When Kenneth got home he told Mr. Watson of his discovery and asked the old gentleman to write to the sign painter and find out what could be done. The lawyer laughed heartily at his young friend's whim, but agreed to help him.
"If you are going to try to prevent rural advertising," he remarked, "you'll find your hands full."
Kenneth looked up smiling.
"Thank you," he said.
"For finding me something to do. I'm sick of this inaction."
Again the lawyer laughed.
"What is your idea?" he asked.
"To remove such eyesores as advertising signs from the neighborhood of Elmhurst."
"It's a Titan's task, Ken."
"So much the better."
The lawyer grew thoughtful.
"I believe it's impossible," he ventured.
"Better yet. I don't say I'll succeed, but I promise to try. I want something to occupy myself – something really difficult, so that I may test my own powers."
"But, my dear boy! This foolish proposition isn't worthy your effort. If you want to be up and doing we'll find something else to occupy your mind."
"No, Mr. Watson; I'm set on this. It's a crime to allow these signs to flaunt themselves in our prettiest scenes. My instinct revolts at the desecration. Besides, no one else seems to have undertaken the task of exterminating them."
"True enough. If you're serious, Ken, I'll frankly say the thing can't be done. You may, perhaps, buy the privilege of maintaining the rocks of the glen free from advertising; but the advertisers will paint more signs on all the approaches, and you won't have gained much."
"I'll drive every advertising sign out of this country."
"Impossible. The great corporations who control these industries make their fortunes by this style of advertising. The rural districts are their strongholds. And they must advertise or they can't sell their products."
"Let them advertise in decent ways, then. What right has any soap maker to flaunt his wares in my face, whether I'm interested in them or not?"
"The right of custom. People have submitted to these things so long that the manufacturers consider themselves justified in covering every barn, rock and fence with their signs. I see no way to stop them."
"Nor I, at present. But there must be a way."
"Drive out one, and another will take his place. They pay liberally for locations – "
"Pshaw! Ten dollars a year for a rock as big as a barn!"
"But they rent thousands of such positions, and in the aggregate our farmers get large sums from them."
"And ruin the appearance of their homes and farms."
Mr. Watson smiled.
"They're not artists, Ken. They can't realize on appearances, but they can use the money the signs bring them."
"They need to be educated, that's all. These farmers seem very honest, decent fellows."
"They are, Ken. I wish you knew them better."
"So do I, Mr. Watson. This campaign ought to bring us closer together, for I mean to get them to help me."
"You'll have to buy them, I'm afraid."
"Not all of them. There must be some refinement among them."
But the lawyer was not convinced. However, it was not his desire to stifle this new-born enthusiasm of Kenneth's, even though he believed it misdirected. He wanted the young man to rouse himself and take an interest in life, and if his antagonism to advertising signs would effect this, the futile fight against them was to be welcomed. It would cost the boy something, but he would gain his money's worth in experience.
After a few days the sign painter answered the letter. He would relinquish the three signs in the glen for a payment of fifty dollars each, with the understanding that no other competing signs were to take their place. Kenneth promptly mailed a check for the amount demanded and early next morning started for the glen with what he called his "eliminators."
These "eliminators" consisted of two men with cans of turpentine and gasoline and an equipment of scrubbing brushes. Parsons, the farmer, came over to watch this novel proceeding, happy in the possession of three crisp five-dollar notes given in accordance with the agreement made with him. All day the two men scrubbed the rocks faithfully, assisted at odd times by their impatient employer; but the thick splashes of paint clung desperately to the rugged surface of the rock, and the task was a hard one. When evening came the letters had almost disappeared when viewed closely; but when Kenneth rode to the mouth of the glen on his way home and paused to look back, he could see the injunction "Take Smith's Liver Pills" staring at him, in grim defiance of the scrubbing brushes.
But his energy was not exhausted. No one ever knew what it cost in labor and material to erase those three signs; but after ten days they had vanished completely, and the boy heaved a sigh of satisfaction and turned his attention to extending the campaign.
On the farm nearest to Elmhurst at the north, which belonged to a man named Webb, was a barn, facing the road, that displayed on its side a tobacco sign. Kenneth interviewed Mr. Webb and found that he received no money for the sign; but the man contended that the paint preserved his barn from the weather on that side. So Kenneth agreed to repaint the entire barn for him, and actually had the work done. As it took many coats of paint to blot out the sign it was rather a expensive operation.
