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The Proof by Frederick Cornell

 

The chance was too good to be missed. For days past the baboons had been extremely troublesome killing and mutilating the pick of our milch goats, which had strayed afield in search of food; tearing to pieces the poor mongrel puppy that had been unwise enough to follow them; and even ransacking our tent during the few hours we had left it without a guard. The troop was a large one, and included some of the biggest baboons I had ever seen; but though daring at times, they were exceedingly wary, and amidst the labyrinth of broken country which at the spot hemmed in the Orange River they had hitherto evaded our attempts at retaliation. And now by sheer luck we had stumbled upon them. Jason and I, following up some copper indications amongst the mountain peaks, had turned an abrupt corner and found ourselves within a hundred yards of their big leader a huge grey monster that stood sentinel-wise upon a high rock watching us. The tiny black head of my foresight showed plainly against the wide grey chest of the big brute; I pressed the trigger; and the soft-nosed “303 sped true to the mark. The long hairy arms were flung aloft in a gesture too human to be pleasant, and with a spasmodic spring in the air the baboon fell head-long from the rock, whilst at the report the whole troop, with a chorus of angry, sharp, staccato barks, fled round the shoulder of the mountain and disappeared.

“I hate shooting them,” I said, turning to Jason for the first time since we had sighted them; “they're too human altogether, still Hullo, Jason, what's the matter?”

Jason's usually calm, inscrutable face was absolutely convulsed with strong feeling: fear, hatred, loathing what was it? He started as though from a dream.

“God! How I hate them!” he muttered hoarsely. “It was not far from here.”

He shouldered his rifle and turned back abruptly towards the camp. I did not attempt to stop him; for though the staunchest friend and comrade, he was of a peculiar disposition; and I knew that he would, if he wanted to do so, tell me his story when the mood suited him. I walked over to the fallen baboon, which lay dead, grim, and hideous, with its chest shattered by my bullet and its formidable fangs bared in a ghastly grin.

That night by the camp-fire, Jason, who had scarcely uttered a syllable in the meanwhile, told me his weird story; but let him tell it in his own words.

“The first chapter of my story began twenty years ago. I had just returned from a shooting and trading trip in Damaraland which had ended in a stiff bout of fever, and was kicking my heels in Cape Town, when one day I received a note from the Curator of the Museum asking me if I would care to act as guide to two gentlemen who wished to follow up the Orange River from its mouth and possibly proceed up the then almost unknown Fish River into Damaraland. I did not care about going back, for my recent trip had been a very rough one; but I was heartily sick of Cape Town, and so I went round to the hotel where the two men were staying, taking the note which the Curator had sent me. 'They don't want to trade or prospect,' he had written me, 'the trip is simply for scientific purposes. Hector Montrose is an ethnologist of wide repute, and he wishes to study the race characteristics of the Hottentots and Bushmen. He is a brilliant disciple of Darwin, too, and has spent a lot of time and money on several trips to the interior of Borneo and other remote spots in search of the so-called “missing link;” and he is, I know, extremely anxious to get near some of those huge baboons that are said to exist along the Orange River. His brother John is quite different, and as long as he is with his brother and there's plenty to shoot he's happy anywhere.'

“I rather expected to meet a couple of old fossils, but to my agreeable surprise I found John and Hector Montrose both younger men than myself and I was under thirty then. Fine young fellows they were too, nearly of an age, and as much alike as two peas. Of medium size, well-knit, and muscular, they were exactly the type of man for a rough trip such as that which we were soon planning. For all my scruples went by the board within ten minutes of our first meeting, and I fell absolutely under the spell and charm of their virile personalities. Splendid chaps, both of them: I never met their like. I can see them now as they sat listening to me. I discussed the trip, and described the kind of country we should have to cover. Their dark, keen, eager faces were so absolutely alike that, except when they laughed, I could scarce tell which was which. Hector, the elder, had had the whole of his front teeth so stopped and plated with gold dentistry that there was but little ivory to be seen, and when he laughed this gave him a strange and rather unpleasing appearance.

