Boots and Saddles/Chapter 14

CHAPTER XIV.

GARRISON LIFE.

There were about forty in our garrison circle, and as we were very harmonious we spent nearly every evening together. I think it is the general belief that the peace of an army post depends very much upon the example set by the commanding officer. My husband, in the six years previous, had made it very clear, in a quiet way, that he would much prefer that there should be no conversation detrimental to others in his quarters. It required no effort for him to refrain from talking about his neighbors, but it was a great deprivation to me occasionally. Once in a while, when some one had brought down wrath upon his or her head by doing something deserving of censure, the whole garrison was voluble in its denunciation; and if I plunged into the subject also and gave my opinion, I soon noticed my husband grow silent and finally slip away. I was not long in finding an excuse to follow him and ask what I had done. Of course I knew him too well not to divine that I had hurt him in some manner. Then he would make a renewed appeal to me beginning by an unanswerable plea, "if you wish to please me," and imploring me not to join in discussions concerning any one. He used to assure me that in his heart he believed me superior to such things. In vain I disclaimed being of that exalted order of females, and declared that it required great self-denial not to join in a gossip. The discussion ended by his desiring me to use him as a safety-valve if I must criticise others. From motives of policy alone, if actuated by no higher incentive, it seemed wise to suppress one's ebullitions of anger. In the States it is possible to seek new friends if the old ones become tiresome and exasperating, but once in a post like ours, so far removed, there is no one else to whom one can turn. We never went away on leave of absence, and heard ladies in civil life say emphatically that they did not like some person they knew, and "never would," without a start of terror. I forgot that their lives were not confined to the small precincts of a territorial post, where such avowed enmity is disastrous.

I had very little opportunity to know much of official matters; they were not talked about at home. Instinct guided me always in detecting the general's enemies, and when I found them out, a struggle began between us as to my manner of treating them. My husband urged that it would embarrass him if others found out that I had surmised anything regarding official affairs. He wished social relations to be kept distinct, and he could not endure to see me show dislike to any one who did not like him. I argued in reply that I felt myself dishonest if I even spoke to one whom I hated. The contest ended by his appealing to my good-sense, arguing that as the wife of the commanding officer I belonged to every one, and in our house I should be hospitable upon principle. As every one visited us, there was no escape for me, but I do not like to think now of having welcomed any one from whom I inwardly recoiled.

I was not let off on such occasions with any formal shake of the hand. My husband watched me, and if I was not sufficiently cordial he gave me, afterwards, in our bedroom, a burlesque imitation of my manner. I could not help laughing, even when annoyed, to see him caricature me by advancing coldly, extending the tips of his fingers, and bowing loftily to some imaginary guest. His raillery, added to my wish to please him, had the effect of making me shake hands so vigorously that I came near erring the other way and being too demonstrative, and thus giving the impression that I was the best friend of some one I really dreaded.

As I was in the tent during so many summers, and almost constantly in my husband's library in our winter quarters, I naturally learned something of what was transpiring. I soon found, however, that it would do no good if I asked questions in the hope of gaining further information. As to curiosity ever being one of my conspicuous faults, I do not remember, but I do recollect most distinctly how completely I was taken aback by an occurrence which took place a short time after we were married. I had asked some idle question about official matters, and was promptly informed in a grave manner, though with a mischievous twinkle of the eye, that whatever information I wanted could be had by application to the adjutant-general. This was the stereotyped form of endorsement on papers sent up to the regimental adjutant asking for information. One incident of many comes to me now, proving how little I knew of anything but what pertained to our own home circle. The wife of an officer once treated me with marked coldness. I was unaware of having hurt her in any way, and at once took my grievance to that source where I found sympathy for the smallest woe. My husband pondered a moment, and then remembered that the husband of my friend and he had had some slight official difficulty, and the lady thinking I knew of it was taking her revenge on me.

