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.”