Meanwhile the most earnest care had been lavished on the shipwrecked men from the "Waldeck." Mrs. Weldon, aided by Nan and Dick Sand, had administered to them a little of that good fresh water of which they must have been deprived for several days, and that, with some nourishment, sufficed to restore them to life.
The eldest of these blacks--he might be about sixty years old--was soon able to speak, and he could answer in English the questions which were addressed to him.
"The ship which carried you was run into?" asked Captain Hull, first of all.
"Yes," replied the old black. "Ten days ago our ship was struck, during a very dark night. We were asleep----"
"But the men of the 'Waldeck'--what has become of them?"
"They were no longer there, sir, when my companions and I reached the deck."
"Then, was the crew able to jump on board the ship which struck the 'Waldeck'?" demanded Captain Hull.
"Perhaps, and we must indeed hope so for their sakes."
"And that ship, after the collision, did it not return to pick you up?"
"Did she then go down herself?"
"She did not founder," replied the old black, shaking his head, "for we could see her running away in the night."
This fact, which was attested by all the survivors of the "Waldeck," may appear incredible. It is only too true, however, that captains, after some terrible collision, due to their imprudence, have often taken flight without troubling themselves about the unfortunate ones whom they had put in danger, and without endeavoring to carry assistance to them.
That drivers do as much and leave to others, on the public way, the trouble of repairing the misfortune which they have caused, that is indeed to be condemned. Still, their victims are assured of finding immediate help. But, that men to men, abandon each other thus at sea, it is not to be believed, it is a shame!
Meanwhile, Captain Hull knew several examples of such inhumanity, and he was obliged to tell Mrs. Weldon that such facts, monstrous as they might be, were unhappily not rare.
"Whence came the 'Waldeck?'" he asked.
"Then you are not slaves?"
"No, sir!" the old black answered quickly, as he stood up straight. "We are subjects of the State of Pennsylvania, and citizens of free America!"
"My friends," replied Captain Hull, "believe me that you have not compromised your liberty in coming on board of the American brig, the 'Pilgrim.'"
In fact, the five blacks which the "Waldeck" carried belonged to the State of Pennsylvania. The oldest, sold in Africa as a slave at the age of six years, then brought to the United States, had been freed already many years ago by the Emancipation Proclamation. As to his companions, much younger than he, sons of slaves liberated before their birth, they were born free; no white had ever had the right of property over them. They did not even speak that "negro" language, which does not use the article, and only knows the infinitive of the verbs--a language which has disappeared little by little, indeed, since the anti-slavery war. These blacks had, then, freely left the United States, and they were returning to it freely.
As they told Captain Hull, they were engaged as laborers at an Englishman's who owned a vast mine near Melbourne, in Southern Australia. There they had passed three years, with great profit to themselves; their engagement ended, they had wished to return to America.
They then had embarked on the "Waldeck," paying their passage like ordinary passengers. On the 5th of December they left Melbourne, and seventeen days after, during a very black night, the "Waldeck" had been struck by a large steamer.
The blacks were in bed. A few seconds after the collision, which was terrible, they rushed on the deck.
Already the ship's masts had fallen, and the "Waldeck" was lying on the side; but she would not sink, the water not having invaded the hold sufficiently to cause it.
As to the captain and crew of the "Waldeck," all had disappeared, whether some had been precipitated into the sea, whether others were caught on the rigging of the colliding ship, which, after the collision, had fled to return no more.