The Prop

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

From The Saturday Evening Post Vol. 190 No. 27 (January 5, 1918)

Dan Glynn, only son of Margaret Glynn, and Herbert May were alone in the Glynn barn. They sat on two milking stools in the great bay of the barn. A golden haze pervaded the whole interior. The cows were out at pasture, and their stalls emitted the radiant haze in soft curling billows like sunlit smoke. This haze seemed like the breath of garnered grain, a life still surviving the summer of the earth.

The horses were all afield except one. They were working for the winter wheat. Only one long splendid tail switched like a battle plume in one stall. That belonged to Selim, Margaret Glynn's saddle horse. Selim never worked in the fields. He came of too high lineage.

Dan Glynn, great strapping boy, over six feet in height, of magnificent shoulder width and chest depth, sat on his stool, and his face was death white.

The other boy was older — he was scarcely a boy, being nearly twenty-nine — but he was so small and slight that he looked younger than the great Dan, who was twenty-one.

Herbert had a small pretty face, delicate in coloring, and a close crop of golden hair. He had very steady, almost hard, blue eyes. Herbert had a feminine beauty, and people called him Sissy to his face. He never seemed to resent it. He did not. A perfect knowledge of himself made him impervious to the taunt. He knew himself no sissy.

He was regarding Dan keenly and anxiously. Dan sat quite silent with that face of deathlike despair.

Suddenly Herbert spoke, and his voice matched his appearance. It was sweet, clear and small. One would have said that Herbert May had a good tenor voice, whereas in reality he possessed a strong barytone when it came to singing, though he seldom sang. He had little time. He had been employed for eight years on Margaret Glynn's great farm, and she saw to it that her employees earned their wage. He was only idle now because he and Dan had just returned from their examination by the local board. Both had been drafted. Dan was not exempt; Herbert was — his eyes were not good. Glasses would not remedy the serious defect was the opinion of the examining board. The examination had been rather cursory. Herbert was almost convinced that had he possessed Dan's physique his eyes would have escaped notice, especially as their outlook was apparently exceptionally clear.

That was what he said now. “If I'd been as big as you be they wouldn't have cared a durn about my eyes!” said Herbert. He was uneducated. Dan had been at a preparatory school, expecting to enter college. He was not quick at books, not quick at anything except a totally unprofitable imagination, a dangerous imagination. It was playing him tricks now. He nodded. A long shudder crept visibly over him. If possible he turned paler.

“Wish I had passed,” said Herbert.

Dan did not answer. The dreadful shudder crept over him again like a serpent.

“Sick?” asked Herbert.

Dan shook his head. His hair was dark and wonderfully thick, rising in strong curls like springs above his forehead. His hair, like his body, seemed informed with vitality. One would have looked at him and said: “Here is a typical fighting man. His country can find none better.”

Suddenly the strong young shoulders bent, the strong young head was bent on two muscular hands. Then the shoulders heaved.

Herbert regarded him with a complex expression. In it were great love — almost adoration — admiration and protection, also supreme bewilderment. He was bewildered, so bewildered that he felt almost idiotic.

“What's the matter?” he asked.

“I've a good mind to run away and jump into that deep hole in the pond, and be drowned, and done with it,” growled Dan.

Herbert stared, then he spoke again. He spoke timidly; flushing, he stammered: “Don't you — w-want to — go?”

Dan raised his head with a mighty gesture which belied his words.

“Who but a damn fool would want to go and be shot at?” he shouted.

“Better speak low. Your mother might hear.”

“My mother! Don't she know? Pretty son I am for a woman like her. I am a living disgrace to her. She'd have me go if she knew I'd never come back — and I don't blame her!”

“Guess that's the way she'd orter feel,” said Herbert in a sober, reflective voice. “This is a mighty big fight, you know.”

“You bet I know! Haven't I read the papers? Haven't I lain awake nights seeing the horror of it? The liquid fire, the gas! Being blinded, being mutilated! It's hell they're fighting!”

“Guess that's what men were brought into the world for,” said the sober voice. “Guess men have got to face hell, and down it if there's goin' to be a world left fit to live in.”

“Easy for you to talk! You are not going.”

“I want to, bad enough!”

Dan stared at him. His dark eyes looked preternaturally big in his deathly face. “Easy enough to talk!”