“Within a week we were on the veld, and two months later were within fifty miles of where we are sitting now farther up the Orange, where the Great Fish River runs into the larger stream. It is a wild and desolate spot to-day, and there are hippo still on the islands, but twenty years back scarce a white man had ever seen it! We had followed the Orange from its mouth in a leisurely, dawdling manner, spending a few days, or perhaps a week, at those few spots where we found Hottentots or Bushmen. The elder brother seemed to comprehend these wild men by intuition, and the extraordinary 'click' language which I had long since despaired of ever learning seemed to him the simplest thing on earth. Day after day he conversed with them more and more, until his mastery of both tongues was complete. The natives looked up to him as a sort of god, and if he had allowed it would have worshipped him. Hour after hour he would sit conversing with them and questioning them, taking copious notes all the time and gathering from their folklore, legends, traditions, and beliefs; and every day, as he became more engrossed, his brother and I saw less of him. John and I had plenty of sport, for the country teemed with game in those days; but after a time, as Hector grew more and more engrossed in the natives, until he rarely spoke to us, John became anxious, and at last spoke to me. 'Look here, Jason,' he said one day when we were miles from camp after klipbok for the pot, 'I don't like the way Hector's going at all! He scarcely ever speaks now, and he's so queer when he does talk. He wanders in his sleep a lot, and last night he kept on all night talking the most abject nonsense about proving to the world that Darwin was right in his theory of evolution. It's some yarn these infernal Bushmen have told him, I suppose. I wish something would crop up to divert his thoughts in another direction.'

“Well, something happened only too soon. One day, in passing through a narrow ravine, we came suddenly at close quarters with a troop of the biggest baboons I have ever seen. They looked and grunted a few times to each other, and made off in a leisurely manner, evidently in no fear. They were the first we had seen, and Hector was all excitement. He spoke rapidly to the two Bushmen who were with us, and then shouted some clicking, unintelligible gibberish after the retreating animals. At the call the whole troop halted, and their hoarse barks came back in reply. Again Hector shouted, and once again the baboons voiced a grunting mocking answer that John and I looked at each other in amazement! 'Look at Klaas!' he whispered.

“Klaas was a Hottentot who had been with the missionaries at Bethany, and spoke English. He spoke the Bushman 'click' too, but seldom had anything to do with the 'wild men,' as he called them. Now he stood listening to Hector's shouts to the baboons, and as he listened a look of the most abject terror came into his face, and he stood livid and trembling, staring in the direction of the beasts. Again Hector called; and then a shrill scream burst from the Hottentot's lips: 'No! no!' he shrieked. 'He is calling them back!' he gibbered, turning to us; 'they will tear us to pieces!!'

“The Bushmen were cowering in fear too; and still Hector, heedless of us all, called to the baboons; and their grunts came back in reply. And now the brutes were turning back towards us, and a thrill of fear came to me too, for there were at least a hundred of them, and a combined attack would have made short work of us, notwithstanding our Winchesters. I unslung mine; but John was before me a shot rang out, and the big leader flung up its long arms and fell dead. The troop halted, and then, before I could shoot, Hector sprang to where we knelt aiming and ordered us imperiously and passionately to stop. 'You fools!' he shrieked, 'you have spoiled all! How can I ever gain their confidence, how can I ever learn their speech and gain the proof of all that Darwin taught, if you murder them? Already from these Bushmen I have learnt much, and can make these wild men [he used the native expression quite naturally] understand, but much more is needed. Put up your guns: they shall come back!' Whilst we paused irresolute the baboons, picking up their fallen leader, made off across the mountain, in silence and with never a response to Hector's calls.

“From that time our leader's conduct became even stranger in fact he was as a man obsessed. He rarely spoke to us, but spent his whole time with the Bushmen, wandering away into the mountains and the thick jungle bordering the river, refusing our company, and no longer even carrying a rifle in a country at that time teeming with wild animals. His sole desire was to come into contact with the baboons, but for some days we saw nothing of them. He offered the Bushmen all sorts of rewards if they could capture and bring in a young one, but they had wild tales of raids by these strange beasts; of native women and children carried off by them, and becoming wild like their captors. At length, however, Hector's promises had effect: one evening the two Bushmen returned to camp dragging between them a half-grown baboon. It was surly, vicious, and so strong that they could scarce master it, but within twenty-four hours Hector had the animal subject to his will, and now the Bushmen were neglected for this strange new companion. That he could make himself understood to it was perfectly obvious; and they would wander away together, grunting and clicking all the time.