By this time the campaign of the youthful proprietor of Elmhurst against advertising signs began to be talked of throughout the county, and was the subject of much merriment among the farmers. Some of them were intelligent enough to admire the young Quixote, and acknowledged frankly that it was a pity to decorate their premises with signs of patent medicines and questionable soaps.
But the majority of them sneered at the champion, and many refused point-blank to consider any proposition to discard the advertisements. Indeed, some were proud of them, and believed it a mark of distinction to have their fences and sheds announce an eye-remedy or several varieties of pickles.
Mr. Watson, at first an amused observer of the campaign, soon became indignant at the way that Kenneth was ridiculed and reviled; and he took a hand in the fight himself. He decided to call a meeting of the neighboring farmers at the district school-house on Saturday night, where Kenneth could address them with logical arguments and endeavor to win them over to his way of thinking.
The invitation was promptly accepted by the rural population; not so much because they were interested in the novel ideas of the young artist as because they expected to be amused by hearing the boyish master of Elmhurst "lecture at 'em." So they filled the little room to overflowing, and to add to the dignity of the proceedings the Hon. Erastus Hopkins, State Representative for the district, lent his presence to the assemblage.
Not that the Honorable Erastus cared a fig about this foolish talk of exterminating advertising signs. He was himself a large stockholder in a breakfast-food factory, which painted signs wherever it could secure space. These signs were not works of art, but they were distinctly helpful to business, and only a fool, in the opinion of the Honorable Erastus, would protest against the inevitable.
What brought the legislator to the meeting was the fact that he was coming forward for re-election in November, and believed that this afforded a good chance to meet some of his constituents and make a favorable impression. So he came early and shook hands with everyone that arrived, and afterward took as prominent a seat as possible.
Indeed, the gathering had at first the appearance of being a political one, so entirely did the Representative dominate it. But Mr. Watson took the platform and shyly introduced the speaker of the evening.
The farmers all knew Mr. Watson, and liked him; so when Kenneth rose they prepared to listen in respectful silence.
Usually a young man making his maiden speech is somewhat diffident; but young Forbes was so thoroughly in earnest and so indignant at the opposition that his plans had encountered that he forgot that it was his first public speech and thought only of impressing his hearers with his views, exulting in the fact that on this occasion they could not "talk back," as they usually did in private when he tried to argue with them. So he exhorted them earnestly to keep their homes beautiful and free from the degradation of advertising, and never to permit glaring commercialism to mar the scenery around them. He told them what he had been able to accomplish by himself, in a short time; how he had redeemed the glen from its disgraceful condition and restored it to its former beauty. He asked them to observe Webb's pretty homestead, no longer marred by the unsightly sign upon the barn. And then he appealed to them to help him in driving all the advertising signs out of the community.
When he ended they applauded his speech mildly; but it was chiefly for the reason that he had spoken so forcibly and well.
Then the Honorable Erastus Hopkins, quick to catch the lack of sympathy in the audience, stood up and begged leave to reply to young Forbes.
He said the objection to advertising signs was only a rich man's aristocratic hobby, and that it could not be indulged in a democratic community of honest people. His own firm, he said, bought thousands of bushels of oats from the farmers and converted them into the celebrated Eagle-Eye Breakfast Food, three packages for a quarter. They sold this breakfast food to thousands of farmers, to give them health and strength to harvest another crop of oats. Thus he "benefited the community going and coming." What! Should he not advertise this mutual-benefit commodity wherever he pleased, and especially among the farmers? What aristocratic notion could prevent him? It was a mighty good thing for the farmers to be reminded, by means of the signs on their barns and fences, of the things they needed in daily life.
If the young man at Elmhurst would like to be of public service he might find some better way to do so than by advancing such crazy ideas. But this, continued the Representative, was a subject of small importance. What he wished especially to call their attention to was the fact that he had served the district faithfully as Representative, and deserved their suffrages for renomination. And then he began to discuss political questions in general and his own merits in particular, so that Kenneth and Mr. Watson, disgusted at the way in which the Honorable Erastus had captured the meeting, left the school-house and indignantly returned to Elmhurst.
"This man Hopkins," said Mr. Watson, angrily, "is not a gentleman. He's an impertinent meddler."
