Boots and Saddles/Chapter 12
PERPLEXITIES AND PLEASURES OF DOMESTIC LIFE.
The climate of Dakota was so fine that those who had been poisoned by malaria in the South became perfectly well after a short residence there. Sickness was of rare occurrence, and because of its infrequency it drew forth lavish sympathy. In the autumn a beautiful little girl, the daughter of the sutler, was brought into the garrison dying with diphtheria. There was no law, like the city ordinance, compelling a warning placard to be placed on the door, and it would have been of no avail in keeping her friends away. When I begged the heart-broken mother to turn from the last breath of her idol, it seemed to me her lot was too hard for human endurance. Every sorrow seemed much worse out there, where we were so unaccustomed to suffering.
As I looked at the little waxen body prepared for burial, lying so like a pretty flower, I did not wonder at the mother's grief and despair. She was a thousand miles from Eastern friends; her husband was absent on business, and she among strangers. At another time, when a young mother was caring for her newly-born babe, the little toddling brother was unfortunately exposed to the cold, and fell violently ill with pneumonia. Every lady came daily to help care for him, and at last the officers' repeatedly proffered services were accepted for night nursing. I remember watching and admiring the tenderness of a handsome, dashing young fellow as he walked the floor with the feverish little sufferer, or rocked him patiently until dawn. And when I saw him often afterwards gliding about in the dance, or riding beside some pretty girl, I used to think to myself that I could tell his sweetheart something good about him. We were all like one family—every one was so quick to sympathize, so ready to act if trouble came.
After the trains had been taken off, and winter had fairly set in, the young mother, whom we all loved, was in despair about clothing for her little ones. We had reached a land where there were no seamstresses, no ready-made clothing, and nothing suitable for children. Money did no good, though our friend had abundance of that, but busy fingers were needed. The ladies quietly arranged, as a surprise, a sewing-bee. We impressed our brother Tom into our service, and taught him to use the sewing-machine. A laughing crowd dropped scissors and thimbles at parade-time and followed to the door to watch him hurry on his belt and sabre and take his place—the quintessence then of everything military and manly. A roomful of busy women, cutting, basting, making button-holes, and joining together little garments, soon had a passable outfit for the brave mother's little ones, and even a gown for her own sweet self. I do not remember ever seeing anything quite so Dutchy and cumbersome, however, as those little children dressed in the cobbled-out woollen clothes our ignorant fingers had fashioned.
A woman on the frontier is so cherished and appreciated, because she has the courage to live out there, that there is nothing that is not done for her if she be gracious and courteous. In twenty little ways the officers spoiled us: they never allowed us to wait on ourselves, to open or shut a door, draw up our own chair, or to do any little service that they could perform for us. If we ran to the next house for a chat, with a shawl thrown over our heads, we rarely got a chance to return alone, but with this undignified head-covering were formally brought back to our door! I wonder if it will seem that we were foolishly petted if I reveal that our husbands buttoned our shoes, wrapped us up if we went out, warmed our clothes before the fire, poured the water for our bath out of the heavy pitcher, and studied to do innumerable little services that a maid would have done for us in the States.
I don't think it made us helpless, however. In our turn we watched every chance we could to anticipate their wants. We did a hundred things we would not have remembered to do had not the quickly passing time brought nearer each day those hours of separation when we would have no one to do for. I am sure I never saw more tender men than the officers. One learned to conceal the fact that one was ailing or fatigued, for it made them so anxious. The eyes of sister Margaret's husband come to me now, full of intense suffering for his wife, as she silently read her home letters telling of our mother Custer's failing strength. She suppressed her weeping until they had retired and she believed him asleep. She found her mistake when his gentle hands stole softly to her cheeks to feel if they were moistened with tears.
