WHEN the Doctor asked Long Arrow if he knew what fire was, explaining it to him by pictures drawn on the buckskin table-cloth. Long Arrow said he had seen such a thing—coming out of the tops of volcanoes; but that neither he nor any of the Popsipetels knew how it was made.
“Poor perishing heathens!” muttered Bumpo. “No wonder the old chief died of cold!”
At that moment we heard a crying sound at the door. And turning round, we saw a weeping Indian mother with a baby in her arms. She said something to the Indians which we could not understand; and Long Arrow told us the baby was sick and she wanted the white doctor to try and cure it.
“Oh Lord!” groaned Polynesia in my ear—“Just like Puddleby: patients arriving in the middle of dinner. Well, one thing: the food’s raw, so nothing can get cold anyway.”
The Doctor examined the baby and found at once that it was thoroughly chilled.
“Fire—fire! That’s what it needs,” he said turning to Long Arrow—“That’s what you all need. This child will have pneumonia if it isn’t kept warm.”
“Aye, truly. But how to make a fire,” said Long Arrow—“where to get it: that is the difficulty. All the volcanoes in this land are dead.”
Then we fell to hunting through our pockets to see if any matches had survived the shipwreck. The best we could muster were two whole ones and a half—all with the heads soaked off them by salt water.
“Hark, Long Arrow,” said the Doctor: “divers ways there be of making fire without the aid of matches. One: with a strong glass and the rays of the sun. That however, since the sun has set, we cannot now employ. Another is by grinding a hard stick into a soft log—Is the daylight gone without?—Alas yes. Then I fear we must await the morrow; for besides the different woods, we need an old squirrel’s nest for fuel—And that without lamps you could not find in your forests at this hour.”
“Great are your cunning and your skill, oh White Man,” Long Arrow replied. “But in this you do us an injustice. Know you not that all fireless peoples can see in the dark? Having no lamps we are forced to train ourselves to travel through the blackest night, lightless. I will despatch a messenger and you shall have your squirrel’s nest within the hour.”
He gave an order to two of our boy-servants who promptly disappeared running. And sure enough, in a very short space of time a squirrel’s nest, together with hard and soft woods, was brought to our door.
The moon had not yet risen and within the house it was practically pitch-black. I could feel and hear, however, that the Indians were moving about comfortably as though it were daylight. The task of making fire the Doctor had to perform almost entirely by the sense of touch, asking Long Arrow and the Indians to hand him his tools when he mislaid them in the dark. And then I made a curious discovery: now that I had to, I found that I was beginning to see a little in the dark myself. And for the first time I realized that of course there is no such thing as pitch-dark, so long as you have a door open or a sky above you.
Calling for the loan of a bow, the Doctor loosened the string, put the hard stick into a loop and began grinding this stick into the soft wood of the log. Soon I smelt that the log was smoking. Then he kept feeding the part that was smoking with the inside lining of the squirrel’s nest, and he asked me to blow upon it with my breath. He made the stick drill faster and faster. More smoke filled the room. And at last the darkness about us was suddenly lit up. The squirrel’s nest had burst into flame.
The Indians murmured and grunted with astonishment. At first they were all for falling on their knees and worshiping the fire. Then they wanted to pick it up with their bare hands and play with it. We had to teach them how it was to be used; and they were quite fascinated when we laid our fish across it on sticks and cooked it. They sniffed the air with relish as, for the first time in history, the smell of fried fish passed through the village of Popsipetel.
Then we got them to bring us piles and stacks of dry wood; and we made an enormous bonfire in the middle of the main street. Round this, when they felt its warmth, the whole tribe gathered and smiled and wondered. It was a striking sight, one of the pictures from our voyages that I most frequently remember: that roaring jolly blaze beneath the black night sky, and all about it a vast ring of Indians, the firelight gleaming on bronze cheeks, white teeth and flashing eyes—a whole town trying to get warm, giggling and pushing like school-children.
In a little, when we had got them more used to the handling of fire, the Doctor showed them how it could be taken into their houses if a hole were only made in the roof to let the smoke out. And before we turned in after that long, long, tiring day, we had fires going in every hut in the village.
The poor people were so glad to get really warm again that we thought they’d never go to bed. Well on into the early hours of the morning the little town fairly buzzed with a great low murmur: the Popsipetels sitting up talking of their wonderful pale-faced visitor and this strange good thing he had brought with him—fire!