Boots and Saddles/Chapter 19

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Boots and Saddles by Elizabeth Bacon Custer
Chapter 19

CHAPTER XIX.

GENERAL CUSTER'S LIBRARY.

The order came early in the season to rebuild our burned quarters, and the suggestion was made that the general should plan the interior. He was wholly taken up with the arrangement of the rooms, in order that they might be suitable for the entertainment of the garrison. Though he did not enter into all the post gayety, he realized that ours would be the only house large enough for the accommodation of all the garrison, and that it should belong to every one. It was a pleasure to watch the progress of the building, and when the quartermaster gave the order for a bay-window, to please me, I was really grateful, The window not only broke the long line of the parlor wall, but varied the severe outlines of the usual type of army quarters.

On one side of the hall was the general's library, our room and dressing-room. The parlor was opposite, and was thirty-two feet in length. It opened with sliding-doors into the dining-room, and still beyond was the kitchen. Up-stairs there was a long room for the billiard-table, and we had sleeping-rooms and servant-rooms besides. To our delight, we could find a place for everybody. Space was about all we had, however; there was not a modern improvement. The walls were unpapered, and not even tinted; the windows went up with a struggle, and were held open by wooden props. Each room had an old-fashioned box-stove, such as our grandfathers gathered round in country school-houses. We had no well or cistern, and not even a drain, while the sun poured in, unchecked by a blind of even primitive shape. It was a palace, however, compared with what we had been accustomed to in other stations, and I know we were too contented to give much thought to what the house lacked.

My husband was enchanted to have a room entirely for his own use. Our quarters had heretofore been too small for him to have any privacy in his work. Ho was like a rook, in the sly manner in which he made raids on the furniture scattered through the rooms, and carried off the best of everything to enrich his corner of the house. He filled it with the trophies of the chase. Over the mantel a buffalo's head plunged, seemingly, out of the wall. (Buffaloes were rare in Dakota, but this was one the general had killed from the only herd he had seen on the campaign.) The head of the first grisly that he had shot, with its open jaws and great fang-like teeth, looked fiercely down on the pretty, meek-faced jack-rabbits on the mantel. (My husband greatly valued the bear's head, and in writing to me of his hunting had said of it: "I have reached the height of a hunter's fame—I have killed a grisly.") Several antelope heads were also on the walls. One had a mark in the throat where the general had shot him at a distance of six hundred yards. The head of a beautiful black-tailed deer was another souvenir of a hunt the general had made with Bloody Knife, the favorite Indian scout. When they sighted the deer they agreed to fire together, the Indian selecting the head, the general taking the heart. They fired simultaneously, and the deer fell, the bullets entering head and heart. The scout could not repress a grunt of approval, as the Indian considers the white man greatly his inferior as a hunter or a marksman. A sand-hill crane, which is very hard to bring down, stood on a pedestal by itself. A mountain eagle, a yellow fox, and a tiny fox with a brush—called out there a swift—were disposed of in different corners. Over his desk, claiming a perch by itself on a pair of deer-antlers, was a great white owl. On the floor before the fireplace, where he carried his love for building fires so far as to put on the logs himself, was spread the immense skin of a grisly bear. On a wide lounge at one side of the room my husband used to throw himself down on the cover of a Mexican blanket, often with a dog for his pillow. The camp-chairs had the skins of beavers and American lions thrown over them. A stand for arms in one corner held a collection of pistols, hunting-knives, Winchester and Springfield rifles, shot-guns and carbines, and even an old flint-lock musket as a variety. From antlers above hung sabres, spurs, riding-whips, gloves and caps, field-glasses, the map-case, and the great compass need on marches. One of the sabres was remarkably large, and when it was given to the general during the war it was accompanied by the remark that there was doubtless no other arm in the service that could wield it. (My husband was next to the strongest man while at West Point, and his life after that had only increased his power.) The sabre was a Damascus blade, and made of such finely-tempered stel that it could be bent nearly double. It bad been captured during the war, and looked as if it might have been handed down from some Spanish ancestor. On the blade was engraved a motto in that high-flown language, which ran:

“Do not draw me without case;
 Do not sheath me without honor.”

