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CHAPTER II

THE campaign to elect Harry president of the athletic association was quiet but industrious. If a boy found himself walking with a member of the Crown, it was surprising how soon the conversation would turn to a discussion of candidates. The Crown adherent would ask his companion, quite deferentially, what he thought; and if the boy expressed the usual mistaken preference for Rupert Ormsby the Crown man would concede all Rupert's good qualities, but would say that in spite of them Harry Harding seemed to him the best fellow for the place.

If he was a skillful campaigner, he would enlarge upon Harry's excellent qualifications without at all detracting from Rupert's until the last, when he had perhaps got his friend into an agreeable and receptive state. By that time it would be safe, even while admitting Rupert's virtues, to be a little skeptical. As an athlete Rupert was of course all very well, but were there not other things to be considered?

Would not Harry be sure to make a much better speech and say the most graceful thing in the most graceful way? After all, Harry had plenty of interest in athletics, and played games pretty well, considering his lack of weight. He was just as good a fellow as Rupert—better, maybe; he was certainly brighter, and then his brother Clark had been such a splendid person—president of the athletic association and everything else. It would be rather a pleasant thing to let Harry fill his brother's place.

That was the line of argument which Harry's friends adopted, and along which they worked with more or less subtlety. At the outset, as they well knew, the odds were against them. It was difficult to demonstrate to the unprejudiced that Harry Harding had better claims to an athletic presidency than Rupert Ormsby. But the Crown expected by organized and consistent effort to overcome this difficulty. Rupert was conducting no campaign; he was simply favored at the outset by general sentiment.

The fellows in the Crown were most of them popular throughout the school, notwithstanding the fact that they kept pretty much to themselves. Therefore when an obscure and usually neglected boy found one of these busy, popular persons walking with him, or waving an informal hand with unaccustomed familiarity and joining him in preference to some more intimate companion, he thought that it was pleasant and added to the cheerfulness of life. He listened then with a sympathetic interest to this experienced person's confidential opinions, and naturally made an effort to share them.

In such circumstances an attempt to enlist his support for some less attractive candidate than Harry might have succeeded. As it was, the boy was usually willing to make some concession of opinion in Harry's favor. For Harry had the widest and most varied acquaintance of all the boys in the school. As editor of the school paper and president of the literary society and head scholar of his class, he was in touch with the quiet, studious boys; as a cheerful, humorous, and occasionally mischief-making youth, he was always welcome in a gathering of the irresponsible and idle; as an enthusiastic and emulous admirer of the athletes, he was liked by them.

So the reports which his friends brought him grew steadily more favorable; and as the time for the election drew near Harry grew insensibly more covetous of the honor.

The conscientious reluctance which he had had when his friends had first proposed to make him a candidate had quite vanished. He had put down the uncomfortable feeling that his election would be absurd and grotesque, and an injustice to some one else. He set his imagination on that day in June when, after the last race had been run and the prizes had been brought out in front of the spectators' stand, he would step forward with a great red badge on his breast and introduce some famous man—a senator or a cabinet officer, or it might even be the President of the United States himself! For the President was a college friend of the rector's, and had promised to visit the school some time during the year and address the boys. There could not be a more likely occasion than on that of the great school field-day; and Harry dreamed of the honor of standing up before all the school and the visitors and introducing the President of the United States to them. Harry's brother and mother would be in that audience, and would they not be proud of him? Would not the other boys and the parents and the sisters of the other boys admire him and envy him? Even if it was not the President, but only a senator or a cabinet officer! When Harry let himself think of this occasion and all that it would mean to him, his hands grew cold with excitement and a sort of delicious fright, and his lips parted in a happy, dreamy smile, which anybody noticing it would have thought the most winning expression of a gentle, unselfish character.

Well, his thoughts at those moments were in a way tender and unselfish, for perhaps the pleasantest one of all was that about his mother and Clark. He would be glad to make Clark proud of him. For it was through Clark that he was having this last year at St. Timothy's and the chance to enjoy such honors. His mother could not have afforded to send him back; but Clark, traveling round the world as tutor to Archer Sands, who had overworked at school, was supplying the funds at a personal sacrifice. He would be back the first of June. It would make him proud then to see how splendidly his sacrifice had been repaid.

In a matter of so much personal importance, Harry did not stop to wonder if Rupert had dreams and ambitions, too. If he had thought about it at all, he would probably have decided that Rupert was too unimaginative to take any delight in the possibilities which the election would mean.

Francis Stoddard was made aware of the activity on Harry Harding's behalf. One afternoon Stoddard had been at the playgrounds watching the football practice with most of the school. Bruce Watson, who had been looking on with Albree and Stearns, came up and joined him. When the practice was over, Albree called out, "Coming up to the school with us, Bruce?" and Watson answered:—

"No, I'm going to wait and walk up with Frank."

