THE OLD WITCH AND THE IRON-CHAIN CURTAIN

“LET’S go on deck,” said Mary Frances, when they had finished, “and
perhaps you can tell me more about the lost story. But first you must
solemnly promise that you will not eat the dolphin.”

“I solemnly promise,” said the cat, with upraised paw.

“Very well,” said Mary Frances, leading the way to the deck chair, on
which she lay down, while the cat curled himself up on a coil of rope
near her head.

“It happened in this way,” began the cat, in a low tone of voice, as he
nervously looked around. “You know the ‘enchanted island’ is Storyland,
and the home of the Story People. The Story King and Queen have ruled
there forever. Well, one day a wicked fellow, who had always said
there were no such things as fairies, somehow got into the ‘enchanted
island’–it has always been a mystery to me how he did it–and stole a
story, and carried it away and hid it. The trouble is that no fairy is
allowed to find it. The boy or girl who takes it back will be the first
person allowed to enter the ‘enchanted island’ since it was lost.”

“Do you know where it is hidden?” asked Mary Frances.

“I have a slight idea,” whispered the cat.

“Is it on board the pirate ship?” she asked.

“It cannot be. I have searched
everywhere–everywhere–everywhere-everywhere–” drowsily replied the
cat. Mary Frances noticed that his eyes were closing.

“Just one thing more before you go to sleep, Puss; just one thing
more,” she said. “Do you know how long it will take to reach the
‘enchanted island’?”

“And they sailed away,
A year and a day,
To the land where the palm tree grew,”

murmured the cat; and, shake him as she might, that was the only answer
Mary Frances could get, until, at length, she could get no answer at
all.

After she was certain he was asleep, she went to the bow of the boat
and called softly to the dolphin.

He swam up close alongside. “Are you all right?” he asked.

“I am, indeed,” replied Mary Frances; “but I want to tell you what the
cat told me. First, I want to say that he will not hurt you because he
is horribly afraid of the pirate, and he knows that he is safe on The
Good Ferry as long as you protect it.”

“That’s right!” said the dolphin. “And now, how about the cat’s tale?”

Then Mary Frances told the dolphin the story the cat had told her.

“Why can’t we search for it now?” she asked.

“Well,” replied the dolphin, “I am not exactly sure about the
cat’s tale myself, and every year I take one person direct to the
island–that’s my orders–that’s my orders. None of them have ever
found the lost story–so I’ve taken them direct home. That’s been my
orders; that’s been my orders. Better go on, I say; better not take
anybody else’s word, I say, I say.”

“All right,” said Mary Frances, “just as you say; but a year’s a pretty
long time.”

“That depends,” replied the dolphin.

“A year is queer
If it’s full of fear,
A year’s a day
If it’s full of play;
And I’ve heard say
A year will leap,
If you’re sound asleep.”

And away it swam.

And then Mary Frances noticed that the sky was getting dark, and she
realized that she was very sleepy. She made her way to the white cabin
and undressed and went to bed, wearing the pretty clothing which she
found in the wardrobe.

“If I waken suddenly, and want to go on deck, I’ll have on my
negligee,” she thought, as she tied the dressing gown in place and
slipped on the boudoir cap.

MARY FRANCES awoke with a start, and rubbed her eyes.

“Surely I heard somebody call,” she said.

Again came the call, “Land ahoy! Land ahoy!”

“Why, that is what they called out on Columbus’ ship when they
discovered America!” thought Mary Frances, hurriedly dressing. “I
wonder if we are discovering anything.”

It was just getting light as she ran out on deck. At first she did not
see any living thing except the dolphin, which was swimming ahead of
the boat. She gazed around on the water. It was a deep blue color.

“It looks like the tub of bluing water when Nora rinses the clothes,”
she thought. “I wonder if it will color anything?” She ran to the
railing, dipped up a pailful and dropped in her handkerchief. “Just
clear water,” she said; and hung it up to dry.

