by the grimy windows of the workroom.

“But one day, I decided I had had enough!”

Thursday, November 01, 2007


Your humble narrator was waylaid by a strange caravan of gaily dressed creatures on the way east from her dwelling. They insisted on games and feasting, so she was delayed on her journey home. The travelers have allowed her to return, but are whisking her away again today. Thus the latest installment will be delayed until the coming sabbath. She meekly begs your indulgence in this matter.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


“Oh my,” Alice said with horror, forgetting for a moment that the people in peril were Black Ethel’s mortal enemies. “The poor pony!”

“Never fear,” the pirate queen said, waving away the young woman’s fears with her still-smouldering cigar. “The pony himself was unhurt. My enemies, however, did not fare so well.”

Her face seemed filled with a grim satisfaction as she recalled the events. “My compatriots let fly with the best of their weapons and soon the glistening white cart had become spattered with the foulest mud, its gilt edgings dimmed. The snooty pair who had dismissed us so peremptorily now gasped with shock as they were met with volley after volley of the viscous glop gleaned from the depths of the muddied waters.

“My nemesis, Miss Surfeis Perkineiss, cried aloud in alarm as the handfuls of mud splashed against her white frock, every pleat pressed laboriously by me the night before -- yet another punishment for my imagined wrongs. I hated her, I hated that dress and I hated the way she was coddled and cosseted, assured of a cushy life without the least bit of effort -- all from an accident of birth. My parents were the kindest people on earth and I had been robbed of their comforts.”

Alice suddenly began to cry, so overwrought by the story as to imagine herself much wronged by the death of Lord Mangrove, although the spirit departed had not (at last encounter) yet managed to depart completely and that she had already some difficulty in recalling any event of kindness or thoughtfulness demonstrated by her late father and so, lapsed into a puzzled silence as she tried to imagine him doing anything other than muttering behind an endless succession of newspapers or fuming red-faced at her mother or the servants.

Lizzie was, on the other hand, deriving a great deal of vicarious satisfaction from the narrative, events she could never have brought herself to take part in (to be entirely truthful) but which she was delighted someone of Black Ethel’s mettle had had no scruples about. “Go on,” she encouraged the buccaneer, who had paused to raise an eyebrow at Alice’s tenderhearted weeping (which had since dwindled into sniffles and a furrowed brow). “Was Algernon greatly displeased?”

The pirate queen laughed gleefully. “He was quite beside himself! I could not tell if the indignity or the mud was worst for him, but his face was red as a pomegranate and he let loose with most ungentlemanly words of the blackest vituperation. My comrades and I only laughed in delight, some of the rougher fellows sought to pull him from the bench and toss the young dandy headlong into the floodwaters.

“They were still struggling with the recalcitrant lad, while Miss Surfeis was weeping bitter tears, when the authorities at last arrived. My compatriots, hardened criminals all, made rude gestures, called even ruder names, and quickly eluded the gendarmes, but I was too overcome with triumph to bother.

“I was dragged to the home of my keepers and true to form, the Perkineisses turned me out without a kind word after a tearful accusation from Surfeis. I no longer cared. I was glad to be sent to Les Orphelines de Brad, once I had rescued the last remnant of my parents from the wall of my tiny room. I looked with scorn at my ungrateful relatives and spit on the ground at their feet. A door was closing behind me, but I was sure things could be no worse that at that hated home.

“Oh, la la! What a child I was!”

Sunday, October 14, 2007


Black Ethel took a sip of rum before she continued with her riveting tale. Lizzie thought to herself how exciting the story would be when she revised it for her secret pen pal with the proper flourishes that the pirate queen seemed to find unnecessary. A good Gothic should have more atmosphere, Lizzie mused, listening to the rain begin to fall outside the cabin window, aware once more of the occasional shouts of the pirate men as they went about their myriad duties required to keep the ship running. No doubt about it, Lizzie assured herself, this tale could be embellished grandly.

“It was late afternoon,” Ethel began again, “and we knew that Algernon and Miss Surfeis Perkineiss would be returning any time in their fine frocks and with their basket of fresh strawberries. They were part of my bribe to the other children. I assured them we would plunder the basket and enjoy the spoils of our attack.”

“Did you look forward to the strawberries with cream,” Alice could not keep herself from wondering aloud even as she wistfully sighed for the lack of such delicacies on board the Bonny Read. “Or even with a little bit of sponge cake…”

“What did I care for strawberries?” Black Ethel waved away such details, intent upon her tale. “My only hunger was for revenge against mine enemy, my bête noire! Miss Surfeis was going to pay for her many unkindnesses and if her little toad-eating friend had to share the cost, so much the better!”

“Oh horrors!” Alice said with considerable alarm, seeking in vain for her mourning handkerchief to cover her swiftly watering mouth. “I can hardly abide toads at all, let alone consider eating them! It is too much to contemplate.”

“Where you come by this ridiculous toad prejudice, I can hardly understand,” Lizzie said with a cross tone that suggested this to be yet the latest round in an on-going battle of wills. “Toads are essential for the smooth-running garden, they provide a simple solution to common pest insects and are clean and friendly -- ”

“I was merely using the phrase ‘toad-eating’ to indicated that M. Algernon was a sycophantic flatterer,” Black Ethel broke in, somewhat dismayed at the suddenly fractious turn of the conversation and eager to return to the traumatic events of her childhood. “We despised him for it. And when I say we, I mean my little friends of the town who were immune to the charms of Miss Surfeis because they could not get past her evil words and her snooty attitude, and thus had come to hate her nearly as much as I.

“We were watching the road closely. A few carts had come by and the mail from Paris, but all of a sudden we saw the bright little pony cart that held those two and we prepared ourselves for the assault. I knew that however much I ended up in the basket, as you English say, it would be worth it to see that superior smirk wiped from the face of my mortal enemy.

“Faster and faster, the little pony trotted along. I looked to my comrades and they each had a look of grim satisfaction as the shiny white cart drew nearer with its large basket of strawberries and its two well-dressed passengers. With a quick whistle, I signaled to my men, two of whom pulled taut the laundry line across the track, stopping the gentle pony in his traces, and causing young Algernon to drawl idly, “What can be the meaning of this, you mangy dogs?”

“’I will show you the meaning, mon petit losengeor’ I said to him, hoping he would catch the irony in my insult, and ordered my men to begin firing…”

Sunday, October 07, 2007


“Do go on with your tale,” Lizzie said, caught up in the exciting adventure of Black Ethel’s childhood. “I hope something terrible -- er, something morally instructive happened to Miss Surfeis Perkineiss.”