“I'm in earnest. I want to go more'n I ever wanted to do anything in my life. I never did do much in my life except be a pretty fair-to-middlin' farmhand; and now's the chance for the feller that's never had it before to raise himself up by his boot straps. Never'll come agin in my day nor yourn.”

“Hope to God it never does! But if it does I shan't be here to see it.” Dan spoke in a voice that was awful because of its despair.

Again the look of almost idiotic wonder came over the other's face. “Look here, mebbe you would look at it different if I was goin' too,” he said.

“You — they won't take you.”

Suddenly Herbert sprang to his feet. A curious transformation came over him. Little, insignificant, almost girlishly pretty man, he looked fairly martial. Courage like electric wires seemed to vibrate through him. He looked hard, strong. His sweet curved mouth became a straight line. “What'll you bet they won't?”

“They won't.”

“Would you — feel — mebbe different if I was to go?”

Dan stared. “Maybe I might, a little,” he admitted.

“You see I've been here ever since you were a kid, just a kid twelve years old. You've got used to me. Of course it ain't that you're afraid, but you are a high-strung sort of chap, and sometimes strangeness gets on nerves.”

Dan nodded. He flushed a little.

“You better go in the house and sit down and have a smoke. This bein' examined is sort of tryin',” said Herbert. “You do that, and I'll go get the cows. The other men are pretty busy, and I ain't done nothin' on account of that examination.”

Dan had hardly gone and Herbert donned his overalls when Margaret Glynn entered and stood in the golden haze. She was a middle-aged woman, very tall and large and nobly handsome.

“I suppose my son passed,” she said in an even voice.

“Yes ma'am.”

“And you did not?”

“My eyes made me get left.”

Margaret Glynn looked at Herbert, and he knew what her look meant.

“He'll be all right as soon as he gets used to the strangeness,” he said.

“He never will. His father was drafted for the Civil war, and he was exempted. The examining doctor was a friend of my husband's.”

The woman's voice was sad and bitter. Herbert said nothing.

“My husband lived for years after,” Margaret went on. “My son is like his father. I have tried to make him different, but blood will tell, and weak blood is sometimes the strongest to endure.”

“It is strange to him.”

“It will never be anything else. Dan would never fight like other boys. There is no fight in him — and look at him, look at his size and strength, and no fight when the world is at stake!”

“I am going too.”

“You did not pass.”

“I am going to pass; then he will get over the strangeness.”

“Your eyes!”

“Let me go to the city to-morrow and be fitted with glasses. Then I'll get in all right. If I go he'll be all right. He ain't —”

The pink-faced man hesitated.

“I know he is just the word you don't dare say,” said the woman uncompromisingly. “He is a coward.”

The man gazed at her resentfully. “He's your own son.”

“I know it — and I still say it.”

“I guess you ain't right, Mis' Glynn.”

“You dare to tell me Dan is not a coward?”

“Yes ma'am! He ain't a coward the way you mean. Dan, he wouldn't be a bit afraid to die if he saw he ought to. He ain't afraid of what is; he's afraid of what ain't. He gets what is and what ain't mixed up. He's fit this war over in his mind about a thousand times; and a thousand wars would be too much for any man's spunk.”

Margaret regarded him thoughtfully. “You mean he imagines things?”

Herbert nodded. “Yes ma'am. Poor Dan has lost more legs than a spider, and more eyes than a fly, and he's been burned up by more gas than all Germany owns; and as for trenches, Dan has been livin' in a trench all the while he's been sleepin' in his own bed and eatin' his good meals. Dan ain't a coward. He's just fit more than any mortal man can stand before he gets into camp. But if I go, too, I can fix it up all right. He listens to me. He gets his feet on hard facts. I have to work pretty hard sometimes, but I always make out.”

Go to the city and get fitted with glasses, and pass the examination if you can,” said Margaret. “If I were a man I would go, and leave Dan to mind the farm.”

“If you did he would be fighting with you harder than you could,” said Herbert.

Margaret looked at him gratefully. “Maybe you are right. I suppose a man does understand another man better than a woman can. You see I don't know myself what fear is.”

“I don't,” replied Herbert May simply; “but I do understand what the fear of fear is. Do you want Selim?”

“Back him out, please. I've got to ride down to the village about that plumbing. I can't get the plumber on the telephone, and the gutters on the south side of the roof must be seen to before the next rain.”

