Boots and Saddles/Chapter 15
GENERAL CUSTER’S LITERARY WORKS.
When my husband began to write for publication, it opened to him a world of interest, and afterwards proved an unfailing source of occupation in the long Dakota winters. I think he had no idea, when it was first suggested to him, that he could write. When we were in New York, several years before, he told me how perfectly surprised he was to have one of the magazine editors seek him out and ask him to contribute articles every month. And a few days after he said, “I begin to think the editor does not imagine that I am hesitating about accepting his offer because I doubt my ability as a writer, but because he said nothing about payment at first; for to-day,” he added, not yet over his surprise at what seemed to him a large sum, “he came again and offered me a hundred dollars for each contribution.” We at once seemed to ourselves bonanzas. Many times afterwards we enjoyed intensely the little pleasures and luxuries given us by what his pen added to the family exchequer.
On the frontier, where the commanding officer keeps open house, he has little opportunity to have more than a passing glimpse of his pay accounts, so quickly do they go to settle table expenses. It made very little difference to us, though; our tastes became more simple each year that we lived so much out-of-doors. There was little dress competition in garrison, and in no way could we enjoy the general’s salary more than in entertaining.
At our first post after the war, the idle tediousness of the life was in such contrast to the whirl and dash of the years just passed that the days seemed insupportable to my husband. While there we entertained a charming officer of the old school. His experience and age made me venture to speak to him confidentially of the sympathy I felt for the aimlessness of my husband’s life. I was in despair trying to think of some way in which to vary the monotony; for though be said little, I could see how he fretted and chafed under such an existence. The old officer appreciated what I told him, and after thinking seriously for a time, urged me to try and induce him to explore new territory and write descriptive articles for publication. When the actual offer came afterwards, it seemed to me heaven-sent. I used every persuasive argument in my power to induce him to accept. I thought only of its filling up the idle hours. I believed that he had the gift of a ready writer, for though naturally reticent, he could talk remarkably well when started. I had learned to practise a little stratagem in order to draw him out. I used to begin a story and purposely bungle, so that, in despair, he would take it up, and in rapid graphic sentences place the whole scene before us. Afterwards he was commended for writing as he talked, and making his descriptions of plains life “pen pictures.”
The general said to me that it was with difficulty he suppressed a smile when his publisher remarked to him that his writing showed the result of great care and painstaking. The truth was, he dashed off page after page without copying or correcting. He had no dates or journal to aid him, but trusted to his memory to take him back over a period of sixteen years. I sat beside him while he wrote, and sometimes thought him too intent on his work to notice my going away. He would follow shortly, and declare that he would not write another line unless I returned. This was an effectual threat, for he was constantly behind, and even out there heard the cry for “copy” which the printer’s devil is always represented as making. I never had anything to do with his writing, except to be the prod which drove him to begin. He used to tell me that on some near date he had promised an article, and would ask me solemnly to declare to him that I would give him no peace until he had prepared the material. In vain I replied that to accept the position of “nag” and “torment” was far from desirable. He exacted the promise.
When he was in the mood for writing, we used langhingly to refer to it to each other as “genius burning.” At such times we printed on a card, “this is my busy day,” and hung it on the door. It was my part to go out and propitiate those who objected to the general shutting himself up to work.
While my father lived, he used to ask me if I realised what an eventful life I was leading, and never ceased to inquire in his letters if I was keeping a journal. When the most interesting portions of our life were passing, each day represented such a struggle on my part to endure the fatigues and hardships that I had no energy left to write a line when the evening came. My husband tried for years to incite me to write, and besought me to make an attempt as I sat by him while he worked. I greatly regret that I did not, for if I had I would not now be entirely without notes or dates, and obliged to trust wholly to memory for events of our life eleven years ago.
When my husband returned from the East in the spring of 1876 he had hardly finished his greeting before he said, “Let me get a book that I have been reading, and which I have marked for you.” While he sought it in his travelling-bag I brought one to him, telling him that I had underlined much of it for him, and though it was a novel, and he rarely read novels, he must make this book an exception. What was our surprise to find that we had selected the same story, and marked many of the same passages! One sentiment which the general had enclosed with double brackets in pencil, was a line spoken by the hero, who is an author. He begs the heroine to write magazine articles, assuring her she can do far better than he ever did.
Once, when on leave of absence, the general dined with an old officer, whose high character and long experience made whatever he said of real value. He congratulated my husband on his success as a writer, but added, with a twinkle in his eye, “Custer, they say that your wife wrote the magazine articles.” “If they say that,” replied my husband, “they pay me the highest compliment that I could possibly receive.” “Ah, well,” replied the generous friend, “whoever wrote them they certainly reflect great credit on the family.” My husband wrote much, but was not a voluble talker. As I have said, most of the entertaining devolved upon me, and the fact that I often spoke of the scenes in his “Life on the Plains” that we had shared together, must have been the reason why some persons listening to the oft-repeated stories ascribed the book to me.
As for my congratulations, the very highest meed of praise I could give him was that he had not taken the opportunity offered in describing his life in the book to defend himself against the unjust charges of his enemies. I had found that they expected and dreaded it, for “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and military people are quick to realize it. My husband appreciated my having noticed what he studied to avoid, though while I commended, I frankly owned I could not have been equal to the task of resisting what could not but be a temptation to retaliate.