Sunday, November 25, 2007


“Lafitte!” Lizzie said with alarm and disbelief. “The horrible pirate? Oh, I beg your pardon.” How awkward it was to suddenly find themselves rescued by a pirate from what had appeared to perfectly respectable men. As fixed as her ideas had been about pirates and highway men, Lizzie could not keep herself from regarding Black Ethel with a mixture of puzzlement and admiration. She would be loathe to admit it even to her dear cousin, but Lizzie was quite fascinated and intrigued by the free life the pirate queen lived, not only freed from the bonds of tutelary but also from the restrictions of family and town. She wore what she liked, spoke as she wished and was entirely careless of housekeeping details.

It was quite dizzying to consider.

Black Ethel continued to suck on her cigar thoughtfully. “He was certainly notorious, c’est vrai. All those who faced him in the corridor that day eagerly gave way after one glare from his glittering eyes.”

Alice quailed visibly. “Were you not frightened?” she asked with awe.

Black Ethel waved her hand dismissively. “He was the one person who could take me away from the all that drudgery into a life of freedom and adventure. I knew that the fusty luggs who ran the infirmière had long been his paramour, so I decided to make the most of his brief visit to Paris.”

“Paramour?” said Alice, her brow furrowing.

“Paramour!” said Lizzie, her cheeks blushing pink.

“Indeed,” said Ethel, oblivious to the reactions of the two young women as she warmed to the telling of her story. “By listening to the gossip of the staff, I knew that it was the habit of M. Lafitte to visit the kitchen first and obtain a little sustenance from the gallimaufry that served as the primary meal of the infirmière—except of course for those too ill or injured to eat.”

“Was there a war on?” Alice asked hesitantly, afraid that she might be asked to name the particular war and aware that she could only remember the battles that had interesting names like Marathon and Waterloo but had no memory to recall the other wars categorical.

“There is always a war on,” Lizzie said with some bitterness, all too aware how the current situation in the Mediterranean affected her own romantic interests.

Black Ethel nodded sagely. “Quel dommage, eh? It was fortunate for Lafitte, as it was far easier to recruit men to the piratical life once they had seen action in the armed forces. They knew how to use pistols and they were accustomed to the sight of blood. Quite often, too, they were somewhat less idealistic and more eager for results.

“I left my linens behind and sneaked into the kitchen. The usual Gorgon who ran that sweaty room had departed for fear of Lafitte, who sat on a chair shoveling some food into a bowl with a mug of ale at his side. He was everything the tales had told: surely six feet tall or more, with an ugly scar down the left side of his face, blocked only by a jet black patch where his eye ought to have been. I quailed at the thought of his roughness, but I was determined to join the pirate life and lay waste to all that my blackguard relatives held dear.

“I gathered my courage and at last said, ‘M. Lafitte, I wish to join your crew!’ He looked at me through his single eye, set down the bowl of gallimaufry and then burst into loud guffaws of laughter.

“This only made me more determined. Quick as a fox, I snatched a knife from the cutting board and held it to his throat. ‘M. Lafitte,’ I said triumphantly, ‘I suggest you consider my offer!’”

Sunday, November 18, 2007


“Fifteen—and on your own!” Lizzie could not help uttering those words with a tone of disapproval, although whether she truly disparaged Black Ethel’s wayward independence or simply envied her boldness, it was hard to tell. She was beginning to form a distinct sense of awe before the fearlessness of this raven-haired buccaneer.

“Indeed!” chuckled the pirate queen as she lit another cigar and turned down the wick of the lamp. It was becoming quite late indeed, but neither of the two young women seemed the least bit tired as Black Ethel related her exciting adventures. “Although I was of course rather tall for my age. It is all in the bones,” she said, turning to Alice. “Cheese is good for the bones!”

Alice winced although she tried not to show it. She had always been somewhat delicate around the subject of cheese. Her parents had tried all the types to find a flavour she would enjoy, but she had tasted them all and continued to demur. It was always the same: Wensleydale, cheddar, Stilton, Derbyshire, brie, gouda, Dachsteiner, Herve, Havarti, Lappi, Beaufort, Camembert, Desmond, Kilcummin, Shropshire Blue or Double Gloucester, Alice had nibbled a bit from one side or the other and yet had seen no perceptible change in her feelings. It is quite possible that she would always remain recalcitrant when it came to fermented curd.

