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
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!