So seldom did we hear of an officer's unkindness to his wife, that a very old legend used to be revived if a reference to anything of the kind was needed. Before the war some officer wished to measure the distance of a day's march, and having no odometer elected his wife to that office. The length of the revolution of a wheel was taken, a white handkerchief tied to a spoke, and the madam was made to count the rotations all day long. The story seldom failed to fire the blood of the officers when it was told. They agreed that nothing but a long life among Indians, and having the treatment of the squaw before him, would cause a man to act with such brutality.
Domestic care sat very lightly on me. Nothing seemed to annoy my husband more than to find me in the kitchen. He determinedly opposed it for years, and begged me to make a promise that I would never go there for more than a moment. We had such excellent servants that my presence was unnecessary most of the time, but even in the intervals when our fare was wretched he submitted uncomplainingly rather than that I should be wearied. A great portion of the time my life was so rough that he knew it taxed me to the utmost, and I never forgot to be grateful that I was spared domestic care in garrison. We had so much company that, though I enjoyed it, I sometimes grew weary. When the winter came and there was little to do officially, my husband made every preparation for our receptions: ordered the supplies, planned the refreshment, and directed the servants. The consequence was that I sometimes had as enjoyable a time as if I had been entertained at some one else's house. To prove how much pleasure I had, I recall a speech that the family kept among a collection of my faux pas. They overheard me saying to some of our guests, "Don't go home, we are having such a good time." Afterwards the tormenting home circle asked me if it would not have been in a little better taste to let the guests say that!
We had such a number of my husband's family in garrison that it required an effort occasionally to prevent our being absorbed in one another. A younger brother came on from Michigan to visit us, and our sister Margaret's husband had a sister and brother at the post. Sometimes we found that nine of us were on one side of the room deeply interested in conversation. Something would rouse us to a sense of our selfishness, and I was the one sent off to look out the quiet ones at the hop who needed entertaining. If I chanced to be struggling to teach new steps in dancing to feet unaccustomed to anything but march or drill, or strove to animate the one whom all pronounced a bore, the family never failed to note it. They played every sly trick they could to disconcert and tease me. I did not submit tamely. As soon as I could, I made my way to them, and by threats and intimidations scattered them to their duty!
At the hops the officers waited long and patiently for the women to dance with them; sometimes the first waltz they could get during the evening would not come before midnight. I think it would have been very hard for me to have kept a level head with all the attention and delightful flattery which the ordinary manners of officers convey, if I had not remembered how we ladies were always in the minority. The question whether one was old or young, pretty or plain, never seemed to arise with them. I have seen them solicit the honor of taking a grandmamma to drive, and even to ride as gallantly as if she were young and fair. No men discover beauty and youth more quickly, but the deference they feel for all women is always apparent.
It seemed very strange to me that with all the value that is set on the presence of the women of an officer's family at the frontier posts, the book of army regulations makes no provision for them, but in fact ignores them entirely! It enters into such minute detail in its instructions, even giving the number of hours that bean-soup should boil, that it would be natural to suppose that a paragraph or two might be wasted on an officer's wife! The servants and the company laundresses are mentioned as being entitled to quarters and rations and to the services of the surgeon. If an officer's wife falls ill she cannot claim the attention of the doctor, though it is almost unnecessary to say that she has it through his most urgent courtesy. I have even known a surgeon, who from some official difficulty was not on friendly terms with an officer, go personally and solicit the privilege of prescribing through the illness of his wife, whom he knew but slightly.
The officers used sportively to look up the rules in the army regulations for camp followers, and read them out to us as they would the riot act! In the event of any question being raised regarding our privileges, we women really came under no other head in the book which is the sole authority for our army. If we put down an emphatic foot, declaring that we were going to take some decisive step to which they were justly opposed as involving our safety, perhaps, we would be at once reminded, in a laughingly exultant manner, of the provision of the law. The regulations provide that the commanding officer has complete control over all camp followers, with power to put them off the reservation or detain them as he chooses. Nevertheless, though army women have no visible thrones or sceptres, nor any acknowledged rights according to military law, I never knew such queens as they, or saw more willing subjects than they govern.