Margaret rode out of the golden haze of the great barn, and Herbert went after the cows. The men in the field taunted him.

“Hullo, Sissy!” they called out.

“Hullo!” returned Herbert good-naturedly.



“Sissy's got eyes too bad to see the Germans!” a lout of a young boy called.

Herbert, marshaling the Jerseys and Holsteins into a crowding, plunging army through the field, laughed. “You wait!” he sang back.

“Glynn passed, I suppose,” another man shouted. “Bet he's tickled most to death.”

Herbert looked back, and his eyes flashed with menace. “You speak like that again and you won't be tickled most to death,” he said in a hard voice.

Every man there knew Herbert's temper, and in his heart was afraid of it.

“I didn't mean nothin', Herb,” said the man, pale under his furze-like growth of reddish beard.

“Don't say it, then! Hold your damned tongue if you know what your hide's worth!”

Herbert went out of sight, flourishing a stick over the red-brown and mottled backs of the cattle.

“Pity he couldn't go to war,” said the red-bearded one.

“Reckon he'd fight all right,” said the lout.

“Fight? Fight? He'd fight, little and pretty as he is, till all was blue. Say, that little feller's got a dangerous temper.”

The lout nodded. He had encountered that temper.

Herbert had his supper by himself in the kitchen with Abby, the maid. She tried to converse about the draft, but he was noncommittal. “Poor Mr. Dan!” said Abby.

“He's tickled most to pieces to go,” said Herbert fiercely. “Like to know what you say poor for?”

Abby stared. She had lived in the Glynn family since Dan was born. She said feebly that it did not seem to her that Mr. Dan was just the kind to go to war.

“Why not, I'd like to know?” cried Herbert.

“He never used to fight like other little boys when he was a child.”

“Don't follow he won't fight like a man, now he ain't a child and the biggest war on earth is on,” said Herbert.

He pushed his chair back abruptly and ran up the back stairs. He was to take an early train to the city the next morning, and had some preparations to make. Dan came in while he was putting studs in a clean shirt.

“Get your kit ready. I'll be with you,” Herbert said gayly.

“You don't know.”

“Yes, I do know. Say, Dan!” Herbert when alone with the other man called him Dan familiarly.

Dan looked at him. The ghastly pallor had gone from Dan's face and his fresh color returned, but his eyes were tragic, full of shrinking horror.

“Don't you let on to your ma what you let on to me. No need of pretendin' you're crazy to go — lots of men ain't. It ain't goin' to be no peach of a job and anybody with sense knows it, but he don't need to say so. You'll fight if you have to. You know that.”

Dan flushed. “Of course I will.”

“Don't I know it? The trouble with you is you're fightin' now before you're drilled or know a darned thing about it. You jest say you'll fight if you've got to, and don't go round lookin' as if you didn't want to; and leave the rest to Almighty Providence and me.”

Herbert chuckled as he put in the last stud.

“What are you laughing at?” asked Dan.

“Why, that sounded jest like the Kaiser, that's all; and I don't set up to be no Kaiser. All I set up to do is to fight him and what he stands for — and I'm goin' to do it!” He looked keenly at Dan. “So are you too!” he said.

Dan nodded, and his young face looked strangely confident, as if the courage of the other had been contagious.

Next morning Herbert went to the city, and all day Mrs. Glynn worked over her son's outfit. Dan kept closely at home. He read and smoked a good deal. Herbert returned rather late, equipped with glasses. He was radiant.

“Say,” he announced to Dan, who met him in his little runabout, “I never knew before what it was to really see. I've been a darned fool not to get these glasses before.”

“Suppose they get smashed?”

“I've got three pairs just alike. Reckon I can keep goin' between 'em all. I don't guess the Germans are all going to take aim at my specs first thing, anyhow. They might if they knew how much fight I've got in me. Ain't I growed sence mornin', Dan? Lord, I feel like a giant! I've got glasses, and I ain't got corns, and the lack of one and the havin' t'other goes a long way to making a man think he ain't a fightin' character. Lord, I'd face Golia'h and knock him into the middle of next week!”

Dan laughed faintly.

“You can laugh, but I'd do it!” said Herbert.

“Do you think you can pass now?”

