Vrouw Grobelaar - The King Of The Baboons

Author: Gibbon Perceval

The old yellow-fanged dog-baboon that was chained to a post in the yard had a dangerous trick of throwing stones. He would seize a piece of rock in two hands, stand erect and whirl round on his heels till momentum was obtained, and then—let go. The missile would fly like a bullet, and woe betide any one who stood in its way. The performance precluded any kind of aim; the stone was hurled off at any chance tangent: and it was bad luck rather than any kind of malice that guided one three-pound boulder through the window, across the kitchen, and into a portrait of Judas de Beer which hung on the wall not half a dozen feet from the slumbering Vrouw Grobelaar.

She bounced from her chair and ballooned to the door with a silent swift agility most surprising to see in a lady of her generous build, and not a sound did she utter. She was of good veld-bred fighting stock, which never cried out till it was hurt, and there was even something of compassion in her face as Frikkie jumped from the stoop with a twelve-foot thong in his hand. It was, after all, the baboon that suffered most, if his yells were any index to his feelings. Frikkie could smudge a fly ten feet off with just a flick of his whip, and all the tender parts of the accomplished animal came in for ruthless attention.

"He ought to be shot," was Frikkie's remark as he curled up the thong at the end of the discipline. "A baboon is past teaching if he has bad habits. He is more like a man than a beast."

The Vrouw Grobelaar seated herself in the stoop chair which by common consent was reserved for her use, and shook her head.

"Baboons are uncanny things," she answered slowly. "When you shoot them, you can never be quite sure how much murder there is in it. The old story is that some of them have souls and some not: and it is quite certain that they can talk when they will. You have heard them crying in the night sometimes. Well, you ask a Kafir what that means. Ask an old wise Kafir, not a young one that has forgotten the wisdom of the black people and learned the foolishness only of the white."

"What does it mean, tante?" It was I that put the question.
Katje, too, seemed curious.

The old lady eyed me gloomily.

"If you were a landed Boer, instead of a kind of schoolmaster," she replied, witheringly, "you would not need to ask such a question. But I will tell you. A baboon may be wicked—look at that one showing his teeth and cursing—but he is not blind nor a fool. He runs about on the hills, and steals and fights and scratches, and all the time he has all the knowledge and twice the strength of a man, if it were not for the tail behind him and the hair on his body. So it is natural that sometimes he should be grieved to be such a mean thing as a baboon when he could be a useful kind of man if the men would let him. And at nights, particularly, when their troop is in laager and the young ones are on watch among the high rocks, it comes home to the best of them, and they sob and weep like young widows, pretending that they have pains inside so that the others shall not feel offended and turn on them. Any one may hear them in the kloofs on a windless night, and, I can tell you, the sound of their sorrow is pitiful."

Katje threw out a suggestion to console them with buckshot, and the Vrouw Grobelaar nodded with meaning.

"To hate baboons is well enough in the wife of a Burgher," she said sweetly. "I am glad to see there is so much fitness and wifeliness about you, since you will naturally spend all your life on farms."

Katje's flush was a distress signal. First blood to the
Vrouw.

"Baboons," continued the old lady, "are among a farmer's worst enemies. They steal and destroy and menace all the year round, but for all that there are many farmers who will not shoot or trap them. And these, you will notice, are always farmers of a ripe age and sense shaped by experience. They know, you may be sure. My stepsister's first husband, Shadrach van Guelder, shot at baboons once, and was so frightened afterwards that he was afraid to be alone in the dark."

There was a story toward, and no one moved.

"There were many Kafirs on his farm, which you have not seen," pursued the Vrouw Grobelaar, adjusting her voice to narrative pitch. "It was on the fringe of the Drakensberg, and many spurs of hill, divided by deep kloofs like gashes, descended on to it. So plenty of water came down, and the cattle were held from straying by the rocks, on one side at any rate. The Kafirs had their kraals dotted all about the land; and as they were of the kind that works, my stepsister's husband suffered them to remain and grow their little patches of mealies, while they worked for him in between. He was, of course, a cattle Boer, as all of our family have always been, but here were so many Kafirs to be had for nothing, that he soon commenced to plough great spaces of land and sow valuable crops. There was every prospect that he would make very much money out of that farm; for corn always sells, even when cattle are going for only seven pounds apiece, and Shadrach van Guelder was very cheerful about it.

"But when a farmer weighs an ungrown crop, you will always find that there is something or other he does not take into account. He tells of the weather and the land and the Kafirs and the water on his fingers, and forgets to bend down his thumb to represent God—or something. Shadrach van Guelder lifted up his eyes to the hills from whence came the water, but it was not until the green corn was six inches high that he saw that there came with it baboons. Armies and republics of them; more baboons than he had thought to exist,—they swooped down on his sprouting lands and rioted, ate and rooted, trampled and wantoned, with that kind of bouncing devilishness that not even a Kafir can correctly imitate. In one night they undid all his work on five sown morgen of fat land, and with the first wink of the sun in the east they were back again in their kopjes, leaving devastation and foulness wherever they passed.

