The Honorable Erastus Hopkins was thoroughly enjoying his campaign.
He was not an especially popular man in his district, and he knew it. Physically he was big and stout, with a florid face and small eyes that blinked continually. His head was bald, his hands fat and red and his feet enormous.
To offset this Mr. Hopkins wore a silk hat and a "Prince Albert" coat morning, noon and night. His gold watch-chain was huge and imposing; he had a big diamond shirt-stud, and upon his puffy fingers several rings. He conveyed, nevertheless, the impression that he was more prosperous than refined, and the farmers and townsmen were as quick to recognize this as was Mr. Watson himself.
Moreover, the Honorable Erastus was dubbed "close-fisted" by his neighbors. He never spent a penny on anyone but himself, and being unscrupulous in politics he was naturally unscrupulous in smaller things of a business nature. But since he had risen from a stable-boy to his present affluent position he had never been unwise or careless enough to be caught in any crooked action; and while his acquaintances had an indefinite fear of dealing with him they could not accuse him openly.
It seems strange that such a man should have been chosen to represent a wealthy and important district in the State Legislature, but politics can show many a similar case. In the first place, Mr. Hopkins was aggressive, and knew political methods thoroughly. He had usurped the position of Democratic leader in his community and the others were afraid to antagonize him openly. When he was nominated for Representative he managed to dictate, by shrewd methods, the nomination of Thompson, the store-keeper, on the Republican ticket. Thompson owed Hopkins a large sum of money and Hopkins held a mortgage on the stock. Therefore Thompson dared not make a fight, and although the Republican vote was normally the largest in the district, Hopkins had managed to win enough of them to his side to win.
He had been a little anxious about his renomination, because he knew that he had not represented his district very satisfactorily; but when Kenneth Forbes received the nomination on the Republican ticket he felt that "all was over but the shouting" and that he would "win in a walk." Had it been an issue between the personality of the two men, Hopkins would have had little chance of success; but young Forbes had already raised another issue by his anti-sign speech at the school-house, and Hopkins intended to force that issue and so defeat Kenneth because of the ridicule the latter's position had already brought upon him.
He began to circulate humorous stories about Kenneth's antipathy to sign-boards, saying that the young man demanded that the signs be taken off the Zodiac, and that he wouldn't buy goods of the village grocer because the man had a sign out.
Mr. Hopkins also printed thousands of large hand-bills reading "The Signs of the Times vs. Aristocratic Snobbery. Vote for the Hon. Erastus Hopkins, the man who believes in advertising."
These things had their effect upon all classes of people. There were many good-natured laughs at young Forbes's expense. All this was soon realized at Elmhurst, and had the effect of plunging the youthful aspirant for political honors into the depths of despair. The campaign was hot against him, but Kenneth made no defense.
At this juncture, with election but three weeks away, he received a telegram asking him to send the drag and baggage wagon to the noon train. It was signed by John Merrick, and the boy was overjoyed at the prospect of seeing his jolly old friend again. And the girls? Well, some of them surely must be coming, or Uncle John wouldn't have asked for the drag.
"Now then, the election can go to blazes," said Kenneth, cheerfully, to Mr. Watson. "The sight of some friendly faces will be a great relief."
The old lawyer sighed. His attempt to "wake up" Kenneth had resulted in failure, mainly because the boy had become discouraged so early in the game. Kenneth felt keenly the humiliating experiences he had passed through, and had sunk back into his old moody reserve.
But here was a welcome diversion. The visitors, whoever they might prove to be, would afford relief to the situation and brighten the dullness of life at the big house. So both Kenneth and Mr. Watson were with the drag at the station when the noon train drew in.
And there were Patsy Doyle, Beth DeGraf, and Louise Merrick, a bevy of dainty and sprightly girls, alighting eagerly from the coaches, with Uncle John handing out the grips and packages and giving the checks for the baggage, with business-like celerity, to Thomas the groom.
"We've come for a visit, Ken!" cried Palsy, laughing at his eager delight. "Are you glad to see us, boy? And do you suppose old Martha has our rooms aired?"
