“God has surely cursed us tonight,” moaned Widow Pensy. “Just as He has cursed every human ambition since Babel.”
“Quiet!” hissed Widow Cantrip in response.
“Hst—!” warned Widow Meeks, quietest of all.
The three women bunched together in a dark corner of the ship’s officers’ dining room, peering through the half-open hatch leading to the captain’s private cabin. They wore black—all three of them. Not the new head-to-foot crape of full mourning, but rather the dull woolen frocks of two-year-old half-mourning: the blacks mixed with somber purples and greys and forest greens.
But black enough yet to cloak them from view on a moonless night—even over a groaning gangplank laid against the dock, and then across a whaler’s wide deck to the very sanctuary of the captain’s private cabin—
And then, of course, the clouds had parted and the moon had shone full forth.
“Verily, He has cursed us—” moaned Widow Pensy again, and got two sharp elbows in the ribs for her trouble.
Widow Cantrip crept closer into the cabin, gently pushing the door wider. Two years they had waited for the ship’s return from the South Pacific! Yes, two years they had waited for this chance! This chance to repay the insult dealt to their dead husbands, and to reclaim part of the money that had been stolen from their children.
Widow Cantrip’s eyes focused hard on the bright pools of moonlight pouring through the ceiling skylight. Before her, half-illuminated in chessboard squares, she saw half of a wooden desk, a glimpse of a chair, and strips of something lumpy and big slumped on its seat—
A man! The captain, surely.
But deep black shadows hid the rest, including the face of the figure in the chair, as well as the heavy desk where the precious prize would certainly be locked away. Faith! It truly was a cursed bad night for sneaking!
But Widow Cantrip’s heart next soared with cruel glee as she spied the big bottle of drugged Madeira on the captain’s table. Was it—? Yes, the stopper was pulled! And there lay the forged note of congratulations from the ship’s miserly owner Exeezer on top of the logbook next to it.
“Can you see the level of the liquid?” asked Widow Cantrip.
“Only missing a glass or two,” whispered Widow Meeks.
“And the captain—?”
But hush! There came a shout from above and a splash from the water below. Then the pounding of feet on the deck and a volley of curses in the first mate’s voice. An unloading party had seemingly been organized to take advantage of the moon’s brightness. Soon there would be four dozen men on the main deck, hauling and rolling casks of whale oil and spermaceti from the hold to the dock.
Poor men, thought Widow Cantrip. After two years of toil, what pittance would finally fall to their share from Exeever’s grasping hands? Once the owner’s so-called “expenses” and “charges” had been deducted after the last voyage, the settling-up had yielded thirty dollars each for the ordinary seamen.
Thirty dollars! For two years! And daily peril to life and limb—! Aye, and death at sea for three of them.
Was it any wonder that Widow Cantrip’s cheeks still burned at the memory of standing in Exeever’s luxurious Boston office as he handed her the envelope containing her drowned husband’s paltry share? Any wonder that she blamed the avaricious goat for the past two years of scraping and scrimping in pitiful poverty?
And, more to the point, any wonder that she had jumped at the chance to turn the tables and steal from Exeever, as soon as she had heard the word “ambergris” whispered by the gossips on the docks—?
“The captain’s asleep,” whispered Widow Meeks. “Or so it seems. I can’t be sure, his face is in shadow—but I can hear a faint snoring, I think.”
Widow Cantrip said a quick prayer for the captain. She had nothing in particular against him. He had his share just like the rest of the seamen—larger than theirs perhaps, but still ten times smaller than it ought to have been. She asked the Blessed Mother to keep him safe through the night, and to muddle his brain with just enough of the opium-drugged Madeira to keep him soundly asleep, but not so much that he would never see morning light—
“Ho there, lads, look sharp now!”