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!