“You jest hold your hosses till about this time day after to-morrer. I've got to have to-morrer off too. I've got a little work to do.”


“Never you mind.”

Herbert got his day off, and spent it in his room. The next day he went down to the village, and returned triumphant. He had passed. Margaret Glynn called him into the south room, where she sat sewing. Dan was smoking in the little conservatory which opened out of it.

“Well, I'm off, Mis' Glynn!” said Herbert; and stood soldier-wise, his glasses reflecting the light.

She stared at him, incredulous. She paled a little. She was fond of the boy, who had grown to be a man in her home; and his attitude toward her son roused all the gratitude in her nature.

“How did you manage?”

“Doctor Wadsworth said he guessed I might have a try at it, anyhow.”

“Doctor Wadsworth is always glad to get on the other side of other people. Did you have your eyes tested again?”

“Yes ma'am!”

“And passed the test?”

“Passed A 1 with these glasses.”

“I'll see to it that you have things — things that I am getting ready for Dan too,” said Margaret Glynn. There was respect in her voice.

That night Herbert dined with her son and herself. “If you are to be a comrade of my son's in camp it is time to make no distinctions here,” she said.

“Thank you, ma'am,” replied Herbert.

His table manners were excellent. Herbert's English was not unexceptionable; but many great soldiers have not been remarkable for knowledge of even their native tongue. After dinner, at Margaret's request, Herbert sat in the library and smoked with Dan while she sewed under the electric lamp in the south room.

“Say, old chap, how in thunder did you manage the test?” whispered Dan. He looked better. His voice was steady. Herbert grinned. “Never you mind. I passed!”

Nobody ever knew that Herbert had memorized the eye chart during a night and day. He considered that a bit of knowledge better kept to himself. Excellent as the glasses were, he had not dared quite trust them; but his memory, though he was uneducated, was reliable.

Luckily the two were in the same company and barrack in camp. They were not often seen together. Herbert kept himself to himself; and Dan made many friends naturally among the officers and the privates from higher walks of life. Herbert worked hard, and was underestimated. He did not resent the new nickname which was soon fastened upon him because of his pretty girllike face and small size. When Herbert heard the boys call him Mayflower he smiled imperturbably. Dan took it in a different fashion. He flushed and was suddenly silent. When next he saw Herbert alone he touched upon the subject.

“Say, Herb, do you mind the boys' calling you Mayflower?” he asked.

“Not a bit!”

“Because if you do —” There was a strange expression on Dan's face. Herbert regarded him curiously.

“No need to get excited over that,” he said easily. “Keep your dander for the Germans. What do I care what they call me? I keep right on bein' myself for the little I'm worth.

“They can call me any old thing as long as it's straight American; and Mayflower is, all right. Might have drawn the line at cornflower.”

Dan eyed him anxiously. “Sure?”


The steady blue eyes gleamed through the spectacles at Dan, who realized, as always under that look of faithful affection and encouragement, a strange stimulus. Dan seemed to be slowly changing his very nature. The commands of his officers were as nothing to him beside the subtler ones of his mother's ex-farmhand.

Dan thrived in camp. He had a splendid physique, and the life suited him. Whether he would have flagged had it not been for Herbert he did not know. Sometimes when among the boys and at his gayest the old horror — born of the dreadful and splendid mother of horror, imagination — came over him. Sometimes at drill it might have mastered him had he not met the other eyes, blue and steady behind the spectacles.

Herbert was not thriving, not physically. There was a strain of bodily weakness in him, though he was soul-strong. He caught a severe cold and was threatened with pneumonia. He endeavored to escape notice, but his cough betrayed him, and he was sent to the hospital. He escaped pneumonia, but while he was running neck and neck with it the tragedy happened in camp. A sentry was shot at his post one night, and the murderer escaped. The sentry had been one of Dan and Herbert's company. His bed had stood next to Dan's.

The sick man was free from any chance of pneumonia, yet far from well when he heard the news.

The nurse who told him could not understand his consternation. He had expected some, of course, for the whole camp was shocked, but he had not expected quite such an effect as this.

“My God!” said Herbert May, and sank back on his pillow.

“Was Lee anything especial to you — any relation? Did you know him before you came here?” asked the nurse.

“Never set eyes on him!” replied Herbert weakly, and had a coughing spell.