“Land ahoy!” came the call once more. Mary Frances looked up at the
sails. There was the cat. He was sitting on the rope ladder, and
holding his forepaws like a telescope. As soon as he saw Mary Frances,
he pointed ahead and shouted, “Land ahoy!” Then she saw a dim outline
of coast.

The cat scrambled down the rigging, and ran up to her. “Story Island!
See!” he said.

“Why,” exclaimed Mary Frances, “why, how long have I been asleep? I
thought you said something about a year!”

“Ha, ha!” laughed the cat. “A year and a day, I said, and that it
nearly is. You have been asleep just three hundred and sixty-five days
and some hours.”

“Have I really?” exclaimed Mary Frances; then hearing a sudden splash
in the water, “Oh, what was that? Was it the pirate?”

“That? That wasn’t anything to be afraid of–just some flying fish,”
answered the cat.

“Do they really have wings?” asked Mary Frances.

“They certainly do. Come, let us look into the water and see if there
are any near the boat,” said the cat.

“Oh, oh, oh,” exclaimed Mary Frances, “what a beautiful fish I see!
It has a tail of gold and a head of blue–turquoise blue. Isn’t it
beautiful! See it, there!”

“Yes, I do,” said the cat; “it is an angel fish.”

“An angel fish! That’s just the right name for it,” said Mary Frances.

“Yes, I believe somebody who tasted one named it that,” said the cat.

“Surely nobody would eat such a beautiful creature,” Mary Frances said.

The cat smiled. “Its beauty is more than skin deep,” he said.

“Well, I wouldn’t eat anything so lovely,” said Mary Frances.

“That reminds me of a rhyme a fish taught me,” said the cat.

“That sounds mighty fishy,” thought Mary Frances, but she did not say
anything.

“Shall I say it for you?” and without waiting to hear, he went on:

“Oh, mother, if you lived down in the sea
And a fish you had to be,
What kind of fish would be your wish?
My own would be–an angel fish.

“With nose of loveliest turquoise blue,
And tail-wings of yellowest golden hue–
I’m sure my most angelic wish
Is to be an angel fish.

“Don’t you suppose when fishes die
Their dream is never toward the sky;
But if they’re good, their dearest wish
Is to be an angel fish?”

[Illustration: “JUST SOME FLYING FISH,” ANSWERED THE CAT]

“That is a pretty angelic wish, I’ll say,” added the cat. “Oh, there
are some of the flying fish,” pointing to a distance from the boat.

“They are not anything like as pretty as the angel fish,” said Mary
Frances.

“Oh, see the whale spouting!” exclaimed the cat, running to the other
side of the boat.

And Mary Frances saw the long fountain of water shooting up in the air.

“My,” said the cat, “if I could just catch that whale, I could feed
every hungry cat I ever heard of.”

“Why, how big is it?” asked Mary Frances.

“It’s twenty times as long as half again, and double the quarter wide,”
said the cat.

“How large is that, if you please?” asked Mary Frances.

“If the length is multiplied by the thickness and then by breadth,
it will give the correct volume,” said the cat; “at least, that’s
according to tickle.”

“Tickle?” asked Mary Frances. “What is tickle?”

“Tickle is short for arithmetickle,” replied the cat.

“Oh?” said Mary Frances, “we don’t call it arithmetickle; we called it
arithmetic.”

“That is nothing like so pretty a name,” said the cat, “and you get the
same result.”

“But the size of the whale–” said Mary Frances, “what is it?”

“Can’t you do a simple little problem like that–when I’ve given you
the rule?” asked the cat.

Mary Frances did not like to say that she had to give it up.

“Let bygones be bygones,” said the cat, “and look up ‘whales’ in the
dictionary when you reach the island.”

“Oh, yes,” exclaimed Mary Frances. “Oh, I can see–I think I can see
some houses! Oh, look, Cat, look! They are pure white!”

“Don’t you know why?” asked the cat.

“I suppose they are painted,” said Mary Frances.

“Painted, me whiskers!” exclaimed the cat. “They are not painted. They
are made of coral.”