When I first entered army life I used to wonder what it meant when I heard officers say, in a perfectly serious voice, "Mrs. ——— commands her husband's company." It was my good-fortune not to encounter any such female grenadiers. A circumstance occurred which made me retire early from any attempt to assume the slightest authority. One of the inexhaustible jokes that the officers never permitted me to forget was an occurrence that happened soon after the general took command of the 7th Cavalry. A soldier had deserted, and had stolen a large sum of money from one of the lieutenants. My sympathy was so aroused for the officer that I urged him to lose no time in pursuing the man to the nearest town, whither he was known to have gone. In my interest and zeal I assured the officer that I knew the general would be willing, and he need not wait to apply for leave through the adjutant's office. I even hurried him away. When the general came in I ran to him with my story, expecting his sympathy, and that he would endorse all that I had done. On the contrary, he quietly assured me that he commanded the regiment, and that he would like me to make it known to the lieutenant that he must apply through the proper channels for leave of absence. Thereupon I ate a large piece of humble pie, but was relieved to find that the officer had shown more sense than I, and had not accepted my proferred leave, but had prudently waited to write out his application. Years afterwards, when my husband told me what a source of pride it was to him that others had realized how little I knew about official affairs, and assured me that my curiosity was less than that of any woman he had ever known, I took little credit to myself. It would have been strange, after the drilling of military life, if I had not attained some progress.

The general planned every military action with so much secrecy that we were left to divine as best we could what certain preliminary movements meant. One morning, when it was too cold for anything but important duty, without any explanations he started off with a company of cavalry and several wagons. As they crossed the river on the ice, we surmised that he was going to Bismarck. It seemed that the general had been suspicious that the granaries were being robbed, and finally a citizen was caught driving off a loaded wagon of oats from the reservation in broad daylight. This was about as high-handed an instance of thieving as the general had encountered, and he quietly set to work to find out the accomplices. In a little while it was ascertained that the robbers had concealed their plunder in a vacant store in the principal street of Bismarck.

The general determined to go himself directly to the town, thinking that he could do quickly and without opposition what another might find difficult. The better class of citizens honored him too highly to oppose his plan of action, even though it was unprecedented for the military to enter a town on such an errand. The general knew the exact place at which to halt, and drew the company up in line in front of the door. He demanded the key, and directed the men to transfer the grain to the wagons outside. Without a protest, or an exchange of words even, the troops marched out of the town as quietly as they had entered. This ended the grain thefts.

It was a surprise to me that after the life of excitement my husband had led, he should grow more and more domestic in his tastes. His daily life was very simple. He rarely left home except to hunt, and was scarcely once a year in the sutler's store, where the officers congregated to play billiards and cards. If the days were too stormy or too cold for hunting, as they often were for a week or more at a time, he wrote and studied for hours every day. We had the good-fortune to have a billiard-table loaned us by the sutler, and in the upper room where it was placed, my husband and I had many a game when he was weary with writing.

The general sometimes sketched the outline of my pictures, which I was preparing to paint, for he drew better than I did, and gladly availed himself of a chance to secure variety of occupation.

The relatives of the two young housemaids whom we had in our service regretted that they were missing school, so the general had the patience to teach them. The day rarely passed that Col. Tom, my husband, and I did not have a game of romps. The grave orderly who sat by the hall-door used to be shocked to see the commanding officer in hot pursuit of us up the steps. The quick transformation which took place when he was called from the frolic to receive the report of the officer of the day was something very ridiculous.

Occasionally he joined those who gathered in our parlor every evening. He had a very keen sense of his social responsibilities as post-commander, and believed that our house should be open at all hours to the garrison. His own studious habits made it a deprivation if he gave up much of his time to entertaining. I learned that in no way could I relieve him so much as by being always ready to receive. He grew to expect that I would be in the parlor at night, and plan whatever diversions we had. I managed to slip away several times in the evening, and go to him for a little visit, or possibly a waltz, while the rest danced in the other room. If I delayed going to him while absorbed in the general amusement, a knock at the door announced the orderly carrying a note for me. Those missives always reminded me of my forgetfulness in some ingenious arrangement of words. When I laughed outright over one of these little scraps, our friends begged me to share the fun with them. It was only a line, and read, "Do you think I am a confirmed monk?" Of course they insisted laughingly upon my going at once to the self-appointed hermit.

