“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.”