"He ruined any good effect my speech might have created," said Kenneth, gloomily.
"Give it up, my boy," advised the elder man, laying a kindly hand on the youth's shoulder. "It really isn't worth the struggle."
"But I can't give it up and acknowledge myself beaten," protested Kenneth, almost ready to weep with disappointment.
"Well, well, let's think it over, Ken, and see what can be done. Perhaps that rascally Hopkins was right when he advised you to find some other way to serve the community."
"I can't do better than to make it clean – to do away with these disreputable signs," said the boy, stubbornly.
"You made a fine speech," declared Mr. Watson, gravely puffing his pipe. "I am very proud of you, my lad."
Kenneth flushed red. He was by nature shy and retiring to a degree. Only his pent-up enthusiasm had carried him through the ordeal, and now that it was over he was chagrined to think that the speech had been so ineffective. He was modest enough to believe that another speaker might have done better.
"This man Hopkins gets on my nerves," said Mr. Watson, a week or two after the eventful meeting in the school-house. He was at the breakfast table opposite Kenneth, and held up a big, glaring post-card which was in his mail.
"What is it now?" asked the boy, rousing himself from a fit of abstraction.
"An announcement offering himself for renomination at the primaries. It's like a circus advertisement. Isn't it a shame to think that modern politics has descended to such a level in our free and enlightened republic?"
Kenneth nodded, stirring his coffee thoughtfully. He had lost his spirit and enthusiasm since the meeting, and was fast relapsing into his old state of apathy and boredom. It grieved Mr. Watson to note this.
"Hopkins isn't fit to be the Representative for this district," observed the old gentleman, with sudden energy.
The boy looked at him.
"Who is Hopkins?" he asked.
"His mother once kept a stationery shop in town, and he was stable boy at the hotel. But he was shrewd and prospered, and when he grew up became a county-clerk or tax-collector; then an assessor, and finally he ran last term for State Representative from this district and was elected by a mighty small majority."
"Why small?" asked Kenneth.
"Because he's a Democrat, and the district is strongly Republican. But Thompson ran against him on the Republican ticket and couldn't win his party vote."
"The general store keeper. He has a reputation for short weights and measures."
The boy sipped his coffee thoughtfully.
"Tell me, sir; how did you happen to know all this?" he asked.
"I've been looking up Hopkins's record. I have disliked the man ever since he treated us so shabbily on the night of the meeting."
"Never mind him. We've done with him."
Mr. Watson shifted uneasily in his chair.
"I wonder if we have?" he said.
"Why not, sir?"
"Well, Kenneth, we have to reside at Elmhurst, which is Hopkins's district. Also I believe Elmhurst to be the most important estate in the district, and you to be the largest taxpayer. This man wishes to go to the State Legislature and make laws for you to obey."
"Well, it's our duty to watch him. If he isn't a fit man it's our duty to prevent him from representing us."
The young man nodded somewhat dreamily.
"Some of these country yokels must represent us," he observed. "It doesn't matter much whether it's Hopkins or someone else."
"Except that you, being a prominent man, owe it to the community to protect its interests," added the lawyer.
"Do you want me to mix in these petty politics?" asked the boy, irritably.
"Oh, do as you like, my boy. If you can shirk your duties with a clear conscience, I've nothing to say."
For a time the young man was silent. Finally he asked:
"Why isn't Hopkins a good Representative?"
"He's what is called a 'grafter'; a term signifying that he is willing to vote for any measure that he is paid to vote for, whether it benefits his constituents or not."
"Oh. Is he singular in this?"
"By no means. The 'grafter' is all too common in politics."
Again the boy fell into a thoughtful mood.
"Mr. Watson, am I a Democrat or a Republican?"
The old gentleman laughed outright.
"Don't you know, Ken?"
"No, sir, I haven't asked myself before."
"Then I advise you to be a Republican."
"Because Hopkins is a Democrat, and we may then fight him openly."
"What is the difference, sir, between the two parties?"
"There is no difference of importance. All Americans are loyal citizens, whichever side they adopt in politics. But the two parties are the positive and negative poles that provide the current of electricity for our nation, and keep it going properly. Also they safeguard our interests by watching one another."
"What is your preference, sir?"
"I've always been a Republican, whenever I dabbled in politics, which hasn't been often."