The pirate queen returned to her narrative with no knowledge of the curdly tumult in Alice’s brain. “I knew that I would never find my dreams in the town of my birth, so I began the long trek to Paris, sure that something there would lead to the wonderful life I knew awaited me.”

“How could you be so certain?” Lizzie asked, thinking pensively of her own doubts and fears.

Black Ethel laughed. “Paris was the city of lights! I had heard about it since childhood. I was not foolish enough to think the streets were paved with gold, though I had hopes nearly as unrealistic. For the first month I was there, I swept the floors in a café so dirty that the very rats would not eat off the floor. In the second month, I kneaded dough in a boulangerie where cockroaches routinely substituted for sultanas.”

“Oh my,” Alice said, turning a rather pale shade of green.

“Oh, that was not the worst!” Black Ethel gave a sinister laugh. “In the third month, I was hired to beat linens in a laundry that supplied the local infirmière, although they were less than scrupulous about the care they gave the linens. How many time the cruel madame barked at me not to waste the bleach that might have saved one more of the soldiers from horrible infection, I cannot have kept count.”

“How horrid!” Lizzie said, aghast in her gentle heart.

“Indeed,” the buccaneer agreed. “I knew that it was not to be my life’s work. But one day I saw a glimmer of hope. A man walked into the infirmière while I was delivering linens. He was grim-faced and bearded with huge guns at his side and all the hallways filled with whispers of his name.

“It was…the pirate Lafitte!”

Sunday, November 11, 2007


“One day,” Black Ethel continued as Lizzie and Alice drew closer with the excitement of her tale, “when we were all in the main hall where we received our paltry meals and did our endless tatting, I made a decision. No more would I tat for this horrible woman who leeched the vital souls of innocent children, no more would I work for anyone but me as the beneficiary.”

“How brave you must have been!” Lizzie said with undisguised admiration. The pirate queen was like a novel’s heroine come to life. How pale the stories of Miss Radcliffe seemed in comparison, whereas once she devoured them by candlelight when the sun had long since gone to sleep. Perhaps when she has finished relating her adventures, Lizzie mused, I can trust my great secret to her bosom. Surely she can be a stalwart confidant! The young woman turned to the tale once more with an even greater excitement.

“I could do nothing alone. That was the lynchpin, as we say. I needed a few confederates to join me. This would be difficult,” the pirate queen said confidentially to the pair raptly listening. “I was not known as a kindly sort, I must admit. I was quick to temper, eager to use my fists and the envy of all because of my beautiful long hair the color of a raven’s wing.” Black Ethel swept her long locks over one shoulder, combing her fingers through the ringlets to emphasize her point.

Lizzie and Alice both cooed appreciatively, although the latter might be excused for thinking her own golden locks were more attractive. She associated this shade of hair with the chimera of Kit Barrington, now sadly fading from memory with only the light anchor of black hair and blue eyes to tie him to her memory and the vague thought that he had been so charming, though truth to tell, Alice was unable to recall a single witty remark or clever observation. She would have to quiz Lizzie later and see if her memory were better (it generally was).

“However, as I spread the word about my desire for rebellion, I found there were many who desired an opportunity to rise up against the despot, Mme. de Pautonnier, and to break free of that horrid place. They only lacked a leader. I decided to embrace the necessity and draw them together for the attack. Our plans were laid in the dark of the night. Whispers floated from bed to bed and room to room. At last on a night with the full moon’s light, we struck.

“Our attack began in the kitchen. Without the sour-faced staff who usually tortured us, the place was cavernous and foul-smelling. We filled our shirts or kerchiefs with what food we could find, slinging it over our backs for the night. Tripping past the sleeping Francis, Madame’s lazy cousin with his short sight and his cruel stick, we filed into the great hall and gathered our tatting work into a pile, throwing onto it all the shuttles, a few wooden buckets and some small kindling from the woodstove. I drizzled some olive oil over the combustibles and then I drew out the box of matches I had liberated from the kitchen, right under the nose of the chef.”

“Oh, no!” Lizzie could not help herself but gasp.

“Oh yes,” Black Ethel said with a wicked smile. “I set fire to the pile there and then, and laughed aloud as the flames shot into the air.”