"It was my stepsister's husband that stood on one leg and cursed like a Jew. He was wrathful as a Hollander that has been drinking water, and what did not help to make him content was the fact that hardly anything would avail to protect his lands. Once the baboons had tasted the sweetness of the young corn, they would come again and again, camping in the kloofs overhead as long as anything remained for them, like a deaf guest. But for all that, he had no notion of leaving them to plunder at their ease. The least one can do with an unwelcome visitor is to make him uncomfortable; and he sent to certain kraals on the farm for two old Kafirs he had remarked who had the appearance of cunning old men.

"They came and squatted before him, squirming and shuffling, as Kafirs do when a white man talks to them. One was quite a common kind of Kafir, gone a little gray with age, a tuft of white wool on his chin, and little patches of it here and there on his head. But the other was a small twisted yellow man, with no hair at all, and eyes like little blots of fire on a charred stick; and his arms were so long and gnarled and lean that he had a bestial look, like a laborious animal.

"'The baboons have killed the crop on the lower lands,' said Shadrach, smacking his leg with his sjambok. 'If they are not checked, they will destroy all the corn on this farm. What is the way to go about it?'

"The little yellow man was biting his lips and turning a straw in his hands, and gave no answer, but the other spoke.

"'I am from Shangaanland,' he said, 'and there, when the baboons plague us, we have a way with them, a good way.'

"He sneered sideways at his yellow companion as he spoke, and the look which the latter returned to him was a thing to shrink from.

"'What is this way?' demanded Shadrach.

"'You must trap a baboon,' explained the old Kafir. 'A leading baboon, for choice, who has a lot to say in the government of the troop. And then you must skin him, and let him go again. The others will travel miles and miles as soon as they see him, and never come back again.'

"'It makes me sick to think of it,' said Shadrach. 'Surely you know some other way of scaring them?'

"The old Kafir shook his head slowly, but the yellow man ceased to smile and play with the straw and spoke.

"'I do not believe in that way, baas. A Shangaan baboon'—he grinned at his companion—'is more easily frightened than those of the Drakensberg. I am of the bushmen, and I know. If you flay one of those up yonder, the others will make war, and where one came before, ten will come every night. A baboon is not a fat lazy Kafir; one must be careful with him.'

"'How would you drive them away, then?' asked Shadrach.

"The yellow man shuffled his hands in the dust, squatting on his heels. There! There! See, the baboon in the yard is doing the very same thing.

"'If I were the baas,' said the yellow man, 'I would turn out the young men to walk round the fields at night, with buckets to hit with sticks, and make a noise. And I—well, I am of the bushmen—' he scratched himself and smiled emptily.

"'Yes, yes?' demanded Shadrach. He knew the wonderful ways of the bushmen with some animals.

"'I do not know if anything can be done,' said the yellow man, 'but if the baas is willing I can go up to the rocks and try.'

"'How?'

"But he could tell nothing. None of these wizards that have charms to subdue the beasts can tell you anything about it. A Hottentot will smell the air and say what cattle are near, but if you bid him tell you how he does it, he giggles like a fool and is ashamed.

"'I do not know if anything can be done,' the yellow man repeated. 'I cannot promise the baas, but I can try.'

"'Well, try then,' ordered Shadrach, and went away to make the necessary arrangements to have the young Kafirs in the fields that night.

"They did as he bade, and the noise was loathsome,—enough to frighten anything with an ear in its head. The Kafirs did not relish the watch in the dark at first, but when they found that their work was only to thump buckets and howl, they came to do it with zest, and roared and banged till you would have thought a judgment must descend on them. The baboons heard it, sure enough, and came down after a while to see what was going on. They sat on their rumps outside the circle of Kafirs, as quiet as people in a church, and watched the niggers drumming and capering as though it were a show for their amusement. Then they went back, leaving the crops untouched, but pulling all the huts in one kraal to pieces as they passed. It was the kraal of the old white-tufted Shangaan, as Shadrach learned afterwards.

"Shadrach was pleased that the row had saved his corn, and next day he gave the twisted yellow man a lump of tobacco. The man tucked it into his cheek and smiled, wrinkling his nose and looking at the ground.

"'Did you get speech of the baboons last night among the rocks?' Shadrach asked.

"The other shook his head, grinning. 'I am old,' he said.
'They pay no attention to me, but I will try again.
Perhaps, before long, they will listen.'

"'When they do that,' said Shadrach, 'you shall have five pounds of tobacco and five bottles of dop.'

"The man was squatting on his heels all this time at Shadrach's feet, and his hard fingers, like claws, were picking at the ground. Now he put out a hand, and began fingering the laces of the farmer's shoes with a quick fluttering movement that Shadrach saw with a spasm of terror. It was so exactly the trick of a baboon, so entirely a thing animal and unhuman.

"'You are more than half a baboon yourself,' he said. 'Let go of my leg! Let go, I say! Curse you, get away—get away from me!'

"The creature had caught his ankle with both hands, the fingers, hard and shovel-ended, pressing into his flesh.

