A few strokes of the oar brought the settlers to the mouth of the Mercy. The canoe was hauled up on the beach near the Chimneys, and all proceeded towards the ladder of Granite House.
But at that moment, Top barked angrily, and Neb, who was looking for the first steps, uttered a cry.
There was no longer a ladder!
Cyrus Harding stood still, without saying a word. His companions searched in the darkness on the wall, in case the wind should have moved the ladder, and on the ground, thinking that it might have fallen down.... But the ladder had quite disappeared. As to ascertaining if a squall had blown it on the landing-place, half way up, that was impossible in the dark.
“If it is a joke,” cried Pencroft, “it is a very stupid one! To come home and find no staircase to go up to your room by—that’s nothing for weary men to laugh at.”
Neb could do nothing but cry out “Oh! oh! oh!”
“I begin to think that very curious things happen in Lincoln Island!” said Pencroft.
“Curious?” replied Gideon Spilett, “not at all, Pencroft, nothing can be more natural. Some one has come during our absence, taken possession of our dwelling and drawn up the ladder.”
“Some one,” cried the sailor. “But who?”
“Who but the hunter who fired the bullet?” replied the reporter.
“Well, if there is any one up there,” replied Pencroft, who began to lose patience, “I will give them a hail, and they must answer.”
And in a stentorian voice the sailor gave a prolonged “Halloo!” which was echoed again and again from the cliff and rocks.
The settlers listened and they thought they heard a sort of chuckling laugh, of which they could not guess the origin. But no voice replied to Pencroft, who in vain repeated his vigorous shouts.
There was something indeed in this to astonish the most apathetic of men, and the settlers were not men of that description. In their situation every incident had its importance, and, certainly, during the seven months which they had spent on the island, they had not before met with anything of so surprising a character.
Be that as it may, forgetting their fatigue in the singularity of the event, they remained below Granite House, not knowing what to think, not knowing what to do, questioning each other without any hope of a satisfactory reply, every one starting some supposition each more unlikely than the last. Neb bewailed himself, much disappointed at not being able to get into his kitchen, for the provisions which they had had on their expedition were exhausted, and they had no means of renewing them.
“My friends,” at last said Cyrus Harding, “there is only one thing to be done at present; wait for day, and then act according to circumstances. But let us go to the Chimneys. There we shall be under shelter, and if we cannot eat, we can at least sleep.”