“The heat all this time was terrific, and the thought often came to me that possibly Hector had had a touch of sunstroke. Even his craze for finding a proof of Darwin's theory could, I thought, scarcely explain his half-mad conduct! He ate but little; his habits, once so precise, became careless and in fact almost brutal; and his brother's pained remonstrance with him only made matters worse. 'The Proof! the Proof!' he would answer us, fiercely and angrily; 'I am getting nearer to it every day. What matters what you think or care! But this one is too young. I must have an old one. He will tell me!' John and I had serious thoughts of taking him out of the wilderness by force; but whilst we hesitated the end came.

“One night, after a day of terrific heat, we were lying under a thorn tree on the hot sand, and hoping for the rain that had been threatening but would not fall. There was a moon; but its light was fitful, and the dark thunder-clouds occasionally obscured it. Away over the Tatas Berg Mountains the lightning was flickering, and John and I lay watching it, and wishing the storm would break for us too. Suddenly we heard the bark of a baboon from a peak near us. It was answered from the other side, and soon a harsh chorus resounded on either hand. We listened. They seemed to be narrowing in upon us. Klaas crept near us. 'Master,' he whispered in a frightened voice, 'they will kill us all or worse!' We looked at each other in the gloom. It might well be, and we had better be prepared. Without a word we rose and hurried to the tent, and there made ready our rifles. Then the same thought came simultaneously to us. Should we speak to Hector? He had of late used the smaller tent, a short distance away from our own his companion, the cursed baboon! We hurried towards it. It was empty. 'Hector! Hector!' John called out, softly at first, then loudly, frantically. But no answer came, except that now the mocking din of the baboons seemed to jeer at us. They appeared to be gathered near us, all together. As we ran towards the sound the moon burst through a rift in the clouds. There ahead of us, stark naked, and running swiftly towards the baboons, we saw the figure of Hector, his body gleaming white in the moonbeams, and by his side the grey figure of his baboon companion.

“We shouted, as over rocks and through scrub and thorns we ran and scrambled, gaining upon the fugitive. When he was but fifty yards ahead, he paused and turned, and the moonlight gleamed upon his gilded teeth as he laughed at us in maniac mockery. Then, even as we sprang towards him, a grey circle surged round him, and together they came towards us. For a time we were hard set to beat them off. When our Winchesters were empty a ring of dead lay around us, and then the moon was blotted out and dense darkness fell as the thunderstorm burst over us. Between the peals of thunder we could hear the hoarse barks of the main troop getting farther and farther away, but to follow was impossible. We expected to find the mangled body of Hector in the morning. Daylight showed no trace of him, however, and though we spent months searching the locality we never saw him again.”

Jason stopped, and knocked his pipe out on his boot. I thought his tale was finished. “Horrible! horrible!” I said. “Little wonder you hate baboons! What became of his brother?”

“Wait!” said Jason, “that is only the first chapter of my story. John went back to England a morose, sad man. The incident had deeply affected me also, and we had become the closest of friends. Old Klaas came to Cape Town with us, and as we saw John waving to us from the fast receding mailboat the Hottentot said something I never forgot. 'Master,' he said, 'his brother I do not think he is dead! Something worse has happened to him: Klaas believes he is there in that strange place the Hottentots have all heard of there in the Tatas Berg, in the baboons' secret place.'

“Well, ten more, fifteen years passed, and I often heard from John. He had thrown up sport, and strangely enough had devoted himself entirely to the same scientific research that had been his brother's bane. Then his letters became fewer and fewer, and I heard nothing for many months when one day he walked into my room in Cape Town. He had just arrived from England, and after our first warm greeting he asked me eagerly if I were free to accompany him again to the scene of our awful experience. I was free enough, but reluctant. Why revive the horrors of that awful night! But he persuaded me, and a month later we were in the same region, and moreover had found old Klaas alive and hearty. John had become proficient in the Bushman and Hottentot tongues, as his brother had been; though where and how he had studied them I never knew. Would he, too, I wondered, try to obtain the Proof, as his poor mad brother had done? And when we first came in contact with the baboons I watched him closely. But he betrayed no madness only an intense interest in and hatred of them. Peculiarly enough, I thought at the time, although he shot the smaller ones mercilessly I never saw him shoot at the huge beasts we often saw watching us from the peaks. He must have noticed me watching him, for one day he turned and looked me full in the face, sadly and wistfully, as though reading my thoughts: 'No, no, Jason; never fear, old friend; I shall never seek the proof as Hector did. And yet, and yet, it is there!' I soon found that all his inquiries among the natives tended in one direction: he sought the whereabouts of the secret place of the baboons in which they all believed. But none could tell him, till one day in the wild and remote region between the Great Fish River and the Tatas Mountains we came upon Jantje, an old Hottentot, who told us that he had seen the place. He had been hunting for honey in the almost inaccessible mountains of that wild spot, and had one day found himself in a narrow gorge, looking down into what appeared to be a large crater. The sides were precipitous except at one spot where a narrow and tortuous canon made it possible to enter. And here, he assured us, was the stronghold of the baboons. Huge ones bigger than men, he told us and hundreds of them. And for a new gun and some powder and shot he would take us to the place. But he would not enter!