Black Ethel smiled and blew some smoke from her cigar. She swirled the rum in her glass and said, “We LeBeaus -- for that is my family’s illustrious name -- we do not take kindly to insults. I swore upon the cheese-scented grave of my parents that I would have revenge upon Miss Surfeis. Her mother Lady Dowdy, to give her some credit, was kindly to me after Lord Surfeit whipped me for his daughter’s naughtiness, but she too drew the line at suspecting their petite angel capable of the deed herself.

“I plotted and planned and at last saw my opportunity. There was a soft little fribble of the name of Algernon – a true demimonde, always in le dernier cri, his parents owned the most successful flower shop in Angoulême, so successful that they did not soil there hands with any kind of soil but had servants and shop girls to do it for them. This Algernon earnestly pursued the life of the fashionable young man even at our childish years. Although he was more hair than wit, Miss Surfeis had a ceaseless desire to flatter him and win his friendship, treating him as if he were a nabob of the first order. I fancy it was only because she had her family’s stoat-like hunger for money.”

“The little cormorant!” Alice said with explosive vehemence, startling both Lizzie and the pirate queen. “How unutterably common!”

“Indeed,” said Black Ethel as Lizzie tried to smother her laughter and Alice looked mildly confused. “I knew that on a certain day the two would be riding forth in his little pony cart to go pick strawberries at the meadow’s edge, beyond the walls of the city. Algernon fancied himself quite the horseman even at the age of eight. Miss Surfeis -- with her family’s unerring compass for the ways of the ton -- would always join him in his little cart as he whipped his little pony to charge down the cobblestones with all manner of speed.”

Alice could not abide such cruelty even in the past. “The poor little pony! I cannot bear the thought of his being so callous. I should never whip my pony, dear dear little Bosky.” Indeed, Alice’s frequent playmate was so idle as to have exceeded his ideal weight by at least two stone, so that very often he wheezed as he trotted, unable to work up the effort to accomplish even a mild canter. It is doubtful that whipping would have done much to increase his pace even if he were able to feel the sting of the crop upon his well-padded hind quarters. But let us think well of Alice for her kindness, regardless of the dubiousness of the object of her affections. It would not be the first time those near to her would need to turn a blind eye to her ideas.

“Knowing her plans, I gathered my few friends together for a dastardly plan. My playmates were mostly from the less fortunate side of town, rough young boys whose ideas of games were often quite dangerous and careless of the rules of society. We found our position for the attack at the base of the hill, where the rains of the last few days had gathered in a considerable pool of murky waters across the road. My confederates armed themselves with large scoopings of mud and some small rocks. We ran a purloined laundry line across the road.

“And then we waited.”

Sunday, September 30, 2007


“Miss Surfeis Perkineiss was the trial of my youth,” Black Ethel continued, pouring herself another measure of rum and settling back into her captain’s chair once more. “While she had a certain charm for people she enjoyed, she could be unutterably cruel to those she did not.”

“Perfectly loathsome!” Alice pronounced before cramming another orange slice into her gaping mouth.

“Indeed,” the pirate queen assented while raising an eyebrow at Alice’s unusually robust consumption. “Any number of faradiddles by Miss Surfeis succeeded in putting me in a very awkward state. She was never quite caught out, but I was always being punished on some whim of hers to blame me for one farrago or another.”

“Did not her parents chastise her for her lack of truthfulness,” Lizzie asked, knowing all too well the blindness of parents to their beloved children’s naughtiness. “I am shocked, shocked to hear such things!”

Black Ethel gave a wry grin. “You are perhaps less surprised than you say, eh mademoiselle? You are correct to guess that her parents indulged to no end her relaxed attitude toward the truth of matters. Lord Surfeit Perkineiss himself was known on many an occasion to sweeten the account of events to his own advantage, so I am little surprised to see such things encouraged.

“One of the most reprehensible of these childhood traumas came when we were both about eight years old. It was a small thing but seemed much larger at the time, as such occurrences do to young children of an impressionable age.

“We were with a small group of children at our favorite gathering place, an old linden tree with many well-loved low branches from which we would swing and have great adventures.”

“We have an old oak like that in our garden,” Alice broke in eagerly, but at a gesture from lizzie, subsided with a reluctant sigh. “Do go on, ma’am.”

Black Ethel sipped her rum and then, with a meaningful look at Alice -- who found herself suddenly feeling very meek indeed -- continued with her tale. “This day we had been playing revolution as we so often did. I was taking the role of Robespierre as I often did, and Surfeis was as usual Marie Antoinette. I enjoyed being on the opposite side from her. Our games were the only place where I could occasionally get my own back, as you English say, on my tormentor.”

Alice and Lizzie made murmuring sounds of sympathy and approval as the situation no doubt required.

“That day, I had captured Marie and confined her to the Bastille -- our favorite tree, naturalment! I was just in the midst of giving a stirring speech to the peasantry, rallying them to the cause, when Marie decided to make a break for it.

“Unfortunately, she made her escape by clouting another unfortunate child on the tête and shoving her to the ground. Poor Madeleine! She came away with a large bump of purple, which the naughty Mademoiselle Perkineiss blamed on me.

“Lord Perkineiss corrected me with a sound thrashing that made me forever his enemy. But worse than that was the sniggering face of Surfeis who watched my beating with laughter and glee. I swore from that moment I would have my revenge!”

Sunday, September 23, 2007


“What was your life like with the Perkineiss family?” Lizzie inquired, helping herself to a piece of cheese with rather renewed vigor for the dangerous labour involved.

Black Ethel blew an enigmatic smoke ring into the air, twirling her cigar to dissipate it just after, as if she were loathe to let anything last too long. “It was a dour time of much palaver about duty and a great deal about being grateful. Mostly about my being grateful for the kindliness of the Perkineisses.”

“What a trial to be dependent upon other people,” Lizzie said with a subdued voice but great feeling, casting a surreptitious eye toward Alice who was completely rapt with attention for their rescuer’s story and completely unaware that the remark may have had anything to do with her.

“Indeed,” said Black Ethel, who had not missed the glance toward Alice and understood more than she acknowledged. “While Lady Dowdy Perkineiss continually pressed me to maintain my good Christian duty, Lord Surfeit Perkineiss spoke to me only gruffly and at indifferent intervals when he chanced to notice that there was yet another mouth to feed in the shadow of the cathedral spire.”

“I shouldn’t like to live in the shadow of anything,” Alice said with a mouthful of orange. “It would be most vexing and hardly show one in the best light.”

“Quite,” said Black Ethel while regarding the oblivious child stuff yet more fruit in her mouth. “It is indeed vexing as you say to be in the shadows. I saw little chance in being out of it for some time, however. The Perkineiss family were my only claimed relatives, my mama being related to Lady Dowdy indirectly. That she had married a cheesemaker (however blessed) was regarded with a good deal of hand-wringing and distasteful alarm.”