“Goodness,” said Alice, gobsmacked with pure admiration for the destructive young girl.

“Goodness had very little to do with it,” the pirate queen said with a wave of her hand. “I admit my motives were good, but what happened next turned the night into a mêlée.”

“Oh dear!”

“Yes, the other children equally enraptured with the flames, grabbed their uncomfortable stools and chairs where they had spent hour after miserable hour tatting, and thrust them onto the pyre as well. Within moments the fire was blazing out of the control. Madame de Pautonnier and her staff were roused from their own comfortable beds and desperately tried to extinguish the flames but it was far, far too late.

“In the helter skelter of the noise and panic, as the fire brigade arrived tardily and began to try to contain the fire, most of us children escaped from our overlords, nipping out into the streets and running into dark corners to await the morning light and the freedom it brought us. I breathed in the night air, and though it was choked with burning tat, it smelled like freedom. I was fifteen and the world lay before me like a lazy opponent whom I had every expectation of besting at the first match.”

Sunday, November 04, 2007


“My thoughts were less confident when I was ushered brutally to the doorsteps of the grim orphanage,” Black Ethel continued. “While I had been eager to leave my unkind relatives and their uneasy scorn, I was somewhat abashed when the tall black doors loomed before me.”

“I have never seen an orphanage,” Alice said, her voice betraying a curiosity she was little able to hide. “It sounds perfectly monstrous, though.”

“I shudder to consider your fate,” Lizzie added, thanking her lucky stars once more for the sometimes tiresome but always cushy home of her aunt and uncle.

“It is to be shuddered at,” Black Ethel agreed, tossing her tricorne onto her desk and tousling her long black hair. Lizzie noted that the pirate queen looked much less intimidating with her hair down and her face relaxed from the scowl she often wore on deck. Nevertheless, Lizzie suspected that it would not be wise to remember the ruthlessness of which she could be capable.

“I was admitted to the grey walls of the institution and immediately sized up the situation. Most of the children appeared to have been beaten into a sullen submission by the head of the orphanage, Madame de Pautonnier. While the orphanage may have been founded by the holy man who had been a friend to children everywhere and an artiste of bon repute, this leader seemed to have come from the opposing camp.

“Only infernal realms could have been responsible for this dictator in a redingote. I can see her dull grey eyes before me in my worst dreams and hear that piercingly high-pitched voice. Her cruelty was legendary, her conscience non-existent. Pautonnier’s only concern was making the most of the stipend the city offered her for caring for the cast off children without a sou or a relative. Thus she clothed us as meagerly as possible and fed us little more than gruel and vegetable soup. A lump of meat was a rarity that might turn up in the bowl of an unfortunate only at odd intervals, and often resulting in an impromptu battle.”

“How awful,” Alice said, appearing to be genuinely shaken by this picture of the rough life. Cosseted in her stately home, she had had no idea of the lives of others beyond her class. Although a very ignorant girl, her heart responded with lively empathy and she vowed, “I shall make sure we have no such horrors in our village! When I return,” she added someone more somberly, dabbing at her eyes with a mixture of sympathy and self-pity.

“That would be a good thing,” Black Ethel agreed. “We were poorly fed, beaten and used as cheap labour. Hour after hour we girls were forced to tat.”

“To what?” asked Lizzie. Alice looked on with alarm, fearful what the answer might be.

Black Ethel looked at the two of them with surprise. “Tatting? Frivolité? The horrible lace with which one makes collars and doilies?”

Lizzie could feel a sense of indignation building. “Children are labouring to make lace? It’s an outrage!”

“And we have so many,” Alice said wonderingly, before blushing and begging the pirate queen to continue. “Why were children particularly used for this?”

The buccaneer raised her rough but petite hands for their inspection. “Our fingers were tiny and nimble. We could move the shuttles to and fro with alacrity. The hooks would not catch on our short sleeved garments and our young eyes could see in the faint light allowed by the grimy windows of the workroom.

“But one day, I decided I had had enough!”

Thursday, November 01, 2007


Your humble narrator was waylaid by a strange caravan of gaily dressed creatures on the way east from her dwelling. They insisted on games and feasting, so she was delayed on her journey home. The travelers have allowed her to return, but are whisking her away again today. Thus the latest installment will be delayed until the coming sabbath. She meekly begs your indulgence in this matter.