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CHAPTER I

FIRE

I AM twenty-four years old,and—I may as well say it at the start—quite good to look at; that is, I have black hair, brown eyes, even white teeth, and a clear complexion, and they match up passably well. Also I am sure that I know how to wear my clothes to the best advantage, and am neither overgrown nor too tiny. I don't know why I mention these things, for they haven't much to do with what is to follow, though they are quite important to me.

It isn't necessary to tell that I know little about writing. Old Miss Dyver at Wellesley, it is true, used to compliment me upon my descriptive ability when I had her in English. But in the same breathe she would waggle her flopsy pomp and deplore my lack of imagination. I believe that it was her opinion that it was a sin to possess so much and not the little more requisite to make a gifted writer—I mean imagination.

Miss Dyver was right. I can tell only what I have seen and felt. Nor am I the least bit scientific. I've had a course in domestic science—you needn't sniff at that but of the things which terminate in "ology" I know next to nothing, and thank Heaven for it!

Yet here am I, Ruth Chasper, as I have introduced myself in three paragraphs, plunging recklessly to tell of what, viewed merely from its scientific side, is without doubt the most wonderful thing which has happened to the world since thinking, sometimes reasoning, women and men were set upon it to wonder why.

"Yea-mah! Yee-mah! Alla ferma na somma!" 

The words will ring in my ears forever until I die! What do they mean? Who uttered them? What was she, and whence, and why? Will science in five thousand years more of groping and striving be able to answer? What cosmic secret might the interpretation of that wild, sweet cry lay bare? Or was it but a dying woman's wail of despair?

"Yea-mah! Yee-mah! Alla ferma na somma!" 

No it could not have been despair. The creature was too utterly splendid and daring to have given way to it. She would not have yielded to despair, even when she realized that she had failed, and death was before her. It was not despair. It was an undelivered message—a broken link between two worlds.

So much I allow to my lame imagination. Now I will describe what has happened, though I cannot explain it.

Rickey Moyer is my distant cousin, fourth or fifth. Rickey's father, D. B. Moyer, as a coal baron, turned a fearful lot of carbon into currency in the Pennsylvania Alleghanies, and then died and left Rickey alone to spend it.

Coal-grubbing never appealed to Rickey. He finished a course at Amherst, sold out the mines, and traveled. He seemed to have a consuming desire to know the world he was living in, and I guess that he has a speaking acquaintance with most of it. He should have; for he started out when he was twenty-one years old, and spent ten years globe-galloping.

Quite suddenly he came home again, two years ago, built him a bungalow in the forest on Black Bear Mountain above the old Moyer homestead in Center County. and settled down.

With him—and this is where I come in—he brought Count Giuseppe Natali, of Florence. They had met somewhere in Borneo. Both were cosmopolites, both fearless. They had been through dangers together in the Dyak country, and had formed a friendship which stuck.

I met the count for the first time last summer at Palm Beach. Not to go into tiresome details, we soon became engaged. Count Natali is a thoroughly delightful fellow, a gentleman to his slender fingertips. and no fortune-hunter. Else he would not have picked me; for I've none to mention, unless Aunt Caroline—but that has nothing to do with it.

In January of this year Count Natali sailed to Italy to look after business connected with his ancestral estate. I understand that it is immense, and boasts, among other attractions, an ancient feudal castle which makes one think of that creepy old romance, "The Mysteries of Udoipho." On his return in early April, Rickey kidnaped him away from me in New York and took him off to the Pennsylvania wilds.

Soon afterward came an invitation to me to come out for a fortnight, bringing my chum, Carrie Andrews, with Aunt Caroline for chaperon. Carrie was of my class at college. We were both staying with Aunt Caroline at Bayonne.

All three of us thought that it would be a fine little outing—a sort of rest before the strenuosities of the summer season; so I at once wired Rickey that he was on. Naturally I wasn't sorrowful at the prospect of seeing Count Natali again so soon. I had felt that I had rather a bone to pick with Rickey for sequestrating my intended as he had.

Rickey's haunt on Black Bear is no end of a quiet roost; and yet there are plenty of possibilities to while away a couple of weeks, if one cares for them. There is excellent trout-fishing in Forge Run, if one doesn't mind wading in hip-boots and meeting an occasional rattlesnake. And there are a number of pleasant motor trips one can take, if one doesn't mind the rough roads and the hills.

I don't mind these things. I was born in Pennsylvania. So was Aunt Caroline, who isn't a bit fussy about such matters. As for Carrie: she is one of those big, slow-moving, non-excitable blond creatures, whom nothing ever seems to disturb. She who would encounter an earthquake or a boa-constrictor with the same casual interest she would bestow upon a new dance. Very like Rickey himself, Carrie is.

LATE in the afternoon of April 17 we were deposited from the up-train at Viaduct, and saw the wooded spine of old Black Bear looming above us across the valley to the left of the tracks.

Viaduct is little more than a signal-tower, a tank, a row of laborers' shanty-shacks, and ten houses—personally I don't believe there are ten; but I am a Pennsylvanian, and I give Viaduct the benefit of a doubt.

Count Natali met us with Rickey's roadster; but Rickey was not with him. Aunt Caroline and Carrie were comfortably discreet while the count greeted me —much more so than a thin-faced woman telegraph-operator, whom I saw watching us with avid interest from the height of her tower. Poor thing! How her eyes would have popped had she known that it was an honest-to-goodness Italian count who was kissing me, or perhaps she did know. Anyhow, she watched, and the proceeding seemed to have her approval.

My first reflection was that Count Natali both looked and felt much better without his mustache. The coating of tan which the spring sun was overlaying on his olive cheeks gave to his thin features the aspect of an Indian chieftain or a Bedouin sheik.

"A-hem!" said Aunt Caroline, after she and Carrie had swept the skyline of Black Bear for what she deemed a proper interval. "A-hem! And where is Richard?"

"Your nephew asked me to make his amends, Mme. Allison," replied Count Natali. "He was unavoidably denied the pleasure of meeting you this evening. We have had a trifle of excitement."

"Fire!" remarked Aunt Caroline, wrinkling her nose and sniffing. "I hope it destroyed nothing valuable."

"Not the bungalow!" I cried dismayedly. I, too, had noticed an acrid, wood-smoky odor about the count's clothes.

"No," he answered our two queries; "only a few trees. I believe that it is now entirely under control. The railroad authorities sent a force of workmen up the mountain to help us. I believe that is their custom—to protect their property."

"Umph! I suppose a spark from one of their engines started it, as usual," commented Aunt Caroline.

"Not so; nothing so prosaic." Count Natali shook his handsome head. "It was a very unusual fire; in fact, quite an extraordinary occurrence."

He turned to lead the way to the car.

This began to smack ...

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