“Even those years later?” Lizzie asked, considering her own secretive plans. Although she was hardly considering the hand of a cheesemaker!

“I was looked upon as a pitiable thing, which made no inroads into their Christian charity and pity as far as I could tell,” Black Ethel said with a dry laugh, stubbing out the last of her cigar and swilling her glass of rum so the brown liquid coated the sides of the glass. “The very worst of it was the daughter whose age fell closest to my own and who, it was assumed, was bound to become my ma meilleure amie. Instead, she became my bête noire!

Alice looked up with a puzzled expression. “Black dog?”

Lizzie was rather surprised to find her cousin on so very nearly the right cricket pitch. “Quite close, my dear. While it means literally a ‘black beast’ it has come to mean someone, or I suppose, something that has become the bane of your existence. This is what you meant, is it not?”

She turned to regard the pirate queen, who nodded sagely. “C’est vrai! And by the age of five, I had a most egregious bête noire.

“Her name was Miss Surfeis Perkineiss!”

Sunday, September 16, 2007


“Alors! Where to begin?" Black Ethel lit her cigar and puffed on it thoughtfully.

“Perhaps at the beginning,” Lizzie offered encouragingly. “Where were you born?”

“I was so small at the time, I can hardly recall,” the pirate queen smiled to show that this was indeed intended to be humorous. “But what was made clear to me at an early age was that my parents had not been there for much of that time. In fact, they had died and left me to my own devices, or rather, those of some distant relatives.

“I was raised in the town of Angoulême. Do you know it?”

“A medieval town, is it not?” asked clever Lizzie, impressing her cousin again with a passing thought that she must stuff cotton in her ears to keep all those facts retained. Alice herself had never been troubled with such an overabundance in that department.

“Indeed! Surrounded by the Remparts, which are ancient, and then the cathedral, which I knew so well. I was raised in the shadow of the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre d'Angoulême -- at least in the afternoons, that is. Early in the day, we often had sun.”

“We?” Alice inquired curiously as she stuffed another piece of fruit between her lips. “Who took care of you once your parents were gone? I have lost my father. That is to say, I have not mislaid him, but he is dead also. Like your parents. Mother is still alive, or so she was the last we saw her.”

Black Ethel looked at Alice with a penetrating gaze that soon made the latter drop her eyes and continue to gnaw on fruit rinds. “When I say we, I refer to my relatives, whom I believe to have been distantly in my mother’s family. The Perkineiss family was obliged to take me in after the unfortunate event of my parents’ demise.”

“How did they die?” Alice could not help asking despite the fear of another severe look from either the pirate queen or her cousin. Death being such a new subject for her, its fascinations were strong.

Rather than pierce her with another steely look, however, Black Ethel looked thoughtful. “It was a rather unexpected cheese-related accident,” she said at last. “The making of hard cheese involving a press has always proved to be a dangerous undertaking. My father, being of a rather mechanical bent, had invented what he hoped would be a stunning new machinery for the pressing of cheese and revolutionize the industry for this modern age. Unfortunately, due to a small flaw in the bolting apparatus, the pressing aperture went wild completely crushing my father and mortally injuring my mother who had been assisting him in the venture. Her last words to me were ‘Always treasure the curds of life.’”

“Wise words,” Lizzie murmured with some faltering of confidence that they were in fact the appropriate words to offer in such a peculiar instance.

“C’est vrai! My only other remembrance of my beloved parents was a small plaque from the cheese press that my father had placed on the side in a moment of whimsy. We hung it over the fireplace in my room when I went to stay with the Perkineisses. Lady Dowdy -- that was the mother of the family -- she thought it would do me good and teach me my good Christian duty.”

“What did the sign say?” Lizzie asked, her interest piqued.

Black Ethel smiled and in that moment the two young women could see the lonely little girl she had been. “It said , ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers.’ I will always believe that with all my heart.”

Sunday, September 09, 2007


Black Ethel saw the looks of dismay on the two young faces and laughed out loud. “Set your minds at ease, little ones. I am not setting you to work as maids. Madeleine! Perhaps you could move your accoutrements out of my cabin for a time.”

As if from the shadows, a small dark figure with a pale face swept silently across the room and vanished at once with the mop and bucket and a whispered, “excusez-moi!” It was impossible to tell from the brief glimpse they had whether Madeleine was a small child, a tiny woman or simply a hunched over figure of normal size. She whisked away so quickly that they were left only with the impression of trailing black clothes and a pallid visage that would make Aunt Susan swoon with envy.

Black Ethel threw her tricorne hat upon the broad oak desk and lounged on the stout chair behind it. “Assez-vous! Please be comfortable, take your ease. You are not prisoners here, you may do as you wish.” She laughed, however, and gazed shrewdly at the two young women. “However, you may find it safer to stay close to my cabin. I cannot keep my men in check too much, they are not prisoners either. Many of them are not well-accustomed to…” She paused and looked them up and down. “Let us say, women of your upbringing. You have lived sheltered lives of little dangerous experience, no?”

Alice and Lizzie both blushed to show this was indeed true. Merely imagining the rough attentions of the pirate queen’s uncouth crew brought them to the edge of swooning. Alice tried hard to imagine what sort of conversation she might have with the one-armed rapscallion who had gurgled a sort of greeting as they walked to the captain’s cabin. Lizzie, meanwhile, tried to picture herself dancing a scotch reel with the swarthy brute who at present berated the other pirates on the deck who were repairing the rigging as best they could while he stomped back and forth on his peg leg.

It began to dawn on them both in their separate musings that the life of a pirate was one fraught with much danger of bodily harm.

“Would you care for something to eat?” Black Ethel asked them, the kind meaning of her words somewhat tempered by her brash tone of voice. Clearly she was more accustomed to ordering around her gang of buccaneers than to conversing over a tea tray.

“That would be most kind,” Lizzie said with renewed spirit. Food would return the rosy glow to Alice’s cheeks and restore her own sense of confidence, Lizzie was certain.

“Bosun!” Black Ethel shouted, causing the two genteel women to jump with alarm. “Bring something tasty from the larder!” In a minute or so, the door opened to admit a very familiar figure. It was the nattily-hatted bosun of the deathly pallor and the kindly manner. Lizzie and Alice could not have been more surprised to see Captain Bellamy himself.

The mysterious bosun laid a simple repast upon the desk, which nonetheless looked far more appetizing than anything they had seen upon the Demeter. There were many cheeses and dry crackers, but there was also fresh fruit -- a veritable miracle it would seem. Alice could feel her mouth beginning to water, but looked quickly over at Lizzie to see if she would allow any compromise of manners. Finding her cousin firm in her regard of propriety, Alice instead caught a glance from the bosun who gave her a conspiratorial wink and a roguish (if somewhat toothy) smile. He still looked cadaverous to an alarming degree, but seemed far more cheerful to be on board the Bonny Read.

