The Good Intent lay becalmed in the doldrums. There was not wind enough to puff out a candle flame. The sails hung limp and idle from the masts, yet the vessel rolled as in a storm, heaving on a tremendous swell so violently that it would seem her masts must be shaken out of her. The air was sweltering, the sky the color of burnished copper, out of which the sun beat remorselessly in almost perpendicular beams. Pitch ran from every seam of the decks, great blisters like bubbles rose upon the woodwork; the decks were no sooner swabbed than—presto!—it was as though they had not known the touch of water for an age.
For three weeks she had lain thus. Sometimes the hot day would be succeeded by a night of terrible storm, thunder crashing around, the whole vault above lacerated by lightning, and rain pouring as it were out of the fissures in sheets. But in a day all traces of the storm would disappear, and if, meanwhile, a sudden breath of wind had carried the vessel a few knots on her southward course, the hopes thus raised would prove illusory, and once more she would lie on a sea of molten lead, or, still worse, would be rocked on a long swell that had all the discomforts of a gale without its compensating excitement.
The tempers of officers and crew had gone from bad to worse. The officers snapped and snarled at one another, and treated the men with even more than the customary brutality of the merchant marine of those days. The crew, lounging about half naked on the decks, seeking what shelter they could get from the pitiless sun, with little to do and no spirit to do anything, quarreled among themselves, growling at the unnecessary tasks set them merely to keep them from flying at each other’s throats.
The Good Intent was a fine three-masted vessel of nearly four hundred tons, large for those days, though the new East Indiamen approached five hundred tons. When her keel was laid for the Honorable East India Company some twenty years earlier, she had been looked on as one of the finest merchant vessels afloat; but the buffeting of wind and wave in a score of voyages to the eastern seas, and the more insidious and equally destructive attacks of worms and dry rot, had told upon her timbers. She had been sold off and purchased by Captain Barker, who was one of the class known as “interlopers,” men who made trading voyages to the East Indies on their own account, running the risk of their vessels being seized and themselves penalized for infringing the Company’s monopoly. She was now filled with a miscellaneous cargo: wine in chests, beer and cider in bottles, hats, worsted stockings, wigs, small shot, lead, iron, knives, glass, hubblebubbles, cochineal, sword blades, toys, coarse cloth, woolen goods—anything that would find a market among the European merchants, the native princes, or the trading classes of India. There was also a large consignment of muskets and ammunition. When Desmond asked the second mate where they were going, the reply was that if he asked no questions he would be told no lies.