“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!”