"And it's a long visit, too," added Uncle John, "as you'll believe when you see the pile of baggage. You'd think these minxes were prepared for a tour of the world. Each one of 'em brought a carload of clothes."
But they couldn't phase Kenneth in that way. His sensitive face had not beamed with so much animation for months.
The guests were helped into the tall drag and merrily they drove the five miles to Elmhurst, not a word of politics being spoken on the way.
The girls had not been to the house since Aunt Jane's death, two years ago, and after a hasty luncheon they began an inspection of every room, as well as the garden, grounds and stables. The horses, cows, pig and chickens were alike inspected, the roses and dahlias visited and admired, and after all this they returned to their rooms with old Martha, the housekeeper, and proceeded to unpack their trunks and get settled. Kenneth had been their guide and companion in these various explorations, but when the girls went to their rooms he wandered into the library where Uncle John and Mr. Watson had been having a quiet talk over their pipes of tobacco. They welcomed the young man, but adroitly turned the topic of conversation, and again the subject of was rejoined.
It was a merry dinner party that graced the table during dinner that evening, and the boy forgot his troubles and was as jolly and sociable as he had ever been in his life.
But when they were all assembled in the long living room where they grouped themselves around the fireplace, a sudden change took place in the demeanor of the young ladies. Patsy, the delegated leader, looked gravely at the boy and asked:
"How goes the campaign, Ken?"
"Wh—what campaign?" he stammered, to gain time.
"Why, this election business. Tell us about it," said Patsy.
"Some other time, girls," answered the boy, red and distressed. "It—it wouldn't interest you a bit."
"Why not?" asked Louise, softly.
"Because it doesn't interest me," he replied.
"Are you so sure of election?" inquired Beth.
"I'm sure of defeat, if you must know," he declared, scowling at the recollection of his predicament.
"You haven't been cowardly enough to give up?" asked Patricia, boldly.
"What do you mean by that, Patsy Doyle?" he asked, the scowl deepening.
"Just what I say, Ken. A brave man doesn't know when he's beaten, much less beforehand."
He looked at her fixedly.
"I'm not brave, my dear," he replied, more gently than they had expected. "The people here don't understand me, nor I them. I'm laughed at and reviled, a subject for contemptuous jeers, and—and it hurts me. I don't like to be beaten. I'd fight to the last gasp, if I had any show to win. But these conditions, which I foolishly but honestly brought about myself, have defeated me so far in advance that I have absolutely no hope to redeem myself. That's all. Don't speak of it again, girls. Play me that nocturne that I like, Beth."
"We've got to speak of this, Kenneth, and speak of it often. For we girls have come down here to electioneer, and for no other reason on earth," declared Patsy.
"What! You electioneer?"—a slight smile curled his lips.
"Exactly. We're here to brace up and get to work."
"And to win," added Beth, quietly.
"And to put you in the Legislature where you belong," declared Louise.
Kenneth turned to Mr. Merrick.
"Talk to them, Uncle John," he begged.
"I have," said the little man, smiling, "and they've convinced me that they mean business. It's all up with you, my boy, as a private citizen. You're as good as elected."
Ken's eyes filled.
"You're all very kind, sir," he said, "as you were bound to be. And—and I appreciate it all—very much. But Mr. Watson will tell you that the case is hopeless, and there's nothing to be done."
"How about it, Watson?" inquired Uncle John, turning to the lawyer.
"I'll explain the proposition, sir, so you will all understand it," he replied, and drew his chair into the circle. "To begin with, Kenneth visited the glen one day, to make a sketch, and found his old table-rock covered with an advertising sign."
"How preposterous!" exclaimed Louise.
"There were three of these huge signs in different parts of the glen, and they ruined its natural beauty. Kenneth managed to buy up the spaces and then he scrubbed away the signs. By that time he had come to detest the unsightly advertisements that confronted him every time he rode out, and he began a war of extermination against them."
"Quite right," said Patsy, nodding energetically.
"But our friend made little headway because the sympathies of the people were not with him."
"Why not, sir?" inquired Beth, while Kenneth sat inwardly groaning at this baring of his terrible experiences.
