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Chapter 12

THE FIRE.

We were very tired, so we turned in early. W Unfortunately, our rooms were immediately over the billiard room, where a bibulous and cosmopolitan lot were earnestly endeavouring to bolster up by further proof the fiction that a white man cannot retain his health in the tropics. The process was pretty rackety, and while it could not keep us awake, it prevented us from falling thoroughly asleep. At length, and suddenly, the props of noise fell away from me, and I sank into a grateful, profound abyss.

Almost at once, however, I was dragged back to consciousness. Mohammed stood at my bedside.

"Bwana," he proffered to my rather angry inquiry, "all the people have gone to the fire. It is a very large fire. I thought you would like to see it."

I glanced out of the window at the reddening sky, thrust my feet into a pair of slippers, and went forth in my pyjamas to see what I could see.

We threaded our way through many narrow dark and deserted streets, beneath balconies that overhung, past walls over which nodded tufted palms, until a loud and increasing murmuring told us we were nearing the centre of disturbance. Shortly, we came to the outskirts of the excited crowd, and beyond them saw the red furnace glow.

"Semeelay! Semeelay!" warned Mohammed authoritatively; and the bystanders, seeing a white face, gave me passage.

All of picturesque Mombasa was afoot--Arabs, Swahilis, Somalis, savages, Indians--the whole lot. They moved restlessly in the narrow streets; they hung over the edges of balconies; they peered from barred windows; interested dark faces turned up everywhere in the flickering light. One woman, a fine, erect, biblical figure, stood silhouetted on a flat housetop and screamed steadily. I thought she must have at least one baby in the fire, but it seems she was only excited.

The fire was at present confined to two buildings, in which it was raging fiercely. Its spread, however, seemed certain; and, as it was surrounded by warehouses of valuable goods, moving was in full swing. A frantic white man stood at the low doorway of one of these dungeon-like stores hastening the movements of an unending string of porters. As each emerged bearing a case on his shoulder, the white man urged him to a trot. I followed up the street to see where these valuables were being taken, and what were the precautions against theft. Around the next corner, it seemed. As each excited perspiring porter trotted up, he heaved his burden from his head or his shoulders, and promptly scampered back for another load. They were loyal and zealous men; but their headpieces were deficient inside. For the burdens that they saved from the fire happened to be cases of gin in bottles. At least, it was in bottles until the process of saving had been completed. Then it trickled merrily down the gutter. I went back and told the frantic white man about it. He threw up both hands to heaven and departed.

By dodging from street to street Mohammed and I succeeded in circling the whole disturbance, and so came at length to a public square. Here was a vast throng, and a very good place, so I climbed atop a rescued bale of cotton the better to see.

Mombasa has no water system, but a wonderful corps of water-carriers. These were in requisition to a man. They disappeared down through the wide gates of the customs enclosure, their naked, muscular, light-brown bodies gleaming with sweat, their Standard Oil cans dangling merrily at the ends of slender poles. A moment later they emerged, the cans full of salt water from the bay, the poles seeming fairly to butt into their bare shoulders as they teetered along at their rapid, swaying, burdened gait.

The moment they entered the square they were seized upon from a dozen different sides. There was no system at all. Every owner of property was out for himself, and intended to get as much of the precious water as he could. The poor carriers were pulled about, jerked violently here and there, besought, commanded, to bring their loads to one or the other of the threatened premises. Vociferations, accusations, commands arose to screams. One old graybeard occupied himself by standing on tiptoe and screeching, "Maji! maji! maji!" at the top of his voice, as though that added anything to the visible supply. The water-carrier of the moment disappeared in a swirl of excited contestants. He was attending strictly to business, looking neither to right nor to left, pushing forward as steadily as he could, gasping mechanically his customary warning, "Semeelay! Semeelay!" Somehow, eventually, he and his comrades must have got somewhere; for after an interval he returned with empty buckets. Then every blessed fool of a property owner took a whack at his bare shoulders as he passed, shrieking hysterically, "Haya! haya! pesi! pesi!" and the like to men already doing their best. It was a grand sight!

In the meantime the fire itself was roaring away. The old graybeard suddenly ceased crying "maji," and darted forward to where I stood on the bale of cotton. With great but somewhat flurried respect he begged me to descend. I did so, somewhat curious as to what he might be up to, for the cotton was at least two hundred feet from the fire. Immediately he began to tug and heave; the bale was almost beyond his strength; but after incredible exertions he lifted one side of it, poised it for a moment, got his shoulder under it, and rolled it over once. Then he darted away and resumed his raucous cry for water. I climbed back again. Thrice more, at intervals, he repeated this performance. The only result was to daub with mud every possible side of that bale. I hope it was his property.

You must remember that I was observing the heavy artillery of the attack on the conflagration. Individual campaigns were everywhere in progress. I saw one man standing on the roof of a threatened building. He lowered slowly, hand over hand, a small tea-kettle at the end of a string. This was filled by a friend in the street, whereupon the man hauled it up again, slowly, hand over hand, and solemnly dashed its contents into the mouth of the furnace. Thousands of other men on roofs, in balconies, on the street, were doing the same thing. Some had ordinary cups which they filled a block away! The limit of efficiency was a pail. Nobody did anything in concert with anybody else. The sight of these thousands of little midgets each with his teacup, or his teapot, or his tin pail, throwing each his mite of water--for which he had to walk a street or so--into the ravening roaring furnace of flame was as pathetic or as comical as you please. They did not seem to have a show in the world.

Nevertheless, to my vast surprise, the old system of the East triumphed at last. The system of the East is that if you get enough labour you can accomplish anything. Little by little those thousands of tea kettles of water had their aggregate effect. The flames fed themselves out and died down leaving the contiguous buildings unharmed save for a little scorching. In two hours all was safe, and I returned to the hotel, having enjoyed myself hugely. I had, however, in the interest and excitement, forgotten how deadly is the fever of Mombasa. Midnight in pyjamas did the business; and shortly I paid well for the fun.


Stewart Edward White

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