After a proper incantation of begging grace, Lizzie and her cousin tucked into the plain supper with a very keen appetite. Lizzie was the first to recover her sense of conversational requirements. “We owe you much for your rescue of us, Mademoiselle Capitaine.”

“Think nothing of it. I shall enjoy the conversation as we sail to France.”

Lizzie wanted to ask about the possibility of being returned to England instead, but decided it would not be prudent to press upon such short acquaintance. Instead she tried a different tack for conversation. “If it is not too personal a question,” Lizzie began with some hesitation, uncertain what were acceptable topics to a pirate, “I would be very interested to know how it was you became a renowned pirate.”

“Me too,” Alice chimed in with a mouthful of cheese, which earned her a reproving glance from Lizzie, which she chose to ignore.

“Well,” Black Ethel said as she inhaled the aroma of a Cuban cigar, “It is a very exciting tale which I shall be glad to relate.”

Sunday, September 02, 2007


With some difficulty, the two young women were helped over the small gap between the ships and onto the Bonny Read. Some of the pirates were busy putting out the fires which the fierce battle had sparked in the rigging and on the deck. The crew seemed to pay no attention to their latest acquisitions, being far too engaged with control of the damage.

Black Ethel shouted encouragement in the way of dark curses. “What’re you thinking, you lazy miscreant! Get that rigging restrung, tout de suite! You -- bricon! Get some planks down over that hole. Load that cargo faster. Put your backs into it, merdaille!”

Alice exchanged a frightened glance with her cousin. If she was this harsh with her own men, imagine what the pirate queen would be like with poor captives like themselves. Alice considered fainting dead away, but found she was far too excited about the change of ships to give in to such a wistful impulse.

Lizzie, for her part, was bearing up well, as always, braced by the excitement of a new challenge and unknown horizons. While she observed the rough speech of the corsair queen, she also noted how the men shrugged off her hard words for the most part, doubling their efforts to be sure, but not cowering in fear as she might have expected.

Captain Bellamy’s men, on the other hand, quaked quite visibly before the dashing black figure of Ethel, afraid no doubt that she would be putting them to the plank or setting fire to their ship and abandoning them to the horror of choosing between death by fire or water. They trundled their goods onto the deck and scurried back over the side to their own familiar decks. Black Ethel strode back and forth, her curt commands punctuated with a gleeful laugh. No doubt she was proud of the loot they were taking and the humiliating beating she had given Bellamy.

“I do hope the good captain will recover from his wounds,” Lizzie said confidentially to Alice as the latter gawked in a very un-ladylike manner at the proceedings whirling around them.

“Fie on the good captain,” said Alice with what Lizzie saw as a want of charity. “If he had been such a good captain he would have taken better care of his charges.”

“Now Alice,” Lizzie scolded, “He was our warden so to speak. How was he to know on what charges we were brought there? Perhaps he thought we were ungrateful little women who never did our lessons or deferred to our parents’ wishes.”

We must assume Lizzie was in high spirits to tease poor Alice so, but her cousin -- in her usual artless way -- was taking her at her word. As she was more than a little prone to being ungrateful on the whole, avoiding her lessons at all cost and seldom taking into account her parents’ wishes at all, Alice was a might peeved to think her cousin meant these jests seriously.

She was just about to let fly words in a squeaky and most unbecoming pitch when Black Ethel returned to their side and motioned for the two to follow her to her cabin. One could presume it was her cabin because it had the grammatically incorrect yet emphatically feminine “La Capitaine” painted on the door.

“Entrez, ma petites. You have a new sort of adventure ahead of you!”

Lizzie and Alice trembled but obeyed and entered the dimly lit cabin. The first sight to meet them was a mop and bucket and the horrible truth sank into their hearts.

They were to be maids after all. Horreurs!

Sunday, August 26, 2007


“Two hundred pounds!” Lizzie said with great venom. “You mountebank! You captain queernabs! You were going to sell us into white slavery!”

Bellamy groaned, grasping his side. “It’s not like that, miss. I pwomise you!”

Alice became indignant as well, spurred by the passion of her cousin’s harsh words. “You horror,!” She very nearly swooned quite away at the daring she felt using such rough language on such a pointed occasion. What would father say, Alice thought, her breast heaving with the exertion of uttering such a word. All at once she remembered that her father was quite dead and he would never again rail at his incorrigible daughter.

Perhaps it was the excitement of the moment, perhaps it was the realization that that audience would never again be able to express its disapproval in no uncertain terms, but all at once Alice felt a strange sensation in her heart.

“This must be grief,” she said, more to herself than anyone else -- not that anyone else would have heard her low utterance. Alas, she was again wrong, for it was not the unaccustomed feeling of grief that she was experiencing but a heretofore unexpected bout of nausea. This time it was unrelated to sea-sickness, for Alice had at last found her sea legs (albeit somewhat late and in a rather unlikely moment). It is possible that it was the sight of blood, for blood was pouring copiously from Captain Bellamy which, after their initial expressions of scorn and derision, began to have a softening effect on the two soft-hearted cousins.

Black Ethel, however, was unmoved by the all too common sight of a foe’s blood. Indeed she laughed loudly and exclaimed, “Mon dieu! Who knew there was red blood left in you, eh, Bellamy? I thought it had all turned to black like your heart!”

“Black Ethel, you wascally villain! You have slain me, no doubt. Kill me now and save me the suffewing death by thiwst when you abandon me on this ship.” Bellamy sank even lower upon the deck, the sounds of the other fights gradually sinking into the background as their attention focused upon him.

“You will live to fight another day, mon cher!” Black Ethel crowed. “I care nothing for your life. I wish only to take your wealth.” With that she put her fingers to her lips and blew three loud whistles. All at once the fighting on the deck ceased and all the men turned their eyes to the dread pirate queen.

“Your captain is defeated! If you continue to fight, I will throw him to le requin, le ange de mer and burn this ship under your feet. If you wish, however, to save the life of your master, lay down your weapons and help my men haul away your goods. What do you say, messieurs?”

The men looked back and forth between themselves. Lizzie looked in vain for the strange bosun, figuring the men might look to him for advice, but the skull-like visage was not to be seen. Alice had a strange pang at the thought that he might be among those killed in the battle. Despite his frightening appearance and strangely quiet ways, he had been so kind to her at the start of this difficult sea voyage.

As if agreeing, the captain’s men dropped their weapons and began to shuffle forward to the hold. Two of the crew grabbed Bellamy’s moaning body and carried him to what was left of his cabin.

