In the days of my almost forgotten boyhood I remember reading in the Book of all books that the Wise Man, in a fit of blank despair, declared that there were several things under heaven which he could neither gauge nor understand, viz., "The way of a serpent upon a rock, and the way of a man with a maid," and I beg leave to doubt if Solomon, in all his wisdom, could understand the little ways of a camp liar in his frisky glory. Whence he cometh, whither he goeth, and why he was born, are conundrums which might tax the ingenuity of all the prophets, from Daniel downwards, to solve. I have sought him with peace offerings in each hand, hoping to beguile him from his sinful ways, and have located him not. I have risen in the chilly dawn, and laid wait for him with a gun, but have not feasted mine eyes upon him. I have lain awake through the still watches of the night planning divers surprises for him, but success has not come nigh unto me. I have cursed the camp liar with a fervour born of long suffering, and I have hired a Zulu mule-driver to curse him for me; but my efforts have come to nought, and now I am sore in my very bones when I think of him. All men whose fate it is to dwell under canvas know of his work, but no man hath yet laid hand or eye upon him. A man goeth to his blankets at night time feeling good towards all mankind, satisfied in his own soul that he has garnered in all the legitimate news that he is in any way entitled to handle for the public benefit; and lo! when he ariseth in the dawning he finds that the camp liar has neither slept nor slumbered, for the very air is full of stories concerning battles which have not been fought and victories which have not been won. From mouth to mouth, all along the lines, the stories run as fire runs along fuse, and no man born of woman can tell whence they came or where they will stop. Each soldier questioned swears the tale is true, because "'twas told to him by one who never lied." Yet, at evening, when the weary wretch who works for newspapers returns to his tent, with his boots worn through with fruitless search for the author of the "news," he learns that once again he has been the dupe of the "camp liar"; and he may well be forgiven if he then heaps a whole continent of curses on the invisible shape which, forming itself into a lie, is small enough to enter a man's mouth, and yet big enough to permeate a whole camp. What is a camp liar? It is not a man, neither is it a maid, neither is it dog nor devil. It is a nameless shadow, which flits through the minds of men, fashioned by the Father of Evil to be a curse and a scourge to war correspondents. A mining liar is an awful liar, but he takes tangible form, and one can grapple with him when he appears upon a prospectus. A political liar is a pitiful liar, and vengeance finds him out upon the hustings, and eggs and the produce of the kitchen garden are his reward. A legal liar is a loquacious liar, but he is bounded by his brief and the extent of his fees. But the camp liar has no bounds, and is equally at home in all languages, at one moment dealing with an army in full marching order, and the next battening festively upon one man in a mudhole. There is no height to which the camp liar dare not ascend, there is nothing too trivial for it to touch. It has neither sex nor shape; but, like a fallen angel ousted from Heaven, and not wanted in Hades, it flits through camp a mental microbe, spawning falsehoods in the souls of soldiers.
The camp liar concocts a story of a fearful fight, and fills the air with the groans of the dying, and makes a weird picture out of the grisly, grinning silence of the ghastly dead. Kopjes are stained a rich ripe red with the blood of heroes, and arms, and legs, and skulls, and shattered jaw bones hurtle through the air midst the sound of bursting shells, like straws in a stable-yard when the wind blows high. The very poetry of lying is touched with a master hand when charging squadrons sweep across the veldt and the sunlight kisses the soldier's steel. Then comes the pathos dear to the liar's soul--the farewells of the dying, sobbed just seven seconds before sunset into comrades' ears; the faltering voice, the tear-dimmed eyes, the death rattle in the throat, the last hand clasps, the last deep-drawn breath, in which--mother--Mary--and Heaven are always mingled; and then the moonlight and the moaning of the midnight wind!----The war correspondent leaps from the tent, springs into his saddle with his note-book in his mouth and an indelible lead pencil in each hand, and rides over kopje and veldt ten dreary miles to gaze upon the scene of that awful battle, and finds--one dead mule, and a nigger driver, dead drunk. Then, if he has had a religious education, he climbs out of the saddle, sinks on his knees, and prays for the peace of the camp liar's immortal soul. But if, as is often the case, he has had a secular upbringing, he spits on the dead mule, kicks the nigger, slinks back to camp by a roundabout route, and swears to everyone that he has been forty miles in another direction in a railway truck.
Four or five days later, just at that hour in the morning when a man clings most fondly to his blankets, another rumour breaks the early morning's limpid silence, a rumour of a battle of great import raging eighteen miles away, just within easy riding distance for a smart correspondent. But the man of ink and hardships chuckles this time. He has been fooled so often by the imp of camp rumours; so murmurs just loud enough to be heard in heaven, "That infernal camp liar again," and rustles his blankets round his ears and drops cosily back into dreamland; but when, later on, he learns that an important battle has been fought, and he has missed it all because he did not want to be fooled by the camp liar, then what he mutters is muttered loud enough to be heard in a different place, and the folk there don't need ear trumpets to catch what he says either.