Stoddard was very much pleased—quite touched, in fact. Bruce had not shown any interest in him before for a good while, and this looked like a willingness to resume the former intimacy.

They walked up to the school together, Bruce with his arm laid affectionately across Stoddard's shoulders. And after a time, in the most natural way in the world, Bruce was expressing the idea that Harry Harding would be a mighty good president of the athletic association, and asking Stoddard to vote for him.

"Oh, but, Bruce, Rupert Ormsby's the fellow for it!" Stoddard cried.

"No, I really don't think so," Bruce said, and then he entered carefully upon the stock arguments of the Crown. They had no effect upon Stoddard. At the schoolroom Bruce parted from his friend good-naturedly.

"Well, you'd better think it over, Frank," he urged.

Stoddard lived rather out of the school world, and a good many things went on of which he knew nothing. The day after his friendly little walk with Bruce, however, Nat Belmont opened his eyes. Nat Belmont was shrewd and rather sharp-tongued, and took the cynical interest of an observing outsider in the doings of the Crown. He admired Rupert Ormsby, and having noticed the increasing friendship between Ormsby and Stoddard, he came up to Stoddard before dinner one day, and said:—

"It looks as if the Crown was going to lick Rupert for president."

"How do you mean?" asked Stoddard.

"Why, don't you know? They're going round, buttonholing everybody and asking every one to vote for Harry Harding. Has n't Watson or some one tried it on you?"

The blood rushed to Stoddard's face. So that was why his old friend had walked with him so affectionately the day before—merely to make use of him.

"I did n't know about it," he said.

"Well, it's so. If you can do anything to help Rupert's chances, you'd better."

Do anything! Stoddard wished he could. But no one knew better than himself that he had no influence in the school. He had never done anything to compel respect other than that half-contemptuous kind which boys have for a capacity to get good marks and avoid bad ones. If he undertook to do any electioneering for Rupert he knew he would be regarded as a busybody, and those to whom he made his appeal would be more likely than not to think he was hurting his candidate's chances.

But he was indignant over what he regarded as a conspiracy against Rupert, indignant and grieved at Bruce Watson's duplicity. And with his indignation hot upon him, he went straight to Rupert.

"There's something I think you ought to know," he said. "I've just found out that the Crown fellows are all going round trying to get Harry Harding elected president of the athletic association."

"Yes," said Rupert, rather amused by the boy's indignation, "I've known that. Harry's not much of an athlete, but he's a good fellow, and he'll be all right for president."

"It is n't fair!" cried Stoddard. "You're the only fellow in the school that anybody ever thought of. And now a whole gang is going round, using their influence to defeat you."

"Well," said Rupert, "why should n't they, if they want Harry for president and don't want me? As far as I'm concerned, he's entirely welcome to it. Personally, I would n't lift my finger to be elected."

"But you ought to be," insisted Stoddard.

"Oh, well," Rupert laughed, "it does n't matter. There's nothing to the office. If there were anything to it I might get more stirred up. But it's just an empty honor. I don't care."

Stoddard looked at him with such keen disappointment that again Rupert laughed. Then he put his hand on the boy's shoulder.

"It's good of you, anyway, to take such an interest and want to help," he said. "Thank you, Francis."

"I don't care! I don't believe they can beat you! If there's anything I can do"—Stoddard's emotions were too stirred to permit him to continue. "I'm going to speak to every one I know," he added, after a moment, "though I don't know many."

"Well, don't make yourself unpopular on my account. By the way, I ordered those pins,—for that exclusive society of ours,—and they were to be here this afternoon. Don't you want to walk down to the express office with me and see if they've come?"

They had come; and in the basement of the study building, where the express office was situated, Rupert opened the little package.

"There, what do you think of that?" he asked, with a grin.

It was not an elaborate or even an ornamental pin—merely the two large letters SB twisted together in ordinary copper wire.

"What does it mean?" Stoddard asked.

"How about Society Busters?" Rupert answered. "But we need n't tell anybody; just keep 'em guessing."

At that moment Nat Belmont and Jerry Dorr came down the basement steps to the express office.

"Shall we elect them members?" Rupert whispered, on a sudden inspiration. "I've got a couple of extra pins. These fellows are not in the Crown, and I guess it would amuse them."

"All right," said Stoddard.

Rupert summoned the two boys, and then said to them mysteriously, "Do you fellows want to join the SB?"

"What's that?" asked Belmont.

