For a fuller discussion, see “The Land of Footprints.”
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.