“And now, mademoiselles, you must come with me!”

Alice and Lizzie exchanged a fearful look. What was to become of them on the pirate queen’s ship?

Sunday, August 19, 2007


“Cuwse you, Black Ethel!” Bellamy cried, grasping his side in pain. She merely guffawed louder and fought ever harder. Bellamy was hampered by his injury, but still he fought on with a good deal of vigor and spirit.

Lizzie and Alice hardly knew for whom to root. If Bellamy won, it seemed that they might be destined for the nefarious white slave trade -- about which they knew rather little other than the horror with which those words were met by any heroine of their favorite gothic tomes and by the beloved Mrs. Perkins, who had been the one to obtain said volumes by mysterious means and possessed a surprisingly thorough knowledge of their authors and adventures.

This heinous fate was among the things she could never bring herself to explain to the eager young readers. She had relented on various methods of torture once young Alice had passed her thirteenth birthday -- explaining with relish the intricacies of the Iron Maiden, the rack and the Spanish Tickler while the two girls shrieked with barely suppressed horror.

Many a quiet afternoon had been passed in rapt terror while the patient and kindly housekeeper detailed the implements of the Inquisition. “The Renaissance,” Mrs. Perkins was fond of saying, “meant a whole new attention to the machineries of torture. The medieval era was crudely kind in comparison. The artistry of the sixteenth century -- why when Father Gerard was in the Tower!” She would detail his sufferings in a hushed whisper, reading long passages from the book he had penned after his escape from Elizabeth’s henchmen.

But never would she explain the nature of the horror that was white slavery. Lizzie suspected much and Alice wondered often, but neither could have their worst fears confirmed nor denied.

It was most provoking.

The ignorance in which they were held on this account made its fiendishness that much more. The suspense of knowing that they might be headed for that fate was positively-swoon inducing. Alice searched her pockets for her handkerchief, feeling a strong desire to dab at her cheek with some delicacy, but the tiny lace friend was nowhere to be found, which left her in a puzzled state. What could have become of it?

Lizzie, on the other hand, busied herself wondering what might become of them if Black Ethel were to command them. Would they become piratical maids-of-all-work? Think how their delicate fingers would be roughened! Think how they would be drained of all vivacity! I shall be aged beyond recognition in mere months, Lizzie thought with a gasp.

White slave or pirate maid? Which was to be the worst -- yet, she recalled that Bellamy had sworn that he was not planning their descent into white slavery. Should she trust that? Lizzie looked at the captain as he continued to fight doggedly against the gleeful pirate’s blows. He was an Englishman, and that still counted for something, she decided. Black Ethel was French after all!

“Fight on, Captain,” she called boldly, drawing a disapproving look from her cousin. “We do not wish to fall into the clutches of wild pirates!”

The pirate queen laughed heartily, making another stab for Bellamy’s ribs. “How do you know life wouldn’t be better with the corsairs, eh?”

“We are Englishwomen,” Lizzie said primly. “We shall not go over to the enemy.”

“Enemy?” Black Ethel repeated, ducking away from Bellamy’s contre sixte. “I would merely set you free, unlike your gentleman.” She accentuated the latter word with a withering tone.

“Free?” said Alice, forgetting for a moment her handkerchief.

“Free!” said Lizzie, grabbing her cousin’s hand.

“Two hundwed pounds!” gasped Bellamy as he was unable to sidestep Black Ethel’s double, falling precipitously to the deck with a groan.

Saturday, August 11, 2007


A fiery missive had exploded right in the middle of the cabin’s wall, blasting a blackened hole into the wood and allowing the ocean winds to whistle through as Lizzie and Alice cowered back from its splintery force. Small flames cluing to the charred wood, but they were no match for the wild night winds and were soon extinguished.

“We were nearly killed by cannon fire!” Alice said indignantly.

“I think it was some other kind of missive,” Lizzie said examining the hole and the complete lack of cannonball.

Some shattered glass around the opening gave her a clue. She peeked out at the deck of the Bonny Read to see a doughty tar preparing another flaming bomb He stuck a bit of cloth into the neck of a bottle and lit it the strip, hefting it in his blackened hand while he looked at the Demeter for a likely target. Lizzie held her breath, her tender heart concerned lest the pirate inadvertently set himself on fire. At last he seemed to see something suitable as a target and hurled the bottle across the decks toward the stern. Another explosion rocked the ship and it gave a groan as if it were in pain.

Or perhaps it was just the moans of the crew, many of whom were feeling the worst of the battle. The pirates fought ruthlessly and without scruples. Bellamy’s men were no gentlemen, but Lizzie could not help but side with the men who were not rapscallions of the sea and in thrall to the daunting pirate queen.

“Where have they gone?” Alice asked, looking over at Lizzie who was still lost in her thoughts. Startled, she wondered for a moment whom it was that her cousin meant, but recovered herself quickly. Where were Bellamy and Black Ethel?

As if in response to their queries, the clash of swords returned to their ears as the fearsome pair fought their way back across the deck toward the cabin where the young women waited. The air around them almost seemed to swirl with the force of their battle. Perhaps it was the smoke from the cannon-fire and flaming torches that gave the wind an almost visible presence, or perhaps it was the swift slashing of the blades of the two combatants. It was hard to be sure, but Lizzie and Alice watched in awe as the fight wore on and the steel clashed over and over again.

“Chin up, Bellamy!” Black Ethel laughed with glee, a little hoarse from the fight, but still grinning widely. “You can always become one of us. Haven’t you always wanted to be on the pirate side? You got more than a little buccaneer in you, Bellamy.”

“Nevew!” Bellamy cried once more. “You awe a cheat and a cwiminal.”

The dread pirate queen then looked at Alice and Lizzie who were peeking out from the blasted hole in the wall and laughed even louder. “At least I don’t kidnap young women for nefarious purposes. I never took you for a white slaver, Bellamy.”

Lizzie and Alice both glared at Bellamy. Was this the fate that awaited them?! Oh, the horror of it! Bad enough to be spirited away from her father’s funeral, but to find at the end of the journey a fate worse than death -- it was too much.

“No!” Bellamy shouted as he parried another of her seemingly endless thrusts. “Theiw fate is something faw diffewent, you see -- "

But before he could finish his sentence, Black Ethel struck once more, the shaft of her sword striking Bellamy’s ribcage.

Sunday, July 29, 2007



Black Ethel strode across the deck, searching for the captain. Lizzie cowered behind the window of the cabin as the pirate queen passed, her purple plume bouncing and her two swords gleaming.

“Cuwse you, Ethel!” Bellamy roared as he ran from the prow toward her. “You will not have my ship!”