"A bluff," replied Rupert. "Some people will think it's a secret society, but it is n't. It's nothing. All you do to belong is to wear the SB pin—and keep up the bluff. The members never know whether SB means Society Busters or Secret Bluff, or what. That's all there is to it. Want to join?"

"Sure!" they answered.

Rupert presented them with the insignia.

"Now," he said, "let's put our pins conspicuously on our vests and sally forth into the world. We've got about five minutes before study is called in—just time enough, if we keep together and hold a straight face, to start a nice little sensation."

They marched up the steps and sauntered about in front of the study, with their hands in their pockets and their coats wide open, exhibiting their pins. Francis Stoddard felt quite self-conscious, and had hard work to repress the nervous little smile that was twitching at his lips. A good many fellows seemed to be staring, and that both excited and embarrassed him. But the three other conspirators strolled about with faces that were quite unconcerned.

In a moment the boys were called in to study. Francis went to his desk, which was next to Bruce Watson's. As he sat down, Bruce looked at him curiously.

After an hour of study the master in charge of the room touched a bell, the signal for the five minutes' intermission allowed before the beginning of the second hour.

Instantly a confusion of talk and sound sprang up. Francis, engaged in finishing a Greek exercise, did not immediately leave his seat. When he did rise, Bruce Watson was waiting for him and Rupert Ormsby was coming down the aisle.

"What the dickens is that, Frank?" asked Bruce, putting out his hand and touching the pin. "SB. What's SB?"

Francis glanced up at Rupert for help, and Rupert answered. "SB is an organization of which Frank and I are charter members," he said. "I'm rather surprised you should ask, Watson. You ought to know the proper way to act about such things."

Watson reddened, muttered an apology, and then made off. Rupert winked at Francis, and laughed.

Out in the hall Watson gathered a group of members of the Crown,—Tom Albree, Harry Harding, Joe Herrick, and Frank Windsor.

"Have you noticed the new society?" he asked them excitedly.

"Belmont and Ormsby and that crowd?" said Herrick. "I saw they're flashing a pin on us. You think they've got a society?"

"I know it," said Watson. "I've just been called down by Ormsby for inquiring. I know what it is! He's got it up to buck against the Crown."

"It can't be!" exclaimed Harry. "Rupert told me himself he would n't join the Crown simply because he did n't believe in secret societies. After that he would n't turn right round and organize one."

"He has, though," insisted Watson. "He as much as told me so. He told me he and Stoddard were charter members"—

"I guess," Herrick interrupted, "he found he'd have to get up another society to work for him, or else he'd lose the election. That's it. You see if there is n't a sudden outburst of campaigning for Rupert Ormsby now. And if he is elected, he'll make his society a permanent thing and try to lick the Crown in everything. You see."

"I think you're right," said Albree. "I hope, though, he's started too late."

Herrick's suggestion was most unwelcome to Harry, who was beginning to think, from all that had been told him, that his own election to the presidency of the athletic association was now assured. But if Rupert should suddenly inaugurate an organized effort in opposition, the issue would be placed in doubt. Harry did not feel confident of his own strength. And through the next study hour he sat with an anxious mind, which reproached Rupert for his perfidy. It seemed, after all that Rupert had said, almost incredible that he should have taken this step; yet there was the pin he was wearing as evidence, and the purpose of it seemed to Harry's agitated mind only too clear.

At the end of the hour, when the boys were walking away from the study building, Harry attached himself to Rupert.

"You don't mind my asking, Rupe," he began at once, "what's the meaning of that pin you're wearing?"

"Sh-h!"said Rupert. "We don't talk about such things."

"I thought you disapproved of secret societies," contended Harry.

"There are some things that are not to be discussed," Rupert answered coldly.

"Just the same, I think it's pretty mean of you to talk about the Crown the way you did and then go off and organize another secret society."

"Sh-h!" was Rupert's only reply, and it had such a teasing sound that it made Harry too angry to speak. He left Rupert when they reached the dormitory. Rupert entered and went upstairs to his room.

Harry waited outdoors with three or four other fellows. By and by Joe Herrick arrived, and then Harry accompanied him upstairs. They had rooms in the same wing with Rupert Ormsby.

As they were walking down the long corridor, Francis Stoddard came out of his room, which was the last one in the wing. Herrick advanced, blocking the passage.

"Look here, Stoddard!" he said.

He took Stoddard by the arms and pushed him up against the wall. They happened to be close by Rupert's door, and the transom over the door was open.

Harry lingered out of curiosity. Herrick was always playing pranks with Stoddard, snatching his cap or his books, or holding him when the bell rang, and so making him think he would be late to chapel and get a black mark. Harry did not altogether approve of this treatment, but it had its amusing side, and now he waited with a certain expectancy.