"Then I will be a Republican."
"I am sorry to say that I know nothing about politics and have no convictions on the subject. Who is to oppose the Honorable Erastus on the – on our side?"
"I don't know yet. The primaries for the nomination are not to be held for two weeks, and the Republican candidates seem shy about coming forward."
"Didn't you say the district was Republican?"
"Yes; but since Hopkins defeated them last term they seem to be terrified, and no one likes to offer himself as a possible sacrifice."
"That feeling will probably elect Mr. Hopkins," declared Kenneth, with conviction.
"Unless – "
"Unless what, sir?"
"Unless we come to the rescue of the Republicans and take a hand in local politics ourselves, my lad."
Kenneth pushed back his chair and rose from the table. He walked to the window and stood there whistling for a few moments, and then left the room without a word.
For a time Mr. Watson sat silently musing.
"Perhaps I'm inviting trouble," he murmured; "but I am sure I am doing right. The boy needs a good shaking up and more knowledge of his fellow-men. If I can get Kenneth interested, this plan of mine will be of great benefit to him."
Then he, too, left the breakfast table, and wandering into the garden saw Kenneth busy at his easel in a shady corner.
For a day or so the, subject was not resumed, and then Mr. Watson casually introduced it.
"A law could be passed in the State Legislature forbidding the display of all advertising signs in public places in this county," he suggested.
The boy looked at him eagerly.
"Are you sure?" he asked.
"I am positive," was the answer. "It is merely a question of privilege."
"And you think we might hire Hopkins to pass such a law?"
"No; we couldn't trust him."
"Then what do you propose?"
"I'll think it over, my lad, and let you know."
Then he walked away, leaving Kenneth much pleased with the idea he had advanced. Indeed, he was so much interested in the suggestion that he himself referred to the subject at the first opportunity.
"I don't like to be beaten, sir, once I've undertaken to do a thing," he said. "So if such a law can be passed I'll do all I can to elect the man who will pass it."
"I thought as much," the old lawyer replied, smiling. "But there's only one man who could go to the legislature with enough influence to win the votes to carry such a unique measure through."
"And who is that, sir?"
"Kenneth Forbes, the owner of Elmhurst, and the largest taxpayer in the county."
"You're the man."
"A State Representative?"
"It's an honorable office. It's an important office, properly filled. You might not only beautify your district by having those objectionable signs prohibited, but do many other things to better the condition of the farmers. And that isn't all."
"What's the rest, Mr. Watson?"
"You owe something to yourself, lad. All your young life you've been too self-contained and exclusive in your habits. 'The noblest study of mankind is man.' It would broaden you to go into politics for a time, and do much to develop your character and relieve the monotony of your existence."
"It won't be easy, you know. It'll be a fight, and a hard one, for Hopkins won't give up his job if he can help it."
The boy brightened again.
"I like a good fight," he said, wistfully. "If I thought – if I believed I could fill the position with credit – I might undertake it."
"I'll answer for that," retorted the old man, highly pleased with his easy victory. "You win the fight, Ken, and I'll guarantee you'll outclass the majority of your fellow Representatives. It's a good state, too."
So the thing was undertaken, and both the young man and the old threw themselves into the contest with energy and determination.
Mr. Watson rode in his buggy all over their district during the next fortnight, and interviewed the farmers and townsmen of the legislative district. When it became noised about that the young owner of Elmhurst, now barely twenty-one, had determined to enter politics, and asked for the nomination of Representative, no other Republican ventured to oppose him.
It was understood to mean a hard fight, and even the most sturdy Republican was inclined to fear that the present incumbent of the office would be elected to succeed himself.
So the primaries were held and Kenneth attended and made a speech, and was warmly applauded. His nomination was a matter of course, and he went home the unanimous choice of his party, because none of the older and more discreet politicians ventured to risk defeat.
The Hon. Erastus Hopkins well knew this feeling, and smiled in his pompous and most sardonic manner when he learned who was his opponent. Having conquered an old and tried Republican warrior in the last campaign, he had no fears in regard to this mere boy, who could know little of political intrigue.
"He won't put up enough of a fight to make it interesting, I'm afraid," Mr. Hopkins confided to his cronies.
But he didn't intend to take chances, so he began the campaign with his usual vigor.
It was now the middle of September, and the election was to be early in November.