Black Ethel planted her boots firmly and laughed good and loud. “I take what I want, Bellamy. And I want your cargo and maybe a few of your men.”

“You will nevew escape my cwew!” Bellamy shouted, waving aloft his own heavy sword. A few of his men, who weren’t busy battling the other pirates, did likewise. Shouts of great audacity arose and Alice, who had joined Lizzie at the window, felt her heart strengthen with the sight of so many courageous men. Surely, they would be saved from the pirates’ predations.

“I have no need to escape. Not before I have purloined your ship from stem to stern. Bring them on, Bellamy. My lads will dispatch with your scalawags. But you,” she smiled an evil smile, “You are mine!”

And with that the two crews fell to in earnest once more, swords clanging and the occasional pistol ringing out. Bellamy and Black Ethel came together amidships, well within view of the cabin’s window. Black Ethel struck with both swords at once, scissoring Bellamy between their blades. He parried one then the other with his own sword, rapidly batting it between her two. One of his more quick-witted crew shouted a word of encouragement and tossed his own sword to the captain. For his pains he was at once attacked by a pair of pirates, one with a large club, the other with a razor-sharp rapier. In vain he sought to halt the downward thrust of the club with his small knife. The rapier’s blade bit into his arm and scarlet bloomed from the gaping wound.

“Hardly sporting,” Lizzie muttered under her breath.

Alice was speechless with indignation. Had pirates no morals at all?

Their attention flew back to Bellamy and the pirate queen, just as the captain declared, “Wevenge, deaw lady, wevenge shall be mine tonight!” He darted forward with the second blade, thrusting toward the vulnerable side of the pirate. She was too quick, however, blocking his sword with her two, throwing the blade up and making Bellamy regroup for another attack.

“You’re going to have to be faster than that,” she shouted, a grin still widening her too red mouth. Lizzie could see a fine white scar crossing the woman’s cheek and disappearing into her raven hair. She did not draw Alice’s attention to that detail, for fear that she might swoon right away. Imagine the rough life the pirate queen must lead, to be in such danger, to suffer such injuries. Lizzie did not wish to admit that the idea was simply soppy with thrills. To be completely independent! To never again be thrust into uncomfortable clothes and uncomfortable situations, to never again smile politely at the endless line of tedious people that were most of her relations, to no longer be the poor orphan with no marriage prospects—but suddenly she remembered, blushed at her lapse and touched the letter still secreted away in her sleeve. There was much to live for. They must triumph against the pirate queen!

Bellamy thrust again and Black Ethel neatly dodged his blow, spinning around lightly and parrying back with her left hand, holding the right in reserve, waiting for her opportunity. “Don’t tell me you’re running out of steam already, Bellamy! The fight has only just begun.”

True enough, Bellamy was looking a bit overwhelmed, but her taunting reinvigorated his flagging spirits. “Nevew! I shall defend the Demetew with all my heawt and skill. Take that!” and he launched a renewed attack of such vigor that he fought the pirate queen back to the railings.

Suddenly a bright light seemed to burst all around the fighting pair. Lizzie ducked and clunked heads with Alice. Smoke seemed to be everywhere until the night breeze wafted through the clanking night.

“Look,” cried Lizzie, grabbing Alice’s arm. “Over there!”

Monday, July 23, 2007


[N.B. Your humble author begs you forgive the slight delay in delivering this episode. She blames the difficulty of extricating herself from the company of some piratical types whose nautical expertise was necessary for the composition of this narrative.]

In the burst of noise that suddenly and cacophonously surrounded them, Alice wished with all her heart that she had not awakened from her dream. In it, she was surrounded by a bevy of admirers, chief of which was the elusive Kit Barrington, whose fine head of hair and gentle manner charmed her exceedingly. There was such a crowd that Arthur Boylett was quite lost at the back, jumping up occasionally to get a glimpse of her beauty but otherwise quite unable to approach.

This was just as Alice wished.

Although the parlour seemed to have become surprisingly drafty, Alice chose to ignore this fact. She also ignored the increasing din from what appeared to be Mr. Radley dropping large rocks into a very large bucket and Mrs. Perkins pummeling the walls with a very large and somewhat sinister rattan carpet beater. Desperately she clung to the dream even as Lizzie in both dream and reality began to shake her shoulder gently, yet insistently.

How horrible to awake to the chaos of the pirate attack! How infinitely worse to know that no such throng of admirers surrounded her at present. When she heard herself begging Lizzie to say it was all dream, that she might return to the phantasy of her slumber, Alice felt a small measure of shame as well as a much larger one of disappointment.

“What a burden I have been!” she thought and vowed once more to be a better person and to help her dear cousin to bear the trials to which they had been subjected. This was a solemn vow that might last minutes altogether.

With horror, the two young women stared out the newly-fashioned porthole to see the grappling hooks settle into any nook where they might find purchase. Several went high in the rigging and only a few were cut by the flashing swords of the crew. Within a short time, pirates of all sorts began to swing over to the deck of the Demeter.

Look! There three black-clad devils hopped onto the deck, spinning left and right to parry the blows of the sailors. Each carried a short dagger as well as his blade. One had a pistol tucked in his belt, another had a club hanging from his.

There! On the prow, another pair of marauders grappled with the Demeter’s stalwart crew. Blades flashed and alarming sprays of blood filled the air as the rugged pirates battered back Captain Bellamy’s sailors. The clink and clack of the weapons rang out through the air and the two cousins cowered in their cabin. What was to become of them?

As if to seal their fate like a barrel of Caribbean rum, they heard a shrill whistle and a hearty laugh. It was Black Ethel! She leaped across the short distance between the ships and landed on the deck, both swords drawn and a broad smile on her face. A gold tooth glittered in the lantern light as she roared with laughter. “Where are you, Captain Sam? We have a little matter to settle here on deck!”

Sunday, July 15, 2007


“Fire away, boys!” Black Ethel shouted, her voice ringing out clearly amidst the din of the battle. At once the report of cannon fire belched forth from the ship’s sides, hurtling the little black missives toward the Demeter’s groaning sides. How much more could they take?

Captain Bellamy yelled orders in his inimitable style, clouting the slower members of the crew about the head in an attempt to get them to scramble faster. Everyone seemed to be going in the wrong direction at once, cannon balls sometimes missing their trunks by mere inches, and all too often, not missing at all, but carrying the unlucky few over the side of the boat and into the great wide ocean. It was beginning to look an awful lot like chaos.

Through the smoke and noise, Lizzie could hear three distinct sounds: the throaty laugh of Black Ethel, the rasping snoring of Alice, and what she could only imagine to be the cry of the albatross perched high above the deck of the Bonny Read. Watching the fight from the window of the captain’s cabin, Lizzie began to fear that things were not going well.

