Boots and Saddles/Chapter 27
RELIGIOUS SERVICES.—LEAVE OF ABSENCE.
We had clergymen and missionaries of different denominations as our guests during the summer months. Among them was a man from the East, who was full of zeal and indifferent to the opinion of others as long as he felt that he was right. He began to brave public opinion on his way to Fort Lincoln. The cars had stopped for some time at a station where there was a town; the missionary, wishing to improve every opportunity for doing good, went out on the platform and began a sermon. Before long he had a crowd of people around him, listening with curiosity. There were laughter and sneers when the quavering voice of the old man started a hymn that was familiar throughout the length and breadth of the land. No one joined. Our brother Tom and a friend, sitting in the car, but knowing nothing of the mission of the man, realized his unsupported position, and quickly went to him. Standing on either side of him, they joined their fresh young voices in the hymn. Before long one after the other of the crowd joined in the music, inspired by the independence of the example. The missionary returned then with the officers, and came to our house, where my husband asked him to remain indefinitely. We found him almost a monomaniac on the subject of converting the Indians, and had not the general prevented him from risking his life, he would have gone out alone among the warlike tribes.
While he was waiting for an opportunity to go farther west, he begged to begin meetings among the soldiers, and said that in order to do more good and get at the hearts of those he would help, he must live among them. For this purpose he left us, and went down to share the rations of the enlisted men. The general had a room in a vacant barrack put in order, and there the old man began his work. Every night the garrison echoed with the voices of hundreds of soldiers singing hymns. The simple, unaffected goodness of the missionary caused them to believe in him, and he found his way to many a heart that beat under the army blue. My husband felt thankful to have some work go on among the enlisted men. We often talked of their condition, and he felt that some of the energies of good people in behalf of foreign missions might well be expended upon our army on the frontier. Among his plans was the building of an assembly-room at the post, especially for the soldiers: a place where they could have their own entertainments, and where the papers, magazines, and general library might be kept. He regretted constantly that there was no regular place where there could be services for the men when the itinerant clergyman came. The service was usually held in our parlor, but it was only large enough for the officers and their families. In the following letter he touches upon the subject of bettering the condition of the enlisted men, and bears tribute to the good man who forgot himself in his love for mankind.
"Fort Lincoln, Dakota, September 17, 1875.
"Dear Sir,—I take the liberty of addressing you a few lines in regard to the Christian work in which Mr. Matchett has been engaged at this post. He came here under the auspices of the Indian Bureau, intending to labor among the tribes of the Upper Missouri River, but owing to some obstacles encountered at points above this on the river, he returned here some weeks ago to await further instructions from those under whom he is acting.
"In the mean time he has devoted himself to missionary work among the soldiers—a class, by-the-way, whose moral welfare, at least on the frontier, is as sadly neglected as that of any of our aboriginal tribes. Mr. Matchett enters into his work with great earnestness and zeal. He has impressed all with whom he has been associated with his unselfishness, his honesty of purpose, and his great desire to do good.
"It is but due to him and the holy cause he represents, and a pleasure to me, to testify to the success which has crowned his labors, particularly among the soldiers of this command. If our large posts on the remote frontier, which are situated far from church and Church influences, had chaplains who were as faithful Christians as I believe Mr. Matchett to be, and who, like him, are willing to labor faithfully among the enlisted men, the moral standard, now necessarily so low among that neglected class, would be elevated far above its present level, and great results would follow.
"Hoping you will receive these lines in the spirit which prompts me to send them, I am truly yours,
"G. A. Custer, Brevet Major-General U. S. A."
In the autumn we went into the States, and spent most of the winter delightfully in New York. We went out a great deal. Of course we were compelled to dress very plainly, and my husband made great sport of his only citizen overcoat—an ulster. He declared that it belonged so to the past that he was the only man beside the car-drivers that wore one. It did not disturb him in the least; neither did going in the horse-cars to receptions and dinners. He used laughingly to say, "Our coachman wears our livery, Libbie," when the car-driver had on an army overcoat. No one so perfectly independent as he was could fail to enjoy everything.
Colonel Tom and one of the oldest friends we had in the 7th were with us part of the time, and we had many enjoyable hours together. The theatre was our unfailing delight. They were all desirous that I should see the military play of "Ours," which was then so admirably put on the stage at Wallack's, but dreaded the effect it would have on me. At last one of them said that it was too finely represented for me to miss, and I heard them say to each other, "We must take 'the old lady,' though it will break her heart and she will cry." It ended in my going. When we reached the part in the play where the farewell comes, and the sword is buckled on the warrior by the trembling hands of the wife, I could not endure it. Too often had the reality of such suffering been my own. The three men were crying like children, and only too willing to take me out into the fresh air.
My husband spent many hours with Mr. Barrett in his dressing-room at the theatre, during the long wait of Cassius in the play of "Julius Cæsar." There were forty nights that these friends sat side by side, until the call-boy summoned the actor to the footlights. The general listened every evening with unflagging interest to the acting of his friend.
Every one seemed to vie with every one else in showing appreciation of my husband during that winter. He dined often with men who learned to draw him out in talk of his Plains life. While in the midst of some story, the butler would pass him a dish that he especially liked. The host at once directed the man to pass on, and told my husband that he could not spare time for him to take a second helping while they were impatient for the rest of the tale. After going hungry once or twice, the general learned to dine with me before he left the hotel, so that he might be free to give himself up to others.
He repeated a story to me about Ole Bull, who was asked to dinner and requested to bring his violin. He accepted for himself, but sent word that his violin did not dine. My husband made a personal application of the story, and threatened, playfully, to send word that his Indian stories did not dine, hoping thereby to secure to himself the privilege of satisfying his hunger unmolested. At the Century Club he received from distinguished men the most cordial congratulations on his essay into the literary field. They urged him with many an encouraging word to continue the work. Some of the authors he met there were double his age, and he received each word they said with deep gratitude. My husband knew how I valued every expression of appreciation of him, and he used to awaken me, when he returned, to tell me what was said. He never failed to preface every such hesitating and reluctant repetition by exacting promises of secrecy. He feared that in my wifely pride I might repeat what he told me, and it would look like conceit on his part. I knew that he did not tell me the half, for when the tears of delight dropped from my eyes at the acknowledgment and commendation of others his voice ceased. I felt that nine years was a long time out of a young life to live in the wilderness, away from the sound of approving voices, and the association of men whose very presence incites to new effort. In February we had to say good-bye to all this pleasurable life. Our friends asked us why we went so soon. In army life it is perfectly natural to speak of one's financial condition, and it did not occur to us that civilians do not do the same. I do not wonder now that they opened their eyes with well-bred astonishment when we said we were obliged to go because we had used all the money we had saved for leave of absence.