“What is coral?” asked Mary Frances.

“Come, I will show you,” said the cat, leading the way to the middle of
the deck.

He lifted a wooden cover. Underneath was a deep box. The bottom of the
box was made of glass.

“Now, you can see the bottom of the sea,” said the cat. “See? See? See
the bottom of the sea?”

“Oh, look at those white trees!” cried Mary Frances, gazing down into
the clear water through the glass.

The cat laughed. “They are not trees,” he said; “they are coral
formations;” and he told her about the tiny coral insects which build
coral growth by fastening their tiny shell bodies to each other.

“Do they know they are making trees?” asked Mary Frances.

“Oh, my, no,” said the cat. “They just grow naturally, like any other
babies. Sometimes they make fan-like forms, or sponge-shaped ones.”

“Did they build the white houses over on the island?” asked Mary
Frances.

“Of course not,” said the cat; “what a curious question. They live only
in the sea. The houses are up in the air–but they built the island.”

“Not that big island!” exclaimed Mary Frances.

“You have not contradicted me before,” said the cat. “If you know all
about it—-”

“I beg your pardon,” said Mary Frances, very humbly. “Will you please
tell me the rest?”

“They rest on the bottom of the ocean,” said the cat. “The houses are
made of the coral which is dug out of the cellars,” he went on. “But,
come, let us get ready; we are getting near port,” and he began to wash
his face and smooth back his whiskers.

Mary Frances took the hint, and went into the cabin.

She tidied her hair, and put on a fresh ribbon, and when she went on
deck, she took her pocket mirror with her.

“ARE my whiskers straight? Is my fur smooth? Is my face clean, please?”
asked the cat without stopping, as soon as he saw her.

“You may see for yourself,” said Mary Frances, holding the pocket
mirror before him.

“Ah,” he said, giving a sigh of relief. “I look absolutely scrubbed; I
guess I’ll do!”

“Dear me!” said Mary Frances. “I do wonder how it will seem. Isn’t
this a beautiful place? But I wonder why it looks so misty around the
island. Can’t we ask the dolphin?”

“I guess we’d better not,” said the cat. “You see, a pilot doesn’t like
to be questioned.”

“There is a boat coming this way!” exclaimed Mary Frances.

The cat began to shiver. His fur stood up on end. His tail lashed to
and fro.

“It’s the old witch’s boat!” he cried. “She’s the pirate’s wife. I’m
not afraid! I’m not afraid! I’m not afraid, though!” And he kept on
saying, “I’m not afraid!” so often that Mary Frances began to laugh.

“St-stop that laughing!” came the voice of the old witch. “St-stop that
laughing this instant, unless you have the lost st-story!”

“And if we have it, Madam Witch,” called out the cat, “what then?”

By this time the boat was quite near. They could see the old witch
tremble. She turned almost as white as snow. Her two front teeth
chattered.

“If you had it, the curtain would part!” she suddenly exclaimed,
laughing. “I forgot for a moment! Don’t try to fool me, Cat! Away with
you! Away with you! Find it, if you can! Find it, if you can! Ha, ha!
Ha, ha! Haw, haw, haw!” and she waved an oar at the boat.

Then Mary Frances saw that all around the island was stretched an
iron-chain curtain.

“Don’t look at it, S-Sissy,” said the old witch. “It’s so s-strong that
s-steel will not s-saw it. It will remain about St-Story Island, and
will not open until the lost st-story is found; and until it is found
not a boy or girl in the world will hear a new st-story!”

“We will find it!” shouted Mary Frances. “We will find it and bring it
back and open the curtain!”

“Ha, ha!” laughed the old witch, holding her sides. “Ha, ha! it’s well
hid. It’s well hid. You’ll be old and gray before you find it, I’ll
warrant–and as for the cat, he’ll be so old he will sh-shake around in
his s-skin, I’ll warrant. Ha, ha! Be off! Be off!” and, quickly turning
her boat, she rowed away.

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