"'Let go!' he cried, and struck at the man with his sjambok.

"The man bounded on all fours to evade the blow, but it took him in the flank, and he was human—or Kafir—again in a moment, and rubbed himself and whimpered quite naturally.

"'Let me see no more of your baboon tricks,' stormed
Shadrach, the more angry because he had been frightened.
'Keep them for your friends among the rocks. And now be off
to your kraal.'

"That night again the Kafirs drummed all about the green corn, and sang in chorus the song which the mountain-Kafirs sing when the new moon shows like a paring from a fingernail of gold. It is a long and very loud song, with stamping of feet every minute, and again the baboons came down to see and listen. The Kafirs saw them, many hundreds of humped black shapes, and sang the louder, while the crowd of beasts grew ever denser as fresh parties came down and joined it. It was opposite the rocks on which they sat that the singing men collected, roaring their long verses and clattering on the buckets, doubtless not without some intention to jeer at and flout the baffled baboons, who watched them in such a silence. It was drooping now to the pit of night, and things were barely seen as shapes, when from higher up the line, where the guardians of the crops were sparser, there came a discord of shrieks.

"'The baboons are through the line,' they cried, and it was on that instant that the great watching army of apes came leaping in a charge on the main force of the Kafirs. Oh, but that was a wild, a haunting thing! Great bull-headed dog-baboons, with naked fangs and clutching hands alert for murder; bounding mothers of squealing litters that led their young in a dash to the fight; terrible lean old bitches that made for the men when others went for the corn,—they swooped like a flood of horror on the aghast Kafirs, biting, tearing, bounding through the air like uncouth birds, and in one second the throng of the Kafirs melted before them, and they were among the corn.

"Eight men they killed by rending, and of the others, some sixty, there was not one but had his wound—some bite to the bone, some gash, where iron fingers had clutched and torn their way through skin and flesh. When they came to Shadrach, and woke him wearily with the breathless timidity of beaten men, it was already too late to go with a gun to the corn-lands. The baboons had contented themselves with small plunder after their victory, and withdrew orderly to the hills; and even as Shadrach came to the door of the homestead, he saw the last of their marshaled line, black against the sky, moving swiftly towards the kloofs.

"He flung out his hands like a man in despair, with never a word to ease his heart, and then the old Shangaan Kafir stood up before him. He had the upper part of his right arm bitten to the bone and worried, and now he cast back the blanket from his shoulder and held out the quivering wound to his master.

"'It was the chief of the baboons that gave me this,' he said, 'and he is a baboon only in the night. He came through the ranks of them bounding like a boulder on a steep hillside, and it was for me that his teeth were bared. So when he hung by his teeth to my arm and tore and snarled, I drew my nails across his back, that the baas should know the truth.'

"'What is this madness?' cried Shadrach.

"'No madness, but simple devilry,' answered the Shangaan, and there came a murmur of support from the Kafirs about him. 'The leader of the baboons is Naqua, and it was he who taught them the trick they played us tonight.'

"'Naqua?' repeated Shadrach, feeling cold and weak.

"'The bushman,' explained the old man. 'The yellow man with the long lean arms who gave false counsel to the baas.'

"'It is true,' came the chorus of the Kafirs. 'It is true; we saw it.'

"Shadrach pulled himself together and raised a hand to the lintel of the door to steady himself.

"'Fetch me Naqua!' he ordered, and a pair of them went upon that errand. But they came back empty; Naqua was not at his hut, and none had news of him.

"Shadrach dismissed the Kafirs to patch their wounds, and at sun-up he went down to the lands where the eight dead Kafirs still lay among the corn, to see what traces remained of the night's work. He had hoped to find a clue in the tracks, but the feet of the Kafirs and the baboons were so mingled that the ground was dumb, and on the grass of the baboons' return there remained, of course, no sign. He was no fool, my stepsister's first husband, and since a wild and belly-quaking tale was the only one that offered, he was not ready to cast it aside till a better one were found. At any rate it was against Naqua that his preparations were directed.

"He had seven guns in his house for which ammunition could be found, and from among all the Kafirs on the land he chose a half dozen Zulus, who, as you know, will always rather fight than eat. These were only too ready to face the baboons again, since they were to have guns in their hands; and a kind of ambush was devised. They were to lie among the corn so as to command the flank of the beasts, and Shadrach was to lie in the middle of them, and would give the signal when to commence firing by a shot from his own rifle. There was built, too, a pile of brushwood lying on straw soaked in oil, and this one of them was to put a light to as soon as the shooting began.

"It was dark when they took their places, and then commenced a long and anxious watch among the corn, when every bush that creaked was an alarm and every small beast of the veld that squealed set hearts to thumping. From where he lay on his stomach, with his rifle before him, Shadrach could see the line of ridge of rocks over which the baboons must come, dark against a sky only just less dark; and with his eyes fixed on this he waited. Afterwards he said that it was not the baboons he waited for, but the yellow man, Naqua, and he had in his head an idea that all the evil and pain that ever was, and all the sin to be, had a home in that bushman. So a man hates an enemy.

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