Chapter XVI. An Alarming Theory
 

For a few seconds, following Tom's announcement to his two companions, neither Mr. Damon nor Mr. Fenwick spoke. They had arisen from the beach, where the shock of the earthquake had thrown them, and were now staring toward the other band of castaways, who, in turn were gazing toward our three friends. There was a violent agitation in the sea, caused by the fall of the great cliff, and immense waves rushed up on shore, but all the islanders were beyond the reach of the rollers.

"Is it--do I really--am I dreaming or not?" at length gasped Mr. Damon.

"Is this a mirage, or do we really see people, Tom?" inquired Mr. Fenwick.

"They are real enough people," replied the lad, himself somewhat dazed by the unexpected appearance of the other castaways.

"But how--why--how did they get here?" went on the inventor of the Whizzer.

"As long as they're not cannibals, we're all right," murmured Mr. Damon. "They seem to be persons like ourselves, Tom."

"They are," agreed the lad, "and they appear to be in the same sort of trouble as ourselves. Let's go forward, and meet them."

The tremor of the earthquake had now subsided, and the little band that was gathered about a big fire of driftwood was calmer. Those who had fallen, or who had thrown themselves on the sand, arose, and began feeling of their arms and legs to see if they had sustained any injuries. Others advanced toward our friends.

"Nine of them," murmured Tom, as he counted the little band of castaways, "and they don't seem to have been able to save much from the wreck of their craft, whatever it was." The beach all about them was bare, save for a boat drawn up out of reach of high water.

"Do you suppose they are a party from some disabled airship, Tom," asked Mr. Fenwick.

"Not from an airship," answered the lad. "Probably from some vessel that was wrecked in the gale. But we will soon find out who they are."

Tom led the way for his two friends. The fall of the cliff had made a rugged path around the base of it, over rocks, to where the other people stood. Tom scrambled in and out among the boulders, in spite of the pain it caused his wounded leg. He was anxious to know who the other castaways were, and how they had come there.

Several of the larger party were now advancing to meet the lad and his friends. Tom could see two women and seven men.

A moment later, when the lad had a good view of one of the ladies and a gentleman, he could not repress a cry of astonishment. Then he rubbed his eyes to make sure it was not some blur or defect of vision. No, his first impression had been correct.

"Mr. Nestor!" cried Tom, recognizing the father of his girl friend. "And Mrs. Nestor!" he added a moment later.

"Why--of all things--look--Amos--it's--it can't be possible--and yet--why, it's Tom Swift!" cried the lady.

"Tom--Tom Swift--here?" ejaculated the man at her side.

"Yes--Tom Swift--the young inventor--of Shopton--don't you know--the lad who saved Mary's life in the runaway--Tom Swift!"

"Tom Swift!" murmured Mr. Nestor. "Is it possible!"

"I'm Tom Swift, all right," answered the owner of that name, "but how in the world did you get on this island, Mr. Nestor?"

"I might ask you the same thing, Tom. The yacht Resolute, on which we were making a voyage to the West Indies, as guests of Mr. George Hosbrook, was wrecked in the awful gale. We took to the boats and managed to reach this island. The yacht sunk, and we only had a little food. We are almost starved! But how came you here?"

"Mr. Fenwick's airship was wrecked, and we dropped down here. What a coincidence! To think that I should meet you here! But if you're hungry, it's the best thing in the world that we met you, for, though our airship was wrecked, we have a large supply of food. Come over to our camp, and we'll give you all you want!"

Tom had rushed forward, and was shaking hands with Mary's parents, so unexpectedly met with, when Mr. Nestor called out:

"Come over here, Mr. Hosbrook. I want you to meet a friend of mine."

A moment later, the millionaire owner of the ill-fated Resolute was shaking hands with Tom.

"I can't understand it," Mr. Hosbrook said. "To think of meeting other people on this desolate island--this island of earthquakes."

"Oh, please don't speak of earthquakes!" cried Mrs. Nestor. "We are in mortal terror! There have been several since we landed in the most terrible storm day before yesterday. Isn't it awful! It is a regular earthquake island!"

"That's what I call it," spoke Tom, grimly.

The others of the larger party of refugees now came up. Besides Mr. and Mrs. Nestor, and Mr. Hosbrook, there was Mr. and Mrs. Floyd Anderson, friends of the millionaire; Mr. Ralph Parker, who was spoken of as a scientist, Mr. Barcoe Jenks, who seemed an odd sort of individual, always looking about suspiciously, Captain Mentor, who had been in command of the yacht, and Jake Fordam, the mate of the vessel.

"And are these all who were saved?" asked Tom, as he introduced his two friends, and told briefly of their air voyage.

"No," answered Mr. Hosbrook, "two other boatloads, one containing most of the crew, and the other containing some of my guests, got away before our boat left. I trust they have been rescued, but we have heard nothing about them. However, our own lives may not long be safe, if these earthquakes continue."

"But did I understand you to say, Mr. Swift, that you had food?" he went on. "If you have, I will gladly pay you any price for some, especially for these two ladies, who must be faint. I have lost all my ready cash, but if we ever reach civilization, I will--"

"Don't speak of such a thing as pay," interrupted Mr. Fenwick. "All that we have we'll gladly share with you. Come over to our camp. We have enough for all, and we can cook on our gasolene stove. Don't speak of pay, I beg of you."

"Ah--er, if Mr. Hosbrook has no money, perhaps I can offer an equivalent," broke in the man who had been introduced as Barcoe Jenks. "I have--er--some securities--" He stopped and looked about indefinitely, as though he did not know exactly what to say, and he was fumbling at a belt about his waist; a belt that might contain treasure.

"Don't speak of reimbursing us," went on Mr. Fenwick, with rather a suspicious glance at Mr. Jenks. "You are welcome to whatever we have."

"Bless my topknot; certainly, yes!" joined in Mr. Damon, eagerly.

"Well, I--er--I only spoke of it," said Mr. Jenks, hesitatingly, and then he turned away. Mr. Hosbrook looked sharply at him, but said nothing.

"Suppose we go to our camp," proposed Tom. "We may be able to get you up a good meal, before another earthquake comes."

"I wonder what makes so many of them?" asked Mrs. Nestor, with a nervous shiver.

"Yes, indeed, they are terrifying! One never knows when to expect them," added Mrs. Anderson.

"I have a theory about them," said Mr. Parker, the scientist, who, up to this time had spoken but little.

"A theory?" inquired Tom.

"Yes. This island is one of the smaller of the West Indies group. It is little known, and has seldom been visited, I believe. But I am sure that what causes the earthquakes is that the whole island has been undermined by the sea, and it is the wash of great submarine waves and currents which cause the tremors."

"Undermined by the sea?" repeated Tom.

"Yes. It is being slowly washed away."

"Bless my soul! Washed away!" gasped Mr. Damon.

"And, in the course of a comparatively short time, it will sink," went on the scientist, as cheerfully as though he was a professor propounding some problem to his class.

"Sink!" ejaculated Mrs. Nestor. "The whole island undermined! Oh, what an alarming theory!"

"I wish I could hold to a different one, madam," was Mr. Parker's answer, "but I cannot. I think the island will sink after a few more shocks."

"Then what good will my--" began Barcoe Jenks, but he stopped in confusion, and again his hand went to his belt with a queer gesture.