“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.”
“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.”