We spent the days together almost uninterruptedly during the winter. The garrison gave me those hours and left us alone. My husband had arranged my sewing-chair and work-basket next to his desk, and he read to me constantly. At one time we had read five authorities on Napoleon, whose military career was a never-ending source of interest to him. He studied so carefully that he kept the atlas before him, and marked the course of the two armies of the French and English with pencils of different color. One of his favorite books was a life of Daniel Webster, given him in the States by a dear friend. Anything sad moved him so that his voice choked with emotion, and I have known him lay down the book and tell me he could not go on. One of the many passages in that beautifully written book, which my husband thought the most utterly pathetic of all, was the tribute an old farmer had paid to the dead statesman. Looking down upon the face of the orator for the last time, the old man says, in soliloquy, "Ah, Daniel, the world will be lonesome now you are gone!"

I became so accustomed to this quiet life in the library with my husband that I rarely went out. If I did begin the rounds of our little circle with our girl-friend, whom every one besought to visit them, an orderly soon followed us up. Without the glint of a smile, and in exactly the tone of a man giving the order for a battle, he said, "The general presents his compliments, and would like to know when he shall send the trunks?" I recollect a message of this sort being once brought to us when we were visiting an intimate friend, by the tallest, most formidable soldier in the regiment. It was a mystery to us how he managed to deliver his errand without moving a muscle of his face. He presented the compliments of the commanding officer, and added, "He sent you these." We did not trust ourselves to look up at his lofty face, but took from his extended hands two bundles of white muslin. There was no mistaking the shape; they were our night-dresses. When we hurried home, and took the general to task for making us face the solemn orderly, he only replied by asking if we had intended to stay forever, pointing to his open watch, and speaking of the terrors of solitary confinement!

It was the custom at guard mount every morning to select the cleanest, most soldierly-looking man for duty as orderly for the post-commander. It was considered the highest honor, and really was something of a holiday, as the man detailed for this duty had but little to do, and then had his night in bed; otherwise, belonging to the guard, and being newly appointed every twenty-four hours, he would have been obliged to break his rest to go on picket duty at intervals all night. There was great strife to get this position, and it was difficult for the adjutant to make the selection. He sometimes carried his examination so far as to try and find dust on the carbines with his cambric handkerchief.

Guard mount in pleasant weather, with the adjutant and officer of the day in full uniform, each soldier perfect in dress, with the band playing, was a very interesting ceremony. In Dakota's severe cold it looked like a parade of animals at the Zoo! All were compelled to wear buffalo overcoats and shoes, fur caps and gloves. When the orderly removed these heavy outside wraps, however, he stood out as fine a specimen of manhood as one ever sees. His place in our hall was near the stove, and on the table by his side were papers and magazines, many of which were sent by the Young Men's Christian Association of New York. The general had once met the secretary of the society, and in response to his inquiry about reading-matter, he impressed him by a strong statement of what a treasure anything of the kind was at an isolated post.

There was usually a variety of reading-matter, but one day the orderly stole out to the cook with a complaint. He asked for the general's Turf, Field, and Farm, or Wilkes's Spirit of the Times, which he was accustomed to find awaiting him, and confessed that "those pious papers were too bagoted" for him! He usually sat still all day, only taking an occasional message for the general, or responding to a beckoning invitation from Mary's brown finger at the kitchen-door. There he found a little offering from her of home things to eat. Occasionally, in the evening, the general forgot to dismiss him at taps. After that a warning cough issued from the hall. When this had been repeated several times, my husband used to look up so merrily and say to me it was remarkable how temporary consumption increased after the hour of bedtime had come. When the general had a message to send, he opened his door and rattled off his order so fast that it was almost impossible for one unacquainted with his voice to understand. If I saw the dazed eyes of a new soldier, I divined that probably he did not catch a word. Without the general's noticing it, I slipped through our room into the hall and translated the message to him.

When I returned, and gave my husband the best imitation I could of the manner in which he spoke when hurried, and described the orderly, standing, rubbing his perplexed head over the unintelligible gibberish, he threw himself on the lounge in peals of laughter. While we were in the States, sometimes he was invited to address audiences, but being unaccustomed to public speaking, and easily embarrassed, he made very droll attempts. He realized that he had not the gift of oratory, and I used to wish that he would practise the art. I insisted, that if he continued to speak so fast in public, I would be obliged to stand beside him on the platform as interpreter for his hearers, or else take my position in the audience and send him a sign of warning from there. I proposed to do something so startling that he could not help checking his mad speed. He was so earnest about everything he did, I assured him no ordinary signal would answer, and we finished the laughing discussion by my volunteering to rise in the audience the next time he spoke, and raise an umbrella as a warning to slacken up!