Chapter XXII. Anxious Days
 

After the first few minutes of watching Tom click out the messages, the little throng of castaways that had gathered about the shack, moved away. The matter had lost its novelty for them, though, of course, they were vitally interested in the success of Tom's undertaking. Only Mr. Damon and Mr. Fenwick remained with the young inventor, for he needed help, occasionally, in operating the dynamo, or in adjusting the gasolene motor. Mrs. Nestor, who, with Mrs. Anderson, was looking after the primitive housekeeping arrangements, occasionally strolled up the hill to the little shed.

"Any answer yet, Mr. Swift?" she would ask.

"No." was the reply. "We can hardly expect any so soon," and Mrs. Nestor would depart, with a sigh.

Knowing that his supply of gasolene was limited, Tom realized that he could not run the dynamo steadily, and keep flashing the wireless messages into space. He consulted with his two friends on the subject, and Mr. Damon said:

"Well, the best plan, I think, would be only to send out the flashes over the wires at times when other wireless operators will be on the lookout, or, rather, listening. There is no use wasting our fuel. We can't get any more here."

"That's true," admitted Tom, "but how can we pick out any certain time, when we can be sure that wireless operators, within a zone of a thousand miles, will be listening to catch clicks which call for help from the unknown?"

"We can't," decided Mr. Fenwick. "The only thing to do is to trust to chance. If there was only some way so you would not have to be on duty all the while, and could send out messages automatically, it would be good."

Tom shook his head. "I have to stay here to adjust the apparatus," he said. "It works none too easily as it is, for I didn't have just what I needed from which to construct this station. Anyhow, even if I could rig up something to click out 'C.Q.D.' automatically, I could hardly arrange to have the answer come that way. And I want to be here when the answer comes."

"Have you any plan, then?" asked Mr. Damon. "Bless my shoe laces! there are enough problems to solve on this earthquake island."

"I thought of this," said Tom. "I'll send out our call for help from nine to ten in the morning. Then I'll wait, and send out another call from two to three in the afternoon. Around seven in the evening I'll try again, and then about ten o'clock at night, before going to bed."

"That ought to be sufficient," agreed Mr. Fenwick. "Certainly we must save our gasolene, for there is no telling how long we may have to stay here, and call for help."

"It won't be long if that scientist Parker has his way," spoke Mr. Damon, grimly. "Bless my hat band, but he's a most uncomfortable man to have around; always predicting that the island is going to sink! I hope we are rescued before that happens."

"I guess we all do," remarked Mr. Fenwick. "But, Tom, here is another matter. Have you thought about getting an answer from the unknown--from some ship or wireless station, that may reply to your calls? How can you tell when that will come in?"

"I can't."

"Then won't you or some of us, have to be listening all the while?"

"No, for I think an answer will come only directly after I have sent cut a call, and it has been picked up by some operator. Still there is a possibility that some operator might receive my message, and report to his chief, or some one in authority over him, before replying. In that time I might go away. But to guard against that I will sleep with the telephone receiver clamped to my ear. Then I can hear the answer come over the wires, and can jump up and reply."

"Do you mean you will sleep here?" asked Mr. Damon, indicating the shack where the wireless apparatus was contained.

"Yes," answered Tom, simply.

"Can't we take turns listening for the answer?" inquired Mr. Fenwick, "and so relieve you?"

"I'm afraid not, unless you understand the Morse code," replied Tom. "You see there may be many clicks, which result from wireless messages flying back and forth in space, and my receiver will pick them up. But they will mean nothing. Only the answer to our call for help will be of any service to us."

"Do you mean to say that you can catch messages flying back and forth between stations now?" asked Mr. Fenwick.

"Yes," replied the young inventor, with a smile. "Here, listen for yourself," and he passed the head-instrument over to the Whizzer's former owner. The latter listened a moment.

"All I can hear are some faint clicks," he said.

"But they are a message," spoke Tom. "Wait, I'll translate," and he out the receiver to his ear. "'Steamship "Falcon" reports a slight fire in her forward compartment,'" said Tom, slowly. "'It is under control, and we will proceed.'"

"Do you mean to say that was the message you heard?" cried Mr. Damon. "Bless my soul, I never can understand it!"

"It was part of a message," answered Tom. "I did not catch it all, nor to whom it was sent."

"But why can't you send a message to that steamship then, and beg them to come to our aid?" asked Mr. Fenwick. "Even if they have had a fire, it is out now, and they ought to be glad to save life."

"They would come to our aid. or send," spoke Tom, "but I can not make their wireless operator pick up our message. Either his apparatus is not in tune, or in accord with ours, or he is beyond our zone."

"But you heard him," insisted Mr. Damon.

"Yes, but sometimes it is easier to pick up messages than it is to send them. However, I will keep on trying."

Putting into operation the plan he had decided on for saving their supply of gasolene, Tom sent out his messages the remainder of the day, at the intervals agreed upon. Then the apparatus was shut down, but the lad paid frequent visits to the shack, and listened to the clicks of the telephone receiver. He caught several messages, but they were not in response to his appeals for aid.

That night there was a slight earthquake shock, but no more of the island fell into the sea, though the castaways were awakened by the tremors, and were in mortal terror for a while.

Three days passed, days of anxious waiting, during which time Tom sent out message after message by his wireless, and waited in vain for an answer. There were three shocks in this interval, two slight, and one very severe, which last cast into the ocean a great cliff on the far end of the island. There was a flooding rush of water, but no harm resulted.

"It is coming nearer," said Mr. Parker.

"What is?" demanded Mr. Hosbrook.

"The destruction of our island. My theory will soon be confirmed," and the scientist actually seemed to take pleasure in it.

"Oh, you and your theory!" exclaimed the millionaire in disgust. "Don't let me hear you mention it again! Haven't we troubles enough?" whereat Mr. Parker went off by himself, to look at the place where the cliff had fallen.

Each night Tom slept with the telephone receiver to his ear, but, though it clicked many times, there was not sounded the call he had adopted for his station--"E. I."--Earthquake Island. In each appeal he sent out he had requested that if his message was picked up, that the answer be preceded by the letters "E.I."

It was on the fourth day after the completion of the wireless station, that Tom was sending out his morning calls. Mrs. Nestor came up the little hill to the shack where Tom was clicking away.

"No replies yet, I suppose?" she inquired, and there was a hopeless note in her voice.

"None yet, but they may come any minute," and Tom tried to speak cheerfully.

"I certainly hope so," added Mary's mother, "But I came up more especially now, Mr. Swift, to inquire where you had stored the rest of the food."

"The rest of the food?"

"Yes, the supply you took from the wrecked airship. We have used up nearly all that was piled in the improvised kitchen, and we'll have to draw on the reserve supply."

"The reserve," murmured Tom.

"Yes, there is only enough in the shack where Mrs. Anderson and I do the cooking, to last for about two days. Isn't there any more?"

Tom did not answer. He saw the drift of the questioning. Their food was nearly gone, yet the castaways from the Resolute thought there was still plenty. As a matter of fact there was not another can, except those in the kitchen shack.

"Get out wherever there is left some time to-day, if you will, Mr. Swift," went on Mrs. Nestor, as she turned away, "and Mrs. Anderson and I will see if we can fix up some new dishes for you men-folks."

"Oh--all right," answered Tom, weakly.

His hand dropped from the key of the instrument. He sat staring into space. Food enough for but two days more, with earthquakes likely to happen at any moment, and no reply yet to his appeals for aid! Truly the situation was desperate. Tom shook his head. It was the first time he had felt like giving up.