For one thing, she could see that Captain Bellamy’s visage was becoming beet red, a sure sign of indignation, as was the tendency of his voice to rise ever higher and skate over more and more consonants. For another, she could see more than a few holes in the deck of the Demeter, which signaled a slight tendency to take on water.

“I must wake Alice,” Lizzie thought to herself. Surely it was only to have her cousin prepared for any eventuality and not simply because her snoring was becoming unbearably loud and coarse. In any case, she shook her cousin’s shoulder gently yet firmly and began to call her name. “Alice, Alice! You must wake up! We are under attack -- by pirates!”

“What?” Alice asked, rubbing her eyes and smiling vacantly as was her habit upon waking. “Parrots?”

“No, no, pirates,” Lizzie hastily corrected her. “They are at present firing cannonballs at the Demeter and will no doubt board her soon.” Well, perhaps an exaggeration, Lizzie scolded herself, but she needed to find a way to get Alice moving. She was so lethargic!

“Is there anything to eat?” Alice said as she stretched luxuriously, raising herself slowly to a sitting position. “Where is Mrs. Perkins?”

Lizzie groaned. “We are not at home, Alice! We are on board the ship, remember, dear? Captain Bellamy is our latest kidnapper and we are sailing for who knows where!”

Alice burst into tears. “I had thought that was all a dream! Oh, Lizzie, please tell me, can it be so?”

Lizzie patted her cousin’s shoulder. “I am so sorry, my dear, but it is true. We have been kidnapped, we are under attack from pirates and all looks quite dismal at present.”

“No, no,” Alice said, shaking her head sorrowfully, “But is it true I ate eels?”

“And many other kinds of fish, much of raw, Alice,” Lizzie could not quite help the scolding tone of her voice even as she tried to comfort her cousin. “But that is not the most important thing just now,” she continued as she moved the bucket once more to the bedside.

“What could be worse?” Alice asked in a strangled voice, turning a pale and not too becoming shade of light green.

With a sudden blast of splinters and shattering glass, a cannon ball crashed through the window of the cabin and made a hasty exit out a new hole on the opposite side.

“That, my dear, could be much worse!” While Alice cowered on the bed, regretting having woken up, Lizzie peeked carefully out the smashed window. The Bonny Read was a mere two yards away and the pirates were swinging ropes between them. They meant to board the ship!

Sunday, July 08, 2007


Lizzie drew back in horror -- the pirate ship was within yards of the Demeter. She could see the terrifying crew, a band of cutthroat rebels, not one fit for a gentleman’s home. None of them acquainted with the finer things in life, helpless to deal with a standard array of forks, let alone the intricacies of the oyster fork’s maneuvering. No, they were brigands through and through, Lizzie thought, untamed, unmanageable and uncompromising. She very nearly swooned, and as we all know, Lizzie is not a swooning sort of woman.

At the front of the deck of the pirate ship there strode a woman dressed all in black, save for a plume of deep purple. It could only be she, Black Ethel, the scourge of the Atlantic. Through the mists of the evening and the smoke of canon-fire, Lizzie squinted her eyes to get a better look at the legend. If only I had a spyglass, Lizzie cursed. Suddenly she remembered that they were in fact in the captain’s cabin. If there was an advantage to being kidnapped, surely this was it. She began to rummage through the drawers she had neglected while moping over their fate or exploring the open decks. There was a treasure trove here!

In one drawer she found a wonderful adventure book (“I must read this to Alice when things get back to normal!” she thought), several gold doubloons in rather sad neglect, something that looked suspiciously like a monkey’s paw, a kind of gold bug, some pale greenish liqueur, several rolled up scrolls of parchment that might have been maps or directions of some kind (indeed, one looked like it could have been a piece of skin -- Lizzie abruptly dropped that item as soon as she made that realization) and in the last drawer, alas, only thimble.

But there was still the cabinet to explore, and in the second compartment (after jiggling the lock free -- well, desperate times called for desperate measures) Lizzie found what she needed, the captain’s spyglass. Employing it at once, she ran to the porthole and peered out. The sudden closeness of the pirates gave her a shock, but she quickly recovered once the glass was withdrawn to show the pirates still a good distance away.

Lizzie drew the glass once more to her eye and set a curious eye upon the captain. A woman, indeed, she was, but a woman like none Lizzie had known. While Lady Montague was certainly a woman to be reckoned with on any playing field of fine society, here was a woman who could be her match -- no doubt on any field of play. From the tip of her tricorne hat to the heel of her black leather boots, Ethel was a scalawag of the worst sort, that much was clear. But there was even more to it. She had a fiery eye that Lizzie could not help but admire, a gaze that many a weak man would quail before. She pitied the men who had to face that pirate queen, but not very much -- for only the weak would not match her steely eyes and they would be better off dead.

Heavens, thought Lizzie, I am condoning a pirate!

Monday, July 02, 2007


The first ball fell short and the crew heaved a collective sigh. Another crack! And a second cannonball flew across the waves, and this one did not fall into the salty sea, but took a bit of the stern with her. The shouts of the crew redoubled and Captain Bellamy’s orders flew ever faster.

The black pirate ship was hastening down the wind, drawing ever closer and putting them all in greater danger. Lizzie hung out the window as far as she could, unable to bear the idea of closing the shutters and finding safety within, but with no chance to follow the developing battle. The sailors all had their cutlasses drawn, the Captain himself had a pistol in each hand. Even the ship’s mascot, a salty old parrot with only one leg (and a penchant for language that was not fit for a lady’s ears) wrestled a bit of stick in his mouth as if he, too, would fight for the decks of the Demeter and its precious cargo.

Lizzie could only hope that she and her cousin would be considered part of that estimable cargo and not ballast that might be jettisoned to quicken the pace of the journey. She glanced over at Alice to see her oddly still dreaming away, oblivious to the chaos crying all around her. How could she sleep through such a time! Lizzie returned her gaze to the decks just in time to see another cannonball fly through the air and land in a shower of splinters on the deck. It crashed through to the lower deck and, judging by the sound, hit some of the rum below. The anguished cries of the crew seemed to suggest that it hit its mark squarely.

Another projectile flew over the cabin from which Lizzie looked out on the fray. She could see now the decks of the pirate ship before her, and like magic, the second verse of the song came back to her memory:

The albatross sits on the skeleton bow,
And calls to the sailors who suffer below—
The captain, she wields a bright scimitar now
And the men fall before it like corn in a row.

Way-hey, Black Ethel is here!
Way-hey, let’s give her a cheer

Lizzie could see that the black pirate ship bore the name that chilled many across the wine dark sea: it was the Bonny Read! No doubt about it now, it was Black Ethel herself and there was little hope to be had that any of them would live to tell the tale of this battle.

