“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!”