“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!”