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.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


Lizzie regarded Alice's returned appetite with some misgivings. It was not so much the ravenous vigor she exhibited -- although that was rather common and more than a little off-putting --- no, it was rather the unladylike choice of her food. "Vulgar" kept popping into her head for some reason and for the first time her own stomach began to make rather unexpected turns as she watched Alice consume yet further quantities of the small silvery fish that seemed far less than entirely prepared for such consumption.

"Aren't these marvelous!" her cousin crowed from her seat, a small dollop of oil shining from the corner of her upturned mouth. It was at least good to see Alice's humor returned, Lizzie reminded herself, even if the results were less than appetizing. She would stick to the hard biscuits the sailors shared amongst themselves and the somewhat tepid water that came in her cracked cup when she requested it. No need for extravagances like the slippery little creatures Alice continued to consume with all the zeal of a cormorant.

It was not like her to make unflattering bird comparisons to members of her family but Lizzie was feeling uncharacteristically peevish at the moment. She hated to admit that Alice's illness had left her to her own devices in a welcome respite from her dear, beloved cousin's inquisitive -- if easily bored -- nature and sometimes ceaseless chatter. It was unkind to think it, Lizzie scolded herself, and one should certainly not admit that one's dearest relations might be less than wholly good company on a long sea journey, although it maybe slightly more truthful to confess that she had been more than a little relieved at the thought of Alice quietly spending the perilous journey in her bunk.

I am not a good person, Lizzie sighed to herself. Poor Alice was suffering and I was walking the deck without a care on my mind. "You are feeling much better, my dear."

"Indeed!" Alice agreed, munching and swallowing yet another little fish, its tail slipping between her moistened lips. "I feel quite recovered and I am not at all certain why. I could not raise my head for illness just an hour ago, yet now I cannot imagine ever having felt so poorly. I am quite restored!"

"How wonderful," Lizzie agreed with, it must be admitted, something less than the full force of her enthusiasm.

The captain chose that moment to look in on the two prisoners, taking in Alice's renewed appetite with some surprise and then a hearty laugh. "I see the bosun has worked his magic the weluctant young lady."

Lizzie looked at him quizzically. "The bosun?" Whatever did he mean?

She did not get a chance to inquire further, however, for just then the first mate ran up breathless and agitated.

"What is it, Wandall?" the captain asked somewhat disagreeably. "Out with it, man."

"Black sails," the mate hissed darkly. The captain sucked in a breath and then the two turned and walked swiftly toward the deck.

Black sails, thought Lizzie. That could only mean one thing -- pirates!

Monday, June 04, 2007


Alice woke to feel her head pounding and her heart beating weakly. She looked out the window to see in the dim light of the dawn that appalling rictus grin of the bosun, his jaunty tophat failing to make her the least bit jolly. His skull-like countenance for once was nearly welcome.

"If you are Death," Alice thought to herself, "I do hope you have come to claim me." She had expelled every bit of food that had been in her stomach, and some bits of food that she particularly did not like to believe had ever passed her lips at any time, having been of such unappealing form and substance as to have questioned the reasonableness of anyone allowing such morsels to grace her mouth. Just let me die, she whispered, not even aloud.

The hideous spectre drew closer and Alice very nearly thought that at last her pain was at an end. No more adventures, no more kidnapping, but sadly, no return home and hero's welcome. She would very much have liked to be welcomed home with a great deal of pomp and circumstance (not to mention tea, cakes and very nice crispy bacon) but she feared now such was not to be. For death's head loomed before her about to cut short her promising beauty and loveliness (or so she lied to think even in this moment of unremitting pathetic suffering).

The bosun, however, far from being a representative of Death on this earthly plane, merely took her soft white hand with surprising gentleness, turned it over and tapped repeatedly just below her wrist.

Alice was too shocked and sickly to muster an objection. Surely if Lizzie were there, she would have done so, but on her own Alice merely stared with wonder as this episode took place, then just as uncomprehendingly watched as he dropped the same hand and, smiling, walked away across the deck. She stared at his retreating back, her misery not so much lifted as displaced, when suddenly she felt the oddest sensation.

"I could quite go for a plate of kippers," Alice said aloud wonderingly, a phrase she had never used prior to that day. Suddenly, the world began to look brighter, and it was not simply because the sun was up.