The nurse summoned the doctor, who found Herbert had a slight temperature.

“What ails you, Mayflower?” he asked facetiously. He was a very young man. “You hadn't a speck of temperature this morning.”

“I'm all right. I want to get up.”

“You stay just where you are, Mayflower, my son.”

“I want to get up.”

“Get up nothing! I'll have you sent to the kitchen and sweat your cold off scouring pots and kettles if you don't lie still.”

The kitchen was the penance of the camp for all committers of small peccadillos. The kitchen appealed to Herbert. It spelled a way out of a difficulty for him. “Wish you would send me there!” he muttered.

“I'll send you to the guardhouse if you are so keen on the kitchen,” said the doctor jocosely. “Here, drink this, Mayflower, and bloom in your bed till I say you may get out of it.”

Herbert lay back. He could do nothing else, but he was wild with dismay. The desire to get well and out of the hospital was fierce within him. He seemed to feel that strong soul of his working its way upon his body. When the doctor came again he had no fever; still the orders were to keep quiet.

That afternoon Dan came to see him. His face had the expression which Herbert dreaded to see upon it. His eyes looked unnaturally large and bright and as if they saw beyond earthly horizon limits. His mouth sagged at the corners, long chills of nervousness crept visibly over his great frame. His hands trembled.

Herbert's bed was in a corner next a window, which was open a little way. The day was clear. A tall screen separated his bed from the next, the occupant of which had just been discharged. He also had been suffering from a cold, and the slight degree of isolation possible in case of pneumonia had been adopted. It was a foolish screen, donated by a foolish, loving woman. She had covered it with gray cotton, and etched upon it with blue thread: “If you write to no other, write home to your mother.”

Herbert, whose mother had died before he could remember her, had grinned slightly as he saw it. Then for some reason it got on his nerves, perhaps because the simple gushing soul had etched after the word mother an idiotic little house with smoke ascending from the chimney, and a cat half as large as the house walking toward it, entirely out of perspective. However, to-day he was very glad of the screen.

Dan bent over him. “How are you, old chap?”

“All right. I want to get up, but the doc won't let me.”

Dan gazed at him, and the horror of his soul seemed to spread over his face like a film. “Have you heard?”

Herbert nodded.

“Have they caught the man yet?”

Dan shook his head. He continued to look at Herbert with that dreadful film of horror over his face. Then he spoke in a harsh whisper, bringing out one word at a time: “I've — got — to — be — sentry — that — same — place — to-night.”

Herbert's face changed swiftly. It was incredibly sweet, with a smile of encouragement. “I'll be along,” he whispered.

“You can't!”

“I will!”


“Never you mind. I'll be along. Put it out of your mind. I'll be along!”

Dan eyed him dubiously. He bent close and whispered again: “I am not really afraid, you know.”

“Yes, I know. Wouldn't bother with you if you were.”

“I don't think I'm afraid of dying. I suppose I haven't been any too good, but I never hurt anybody in my life unless I did it not knowing, and — I believe you know — I believe in God, and something after this, more — worth while. Honest, Herb, I don't think I am afraid exactly. It's something else.”

“You've mounted guard about fifty-two hours on a stretch ever since — it happened,” whispered Herbert, “and — you're dead tired, and you ain't yourself.”

“How did you know?”

“Because I know you. Can't you stop doing things before you do 'em, Dan?”

Dan looked bewildered. “I've been that way all my life,” he said. “I reckon nothing can stop me now, except some big thing I've never been able to conjure up.”

“That ought to happen.”

“I must go,” said Dan.

“I'll be there. Put it out of your mind.”

“Don't see how I can.”

“Put it into my mind.”

Dan stared hard at the boy in the bed, and a strange look as of one released came over his face. “Seems a caddish sort of thing to do — and you ill.”

“It ain't wrong when I've got the sort of mind I have and you've got your sort.”

There was a full moon that night. There was also a white frost. The world was beautiful. Dan was at his post on time, and immediately he heard a soft rustle behind him in a slight undergrowth.

“It's me!” said a voice in the ghost of a whisper. “Don't you turn. Don't you answer. You keep still, but I'm here. I shan't get cold. I wrapped the blanket round me — dressed too. Keep still! I'm here!”