As if to underscore that realization, Lizzie saw the pirate queen herself standing proudly on the fo’csle of the ship, her scimitar in the air as she shouted orders to her crew. The air was so full of smoke that Lizzie could hardly see what was ship and what was sea, but Black Ethel’s men seemed to be gathering together for a singular purpose. As one they turned to face the Demeter, and Lizzie could not help ducking down behind the wall to avoid being seen. When she finally worked up the courage to look again, her eyes nearly popped out of her head with horror and alarm.

The pirates were climbing up ropes, ready to swing over. They were going to board the ship!

Sunday, June 24, 2007


The sailors ran nimbly across the decks. Every one of them seemed stretched as taut as the wind-belled sails about them, but their frantic movement could not hide the fact that as the black vessel was steadily closing the distance between them they began to throw concerned looks behind them. Lizzie could see the fear growing among the crew even as Captain Bellamy continued to bellow orders preparing for the seemingly inevitable encounter.

It was all so exciting!

Lizzie wished she could be some useful part of the crew. She threw a glance over at the blissfully sleeping Alice and wondered how she could sleep at a time like this. Here was the stuff of adventure -- here the thrills of the novel’s pages in real life.

“If I were any sort of heroine,” Lizzie thought peevishly, “I would be out there helping prepare for the battle.” She watched a handful of sailors head below decks and soon heard the rumble of the cannon being rolled into position below her. “I could load gunpowder,” she tried to think convincingly, “Or perhaps I could light the cannon!” But the more she thought about it, the less she was confident that she could do anything of the kind. While she had always been known for her cool head and sensible thinking, but truthfully -- she blushed to admit it -- there was little to actually test her abilities in the past. Until the sudden string of events that had led them to being kidnapped and on board Captain Bellamy’s ship -- why, it was beginning to seem months ago that Lord Mangrove’s mysterious death had occurred, the strange haunting and their precipitous removal from the funeral train.

And she had thought life in Surrey dull.

But look! The black sails drew ever closer. Lizzie swore she could hear the whipping of the wind in that giant black flag. That speck on the deck -- surely it must be Black Ethel herself with a splendid hat. That was one of the things she could recall from Uncle Frank’s exciting stories. Her raven hair and her splendid hat. There was a lot of folderol about the many men she had murdered, but Lizzie was certain that she would have the gentle heart of a woman underneath.

Although now that she thought about it, Lizzie felt a shiver of fear as she remembered another tale which told of death himself employed as her bosun, his skeleton fingers itching for the taste of flesh. In fact, there was a poem was there not?

Lizzie paced the tiny cabin, while Alice slumbered on. (No doubt the steps would echo in her head and enter her dreams, but Alice’s dreams will have to wait for a while). If she could just remember the first line, no doubt the rest would come to her in time. Surely, Lizzie scolded herself, it started with her name. She paced a few more steps -- the words were proving elusive -- until the image of the albatross came to mind. That was it!

Black Ethel, the pirate queen, sailed the seas,
Her bosun was Death and he gathered his fees
From all those who would dare to challenge her sword;
They fell with a curse or a groveling word.

Way-hey, Black Ethel is here!
Way-hey, let's give her a cheer.

The albatross must be in the second verse, she thought uncertainly. Although why one would cheer a pirate who is about to kill one dead, escaped Lizzie. Perhaps it was all part of the romanticism of adventure, which she was beginning to realize paled beside the real thing. The salt air stung her cheeks and the loud cries on deck were thrilling, to be sure, but as the black ship drew within firing distance, Lizzie could feel her mouth go dry.

Suddenly there was an explosion of fire and a boom from the other ship. The first cannon had been fired!

Sunday, June 17, 2007


There was no doubt about it. A shiver seemed to run through the whole of the crew and Lizzie herself could see the black sails now. The sight of the jolly roger whipping madly atop the mast made her draw her breath with a mixture of alarm and excitement. Only Alice seemed unfazed by the excitement, licking the last of the cod liver oil from her fingers as she sat on the sunny deck’s bench.

“I would advise you to wetweat to youw cabin, Miss,” the captain said with a snarl. “If you think you are in dangew now, wait until the likes of piwates get hold of pwetty young giwls like you. Thewe is nothing they will not stoop to doing!”

Lizzie was chagrined at having to miss the excitement, but she knew that she and Alice needed protection. At least their cabin was on the starboard side. They would be able to peek out the window. “Come Alice!” Lizzie cried and took her cousin’s arm.

Alice was meekly compliant, her stomach full of various kinds of fish, which began to make her feel rather sleepy. I know I shall have a wonderful dream tonight, she thought, confused about the time of day from her topsy-turvy adventures. For although the moon could be seen in the sky, it was the middle of the day. Alice did not even begin to wonder about that fact, she simply accepted that things were different at sea. She was so grateful not to be feeling poorly that all other facts could be faced with sanguine complacency.

Lizzie latched the door behind her and ran to the porthole. No doubt about it, the ship with the black sails was getting closer. If only I had a spyglass, Lizzie fretted, envying the mate’s clearer view as he gazed across the waves with his.

“No doubt about it, captain,” Randall shouted to Bellamy, “it is she!”

They must recognize the ship, Lizzie told herself confidently, for she knew ships were always referred to as if they were female. But which ship? She was bursting to know.

“I’m going to sleep now,” Alice announced dreamily, and then proceeded to lie down on her bed. In a twinkling she was breathing deeply, completely unaware of the excitement on board.

The sailors were running to and fro, stowing gear and preparing weapons. They would be ready for a fight. Lizzie could not decide whether it was horror or a thrill of excitement that made her heart beat so. Clearly the captain wanted to avoid a fight if he could, for the men were busily swinging the sails around in an attempt to pick up more speed.

Far on the horizon -- though not as far as before -- Lizzie could see the dark vessel gaining on them, sails bulging with wind and the trim rigging taut with their speed. She could see that the flag flown from its highest mast was no ordinary skull and crossbones, but one that featured a bright five-pointed star as well. That image rang a faint bell in Lizzie’s memory. She tried to cast her mind back to consider it. Where had she seen that flag before? Brighton came to mind. Her mother’s uncle had lived in that seaside town, selling newspapers to the sailors, merchants and holiday makers. She had often visited as a small child, and she remembered well her uncle’s ruddy complexion and rough, but kindly hands. It was there she first knew the delight of adventure stories, for he knew them all, from the lament of Dorigen to the triumph of Palamon, and told them to her eager ears as she sucked on sweets. All at once, a name welled up in her memory.

“Black Ethel!” It was the pirate queen herself out there -- and she was gaining on them.