Chapter I. A Problem

"Where are the children?"

"They can't be far away," replied my wife, looking up from her preparations for supper. "Bobsey was here a moment ago. As soon as my back's turned he's out and away. I haven't seen Merton since he brought his books from school, and I suppose Winnie is upstairs with the Daggetts."

"I wish, my dear, you could keep the children at home more," I said, a little petulantly.

"I wish you would go and find them for me now, and to-morrow take my place--for just one day."

"Well, well," I said, with a laugh that had no mirth in it; "only one of your wishes stands much chance of being carried out. I'll find the children now if I can without the aid of the police. Mousie, do you feel stronger to-night?"

These words were spoken to a pale girl of fourteen, who appeared to be scarcely more than twelve, so diminutive was her frame.

"Yes, papa," she replied, a faint smile flitting like a ray of light across her features. She always said she was better, but never got well. Her quiet ways and tones had led to the household name of "Mousie."

As I was descending the narrow stairway I was almost overthrown by a torrent of children pouring down from the flats above. In the dim light of a gas-burner I saw that Bobsey was one of the reckless atoms. He had not heard my voice in the uproar, and before I could reach him, he with the others had burst out at the street door and gone tearing toward the nearest corner. It seemed that he had slipped away in order to take part in a race, and I found him "squaring off" at a bigger boy who had tripped him up. Without a word I carried him home, followed by the jeers and laughter of the racers, the girls making their presence known in the early December twilight by the shrillness of their voices and by manners no gentler than those of the boys.

I put down the child--he was only seven years of age--in the middle of our general living-room, and looked at him. His little coat was split out in the back; one of his stockings, already well-darned at the knees, was past remedy; his hands were black, and one was bleeding; his whole little body was throbbing with excitement, anger, and violent exercise. As I looked at him quietly the defiant expression in his eyes began to give place to tears.

"There is no use in punishing him now," said my wife. "Please leave him to me and find the others."

"I wasn't going to punish him," I said.

"What are you going to do? What makes you look at him so?"

"He's a problem I can't solve--with the given conditions."

"O Robert, you drive me half wild. If the house was on fire you'd stop to follow out some train of thought about it all. I'm tired to death. Do bring the children home. When we've put them to bed you can figure on your problem, and I can sit down."

As I went up to the Daggetts' flat I was dimly conscious of another problem. My wife was growing fretful and nervous. Our rooms would not have satisfied a Dutch housewife, but if "order is heaven's first law" a little of Paradise was in them as compared to the Daggetts' apartments. "Yes," I was told, in response to my inquiries; "Winnie is in the bed-room with Melissy."

The door was locked, and after some hesitation the girls opened it. As we were going downstairs I caught a glimpse of a newspaper in my girl's pocket. She gave it to me reluctantly, and said "Melissy" had lent it to her. I told her to help her mother prepare supper while I went to find Merton. Opening the paper under a street lamp, I found it to be a cheap, vile journal, full of flashy pictures that so often offend the eye on news-stands. With a chill of fear I thought, "Another problem." The Daggett children had had the scarlet fever a few months before. "But here's a worse infection," I reflected. "Thank heaven, Winnie is only a child, and can't understand these pictures;" and I tore the paper up and thrust it into its proper place, the gutter.

"Now," I muttered, "I've only to find Merton in mischief to make the