CHAPTER XIX. Fires - The greatest peril - A curious way of saving one's house - The anchor of safety - How it worked - Making an opposition wind - Saved by chance - A good trait in the native character - Useful friends.

I was one evening at a dinner-party, at one of the Consulates, when, in the course of the frugal repast, one of the servants came in with the news that a large conflagration had broken out in the road of the Big-bell, and that many houses had already been burnt down. The "big-bell" itself was said to be in great danger of being destroyed.

Giving way to my usual curiosity, and thinking that it would be interesting to see how houses burn in Cho-sen, I begged of my host to excuse me, left all the good things on the table, and ran off to the scene of the fire.

As the servant had announced, the fire was, indeed, in close proximity to the "big-bell." Two or three large houses belonging to big merchants were blazing fast, the neighbouring dwellings being in great danger of following suit. There is in a Corean house but little that can burn, except the sliding doors and windows, and the few articles of furniture and clothing; so that, as a general rule, after the first big flare-up, the fire goes out of its own accord, unless, as was the case in the present instance, the roofs are supported by old rafters, which also catch fire. What the Coreans consider the greatest of dangers in such contingencies happens when the heavy beam which forms the chief support for the whole weight of the roof in the centre catches fire. Then, if any wind happens to be blowing, sparks fly on all the neighbouring thatched roofs, and there is no possibility of stopping a disaster. Such things as fire-engines or pumps are quite unknown in the country, and, even if there were any, they would be useless in winter time, owing to the severe cold which freezes all the water.

On the night in question, that was practically what happened. Two houses adjoining one another were burnt out, and, the roofs having crumbled away, the long thick beams alone were left in position, supported at either end by the stone walls of the houses, and still blazing away, and placing the neighbouring houses that had thatched roofs in considerable danger.

I was much amused at a Corean, the owner of one of these latter, who, to save his thatched shanty from the flames, pulled it down. His efforts in this direction were, however, of no avail in the end; for the inflammable materials, having been left in the roadway in the immediate neighbourhood of the conflagration, caught fire and were consumed.

The King had been informed of the occurrence, a very rare one in Seoul, and had immediately dispatched a hundred soldiers to - look on, and to help, if necessary. Some individuals, too, more enterprising than the rest, exerted themselves to draw water from the neighbouring wells; but, by the time they had returned to the spot where it was required, it was converted into one big lump of ice. Finally, recourse was had to the old Corean method of putting out the fire, namely, by breaking the beam, not an easy job by any means, and then, when it had fallen, covering it with earth.

The soldiers had brought with them - conceive what? A ship's anchor! To this anchor was tied a long thick rope. Their object was, of course, to fix the anchor to the burning beam, which being done, fifty, sixty or more strong men could pull the rope, and so break the beam in two and cause it to fall. Well and good; but where was the warrior to be found who would volunteer to go up on the summit of the frail mud-and-stone wall and hook the anchor in the right place The affair now wore a different aspect altogether, no one being willing to go; whereupon the officer in command reprimanded his troops for their lack of pluck.

Among the soldiers, however, there was one man, stout and good-natured looking; and he, being taken aback apparently by the officer's remarks, at once asserted that he, at all events, was not lacking in courage, and would go. For him, accordingly, a ladder was provided, and up he went, carrying the anchor on his back. When he reached the last step, he stopped and, turning to harangue the people, told them that the beam was a solid one, and that a very hard pull would be required; after which, amid the applause and cheering of the spectators, he balanced himself on the wall and threw the anchor across the beam. A body of men, about a hundred strong, then seized the rope and kept it in tension. Next, in a commanding tone of voice, our brave hero on the wall gave the signal to start, when, all of a sudden, and much sooner than he had expected, with the vigorous pull the anchor dug a groove in the carbonised wood, and, slipping away, caught him in its barbs across his chest, and dragged him with a fearful bump on to the road, with a great quantity of burning straw and wood, amidst which he was dragged for nearly twenty yards before they were able to stop.

After this compulsory and unexpected jump, it was a miracle that he was not killed; for the height was over fourteen feet, and the course traversed through the air over twenty. Notwithstanding this, however, when he was at length rescued from the grasp which the anchor kept on him with its benevolent arms, though considerably shaken, he did not seem much the worse. Still, being asked to go again and hook the ungrateful grapnel a second time to the still burning beam, he declined with thanks and a comical gesture which sent everybody into screams of laughter.

After this another man volunteered, and he, being more cautious in his method of procedure, was successful in his efforts. So much time, however, had been wasted over these proceedings, that now another house was burning fast, and by-and-by others also got attacked.

As ill-luck would have it, the wind rose, to the great horror of the inhabitants whose houses were to windward. Many of their abodes had thatched roofs, and these seemed certain to go. The sparks flew in abundance across the road, and nothing, except a change of the wind, could now save those houses. The simple-minded Coreans, however, attempted a curious dodge, which I heard afterwards is in general use under such circumstances. Numerous ladders having been procured, men and women climbed on to the roofs which were in peril. What do you suppose they intended to do? I am sure you will never guess. They went up for no less a purpose than to manufacture another wind by way of opposition to the strong breeze that was blowing towards them. Here is how they did it: they all stood in a row at intervals on the upper edges of the roofs, and, having previously removed, the men their coats and the women their cloaks, they waved these rapidly and violently together, in the full assurance that they were getting the upper hand in the contest against the unkind spirits who superintended gales and breezes. All this went on in the most ludicrous manner; and, as soon as one person was exhausted, he was immediately replaced by another, prayers at the same time being offered up to the spirits as well of the fires as of the wind. The loudness of these prayers, I may add, grew and decreased in intensity, according to the aspect which the fire took from moment to moment; if a flame rose up higher than usual, louder prayers were hurriedly offered, and if the fire at times almost went out, then the spirits were for the time being left alone.

The conflagration went on for a considerable number of hours and destroyed several houses. No one sustained any serious injury, though one old man, who was paralytic and deaf, had a very narrow escape. He had got left, either purposely or by mistake, in one of the houses. Two out of three of the rooms had already burnt out, and he was in the third. And yet, when they had pulled down the outside wall and brought him safely out, he expressed himself as astonished at being so treated, having neither heard that any fire was in progress, nor being aware that two-thirds of his own house had already been destroyed!

Here again, let me note a good trait in the Corean character. Whenever, through any unexpected occurrence, a man loses his house and furniture, and so gets reduced from comparative wealth, say, for seldom does a Corean possess more, to misery and want; in such circumstances his friends do not run away from him, as usually is the case in more civilised countries; no, instead of this, they come forward and help him to re-build his house, lend him clothes and the more necessary utensils of domestic use, and, generally speaking, make themselves agreeable and useful all round, until he can spread out his wings once again, and fly by himself. Thus it is, that when a man's house has been burnt out it is no uncommon occurrence for friends or even strangers to put him up and feed him in their own homes until he has re-constructed his nest. Looking, therefore, at both sides of the medal, the man of Cho-sen may have a great many bad qualities from our point of view, yet he also undoubtedly possesses some virtues on which we who are supposed to be more civilised and more charitable, cannot pride ourselves. Believe me, when things are taken all round, there is after all but little difference between the Heathen and the Christian; nay, the solid charity and generosity of the first is often superior to the advertised philanthropy of the other.