Large photographs of the men my husband loved kept him company on the walls; they were of General McClellan, General Sheridan, and Mr. Lawrence Barrett. Over his desk was a picture of his wife in bridal dress. Comparatively modern art was represented by two of the Rogers statuettes that we had carried about with us for years. Transportation for necessary household articles was often so limited it was sometimes a question whether anything that was not absolutely needed for the preservation of life should be taken with us; but our attachment for those little figures, and the associations connected with them, made us study out a way always to carry them. At the end of each journey we unboxed them ourselves, and sifted the sawdust through our fingers carefully, for the figures were invariably dismembered. My husband’s first occupation was to hang the few pictures and mend the statuettes. He glued on the broken portions and moulded putty in the crevices where the biscuit had crumbled. Sometimes he had to replace a bit that was lost, and, as be was very fond of modelling, I rather imagined that he was glad of an opportunity to practise on our broken statuettes.

My husband, like many other men who achieve success in the graver walks of life, could go on and accomplish his ends without being dependent on the immediate voice of approval. In all the smaller, more trifling acts of daily life he asked for a prompt acknowledgment. It amused me greatly, it was so like a woman, who can scarcely exist without encouragement. When he had reset an arm or modelled a cap I could quite honestly praise his work.

On one occasion we found the head of a figure entirely severed from the trunk. Nothing daunted, he fell to patching it up again. I had not the conscience to promise him the future of a Thorwaldsen this time. The distorted throat, made of unwieldy putty, gave the formerly erect, soldierly neck a decided appearance of goitre. My laughter discouraged the impromptu artist, who for one moment felt that a “restoration” is not quite equal to the original. He declared that he would put a coat of gray paint over all, so that in a dim corner they might pass for new. I insisted that it should be a very dark corner! Both of the statuettes represented scenes from the war. One was called “Wounded to the Rear,” the other, “Letter Day.” The latter was the figure of a soldier sitting in a cramped, bent position, holding an inkstand in one hand and scratching his head for thoughts, with the pen. The inane poise of his chin as he looked up into the uninspiring air, and the hopeless expression of his eyes as he searched for ideas, showed how unusual to him were all efforts at composition.

We had a witty friend who had served with my husband during the war. Many an evening in front of our open fire they fought over their old battles together. He used to look at the statuette quizzically, as he seated himself near the hearth, and once told us that he never saw it without being reminded of his own struggles during the war to write to his wife. She was Southern in sympathies as well as in birth, but too absolutely devoted to her husband to remain at her Southern home. When he wrote to her at the North, where she was staying, it was quite to be understood that there was a limit to topics between them, as they kept strictly to subjects that were foreign to the vexed question. To the army in the field, the all-absorbing thought was of the actual occurrences of the day. The past was for the time blotted out; the future had no personal plans in the hearts of men who fought as our heroes did. And so it came to pass that the letters between the two, with such diversity of sentiment regarding the contest, were apt to be short and solely personal. How the eyes of that bright man twinkled when be said, “I used to look just like that man in the Rogers statuette, when I was racking my brains to fill up the sheet of paper. My orders carried me constantly through the country where my wife’s kin lived. Why, Custer, old man, I could not write to her and say, ‘I have cut the canal in the Shenandoah Valley and ruined your mother’s plantation;’ or, ‘Yesterday I drove off all your brother’s stock to feed our army.’ 0f course one can’t talk sentiment on every line, and so I sometimes sent off a mighty short epistle.”

We often lounged about my husband’s room at dusk without a lamp. The firelight reflected the large glittering eyes of the animals’ heads, and except that we were such a jolly family, the surroundings would have suggested arenas and martyrs. I used to think that a man on the brink of mania a potu, thrust suddenly into such a place in the dim flickering light, would be hurried to his doom by fright. We loved the place dearly. The great difficulty was that the general would bury himself too much, in the delight of having a castle as securely barred as if the entrance were by a portcullis.

When he had worked too long and steadily I opened the doors, determined that his room should not resemble that of Walter Scott. An old engraving represents a room in which but one chair is significantly placed. In our plans for a home in our old age we included a den for my husband at the top of the house. We had read somewhere of one like that ascribed to Victor Hugo. The room was said not even to have a staircase, but was entered by a ladder which the owner could draw up the aperture after him.