"Let's have a look at this thing you're wearing," Herrick said, and holding Francis hard against the wall with his shoulder and one arm, he reached down with the other hand and unfastened the pin. Francis struggled to prevent him, but Herrick was strong, and held him firmly. When he had secured the pin, Herrick examined it. "What does this cheap thing stand for?"

Francis was silent.

"Not allowed to speak, eh? Some kind of a society. It can't be much if that's the best it can do in the way of a pin. SB. What do you suppose SB stands for, Harry?"

"Something Bum," suggested Harry, with a laugh; and even Stoddard's face, which had been anxious, twitched with an involuntary smile.

"You say Something Bum and I say Sour Boys," said Herrick. "What do you say, Old-Stick-in-the-Mud?"

He jammed Stoddard against the wall in a way that made him gasp. But Stoddard did not speak.

"I think," said Herrick, pocketing the pin, "that we'll keep this beautiful object as a souvenir of the Somewhat Bum Sour Boys. And now maybe you'll tell me what you call it. No? Oh, I think you will."

He began slowly twisting Stoddard's wrist.

At that moment the door by which he was standing opened, and Rupert Ormsby appeared.

"Standing by to see fair play, I suppose, Harry?" Rupert said in a calm voice, and Harry flushed and dropped his eyes. Herrick, startled by this sudden intervention, stood undecided, gripping Stoddard's wrist.

"I don't know why my coming out should make any difference to you, Herrick," Rupert continued. "You were just on the point of doing something. Why don't you go ahead?"

"I was just having a little fun with him," Herrick answered. "I was n't going to hurt him."

"Why, of course not," said Rupert mildly. "You were just going to persuade him to tell you something that you saw he did n't want to tell and that was no business of yours. You were n't going to hurt him at all; you were just going to try the effect of a little torture on him,—for you're nothing but a bully, after all,—and Harry was just going to stand by and be amused!"

"I was n't—you're not fair, Rupe!" cried Harry, choking with mortification and anger.

But he could not say another word in his defense, and Rupert passed him over with an ironical glance. Herrick still kept his grip on Stoddard, but he looked at Rupert with sullen eyes, in which there was as much indecision as wrath.

"You'd better mind your own business!" he said. "You're too fond of butting in."

"That comes well from a fellow who holds up another and takes his pin from him and tries to wring his secret out of him by force," Rupert said scornfully. And in a voice that took on a sudden cutting edge, he cried, "Now, then, you bully, take your hands off that boy!"

Herrick, with a sneer, said, "Are n't we the hero!" and dropped his hands.

"Give him back his pin!" ordered Rupert.

Putting his hand into his pocket, Herrick slowly drew out the pin. And then, instead of passing it over to Stoddard, he flung it the length of the corridor. Rupert sprang upon him, and pinioning his arms, ground him against the wall and held him there as helpless as Herrick had a few moments before been holding Stoddard.

"I have half a mind," said Rupert, speaking between his teeth, "to tear that pin of yours from your vest and throw it out of the window. It's what you deserve. But I'll tell you what you'll do instead; you'll march down there and pick up Stoddard's pin, and you'll pin it on him with your own hands. That's what you'll do."

"I won't!" Herrick said furiously.

"I'll get it, Rupert," Harry said, in a chastened voice, and he started down the corridor.

"You'll let it alone!" cried Rupert. "Get out of the way!"

There was a moment's tussle and then Herrick came flying past Harry down the corridor, propelled by Rupert's weight. He brought up sufficiently hard against the wall at the farther end, and before he could turn, he was again in Rupert's grip.

"There's the pin," said Rupert, swinging him round with some violence. "Pick it up!"

And then Herrick obeyed. Rupert marched him back up the corridor to where Stoddard was standing. "Now pin it on him!" he said, and again Herrick obeyed. But when he had finished he turned toward Rupert a sullen and malignant face.

"You wait!" he said, and his voice was husky with passion. "You wait!"

Then he turned and went down the corridor, downstairs.

Harry loitered awkwardly.

"I'm sorry, Rupe," he said.

"You'd better be," was Rupert's curt reply. "If you really were, you'd say it to Stoddard, not to me."

Harry turned meekly to Stoddard. "I'm sorry, Francis—I am, honestly," he said.

"Oh, that's all right," Stoddard answered. "You did n't do anything."

"Yes, that was just the trouble," was Rupert's harsh observation. "Come along, Frank!" and taking the boy by the arm, he led him away.

Harry turned and went unhappily to his room. He had been stung to the heart by the truth in Rupert's rebuke; and yet he felt that Rupert had been more cruel to him than he deserved.