The night wore on, radiant, vocal with a high north wind. Orion seemed to threaten with his starry sword, moving on high, immortal warrior of the sky. The Polar Star seemed to beckon like a celestial finger to heights above earth and earth's sordid misery. The hoar frost thickened until the slender trees and bushes bloomed white and sparkling.

Dan went his rounds. All the time he knew Herbert was there, and felt shamed and exultant at the same time.

It happened suddenly. Dan stood before the other man lying huddled in the bushes, and it seemed to him as if something were moving besides the wind-blown trees across the road.

“Don't shoot!” came the ghost of a whisper.

“Something —”

“Don't shoot!”

“Something — something —”

“There ain't a blessed thing there. Don't shoot!”

“Something — Look, look!”

“What you see you make up. There ain't nothin'. Don't shoot!”

Suddenly Dan's face was upon the anxious one of the other man in the bushes, and it was as the face of a maniac — wild, unreasoning. “You mean to say there's nothing?”

“Nothin' but what you see in your own mind. Don't shoot! You'll have the whole camp out and — they'll know —”

“There is something! I see it!”

“There ain't nothin' but your own self you see. Don't shoot! Don't shoot!”

Then Dan burst out with a shout. It was a wonder that he did not rouse the whole camp: “Then if what I see is myself I see a damned coward, no matter what excuses you frame up for him in his own nature! A coward that has no right in the United States Army, and, by God, I will shoot!”

Dan aimed at what he had been seeing either in reality or in his strained fancy, and fired.

The place was immediately alive with men. Herbert crawled away, and was in his bed when the nurse came.

“Seems somebody's been prowling round where Lee was shot,” the nurse said excitedly. “Glynn fired, but nothing doing when it comes to finding what he hit. Glynn's out there yet, hunting. Seems possessed to find something. Got some nerve, that chap has.”

Herbert said nothing. The nurse eyed him sharply, and used his clinical thermometer. “Say, Mayflower, you've got temperature again!” he announced. “You ain't going to be of much use bringing kings to their knees and playing football with crowns while you spank 'em with their scepters. You'll have to light out home, Mayflower. You ain't a weed, by a long shot, but you'll have to be weeded out.”

“I want to get up.”

“You lay still!”

Then the doctor came. “Hullo, Mayflower! What's to pay?” he asked gayly.

“Temperature again, sir,” said the nurse.

“Have you been out of bed, Mayflower?”

“No sir,” lied Herbert calmly.

“That chap from your town thought he saw something and fired. He was on guard where Lee was murdered. Did you hear the rumpus?”

Herbert nodded.

“That sent your temperature up. Well, if anybody was there he made his getaway. They're combing the bushes. Bushes! Ought to be cut down! Fool thing to have bushes there. That Glynn has got nerve. Seems as if he couldn't give up. Rushes ahead of the others. Might have been shot a dozen times. He ought to be promoted. No, you can't get up. You keep still!”

“Who said I wouldn't?” said Herbert — and sobbed like a girl.

“Say, Mayflower, you are a little pet,” said the doctor. “This is no life for you, sonny.”

“Will he be promoted?”

“I'd give heavy odds on it.”

The next day Herbert's temperature was normal, but he was weak and depressed. He had been ordered home.

“Some cute examining board they've got in your town,” said the doctor. “Wonder they didn't send Thomas cats. You meant all right, Mayflower; you have been a little sport, but you can't stand this.”

Then Dan came. “Congratulations, corporal,” said the doctor, and shook hands with Dan as he went out.

“I've got to go,” whispered Herbert pitifully.

“I know it. Don't you mind. You go home and look after mother, and she'll look after you. You'll have a soft snap with her after this.”

“You —” began Herbert, but Dan checked him with a great laugh of triumphant freedom.

“Me!” said Dan in a whisper, but a whisper that sang. “Don't you mind me, Herb! I'm all right now. I shall stick to this war if it lasts till I'm eighty; and all I want now is to sail for France. I did think I saw something last night. I hunted after I fired. I hunted for all I was worth. There wasn't a thing. You were right. What I saw was my own chicken-hearted self.

“They think I didn't kill anything last night. There's where they're dead wrong. I did, I did! I killed a damned coward, and there's one more man to fight for the United States of America. I'm all right now. Go home, dear old chap; let mother nurse you up, and you look after her, and tell her her son is a soldier and loves his country better than he loves her.”