“Jantje got his gun; and three days later John, myself, and Klaas stood upon a mountain-top and looked into the spot he had described. It was at least five hundred feet deep, and perhaps a hundred yards across the bottom, which was flat and sandy. Even as we first looked into the place the baboons, several hundred strong, were surging through the gorge of which Jantje had spoken, away towards their feeding-ground by the Groot River. We watched them through our glasses. Many of them were of a man's size, and they were not like the ordinary baboon.

“John was all excitement. 'We will wait till they are clear away, and then we'll go down,' he said. I warned him that there were sure to be some left behind. But he was insistent. We were well armed, he urged, and he could see none. He badly wanted to see the place, and at last I consented. We each had a hundred rounds of ammunition, and if it came to a fight the three of us Klaas was also well armed could almost exterminate them. So, leaving the old man behind, we ventured down the narrow cleft clinging, scrambling, and occasionally using the rope. At length we stood in the open arena.

“At the bottom there was nothing living to be seen. A trickling stream issued from the rock on one side, and we drank before starting to explore the place. We found a piece of tattered clothing, and paused and looked at each other in dismay. There had been men there! But we discovered nothing else of importance as we continued our circuit of the crater. We had been engrossed in our investigations, however, and when we had finished it became clear that we had started our descent too late. The rapidly failing light showed us that the day was nearly at an end. The baboons might return at any time, and to fight them in the narrow ravine, without proper light, would be madness. Then came a warning shot fired by Jantje on the height above: the beasts were returning. To find some kind of hiding-place and lie there until the morrow was our only hope of safety. Luckily we discovered a sort of shallow cave that hid us well, with a huge boulder at the entrance that would if need be form a barrier. The cave might be the sleeping-place of one of the baboons; but it was our only chance, and we had barely taken possession before the advance guard of the baboons came hooting down the ravine and made for the drinking-place. Night was now falling fast, and it was dark before the main troop entered the crater. We could only dimly make out their forms, but their harsh barks were continuous. They did not come near us, and we sat and watched, and whispered to each other, and waited for the moon, which seemed long in coming. At last its bright light struck full into the crater, and we could see the baboons sitting together in a mass at the farther side. But not for long; for as we waited there was a movement among the animals, and two long files of them left the main body and came slowly towards the part in which we lay hidden. Tense with apprehension we sat and gazed, expecting that they would make a dash for us. They kept steadily on, however: two long lines of huge beasts a few yards apart, and between them a bigger one that walked almost erect. Within twenty yards of our cave they formed into a circle, the big one in the centre. He was as big as a man! Was he a man? But no, the clicking, grunting sound that issued from his throat was that of a baboon, though of a species different to the others. When the moonlight struck more fully on the shaggy head and face, they looked almost human! How the fangs glistened in the moonlight!

“The gestures of this strange animal became more excited, and the guttural speech if speech it was more passionate. I heard Klaas muttering he was praying. 'God have mercy!' I heard him say, 'they know we are here, they Oh! master, master, hold him, hold him!' But it was too late: John, with a wild scream of 'Hector! Hector!' sprang from the shelter of the cave, and, casting aside his rifle, ran straight at the strange figure in the middle of the circle. Had he gone mad? Who could save him now? Fast and furious Klaas's rifle and my own rang out, and in the dense group of animals the execution was so terrible that in a few minutes the bulk fled back to the farther end, and I ran to where John lay crushed in the arms of the baboon leader. The vile beast had its fangs fixed in his throat when I reached them. I fired a bullet through its head, and released my poor dead friend; and as the monster's shaggy head rolled back, and the moon's bright rays struck upon its glistening teeth, I saw with horror that they were of gold!”