"Because through custom they had come to tolerate such things, and could see no harm in them," replied the lawyer. "They permit their buildings which face the roads to be covered with big advertisements, and the fences are decorated in the same way. In some places a sign-board has been built in their yards or fields, advertising medicines or groceries or tobacco. In other words, our country roads and country homes have become mere advertising mediums to proclaim the goods of more or less unscrupulous manufacturers, and so all their attractiveness is destroyed. Kenneth, being a man of artistic instincts and loving country scenes, resented this invasion of commercialism and tried to fight it."
"And so ran my head against a stone wall," added the young man, with a bitter laugh.
"But you were quite right," said Patsy, decidedly. "Such things ought not to be permitted."
"The people think differently," he replied.
"Then we must educate the people to a different way of thinking," announced Louise.
"In three weeks?"
"That is long enough, if we get to work. Isn't it, girls?" said Beth.
"Kenneth accepted the nomination with the idea of having a law passed prohibiting such signs," explained the lawyer. "But Mr. Hopkins, his opponent, has used this very thing to arouse public sentiment against him. Farmers around here are thrifty people, and they fear to lose the trifling sums paid them for the privilege of painting signs on their premises."
Patsy nodded gravely.
"We will change all that," she said. "The thing is really more serious than we expected, and more difficult. But we came here to work and win, and we're going to do it. Aren't we, Uncle John?"
"I'll bet on your trio, Patsy," replied her uncle. "But I won't bet all I'm worth."
"It's all foolishness," declared Kenneth.
"I do not think so," said the lawyer, gravely. "The girls have a fine show to win. I know our country people, and they are more intelligent than you suppose. Once they are brought to a proper way of thinking they will support Kenneth loyally."
"Then we must bring them to a proper way of thinking," said Patsy, with decision. "From this time on, Ken, we become your campaign managers. Don't worry any more about the matter. Go on with your painting and be happy. We may require you to make a few speeches, but all the details will be arranged for you."
"Do you intend to permit this, Uncle John?" asked Kenneth.
"I'm wholly in sympathy with the girls, Ken, and I believe in them."
"But consider the humiliation to which they will subject themselves! I've had a taste of that medicine, myself."
"We're going to be the most popular young ladies in this district!" exclaimed Patsy. "Don't you worry about us, Ken. But tell me, how big is your district?"
"It includes parts of three counties—Monroe, Washington and Jackson Counties."
"What county is this?"
"No; only a few towns. It's mostly a rural district. Fairview, just across the border in Washington County, is the biggest village."
"Have you an automobile?"
"No; I don't like the things. I've always loved horses and prefer them to machines."
"How much money are you prepared to spend?"
"How much—what's that?" he asked, bewildered.
"You can't win a political election without spending money," declared Patsy, wisely. "I'll bet the bad man is scattering money in every direction. It will cost something on our side to run this campaign in a way to win."
The young man frowned.
"I don't mind spending money, Patsy," he said, "but I don't approve of buying votes, and I won't allow it, either!"
"Tut-tut! Who said anything about buying votes? But we're going to work on a broad and liberal basis, I assure you, and we need money."
"Spend all you like, then, so long as you don't try to corrupt the voters."
"Very good. Now, then, how much land do you own at Elmhurst?"
Kenneth looked inquiringly at the lawyer.
"About twelve hundred acres," said Mr. Watson. "It is divided into small farms which are let out on shares."
"How many votes do you control among your servants and tenants?" proceeded Patsy, in a business-like tone.
"Perhaps thirty or forty."
"And what is the total vote of the district?"
"Fully that many," said Mr. Watson, smiling.
"Then we've got to have over seventeen hundred and fifty votes to elect Kenneth?"
The girl drew a long breath and looked at Beth and Louise. Then they all laughed.
"Suppose you resign as campaign managers," said Kenneth, beginning to be amused.
"Oh, no! It's—it's easier than we expected. Isn't it, girls?"
"It's child's play," observed Louise, languidly.
The boy was astonished.
"Very well," said he. "Try it and see."
"Of course," said Patsy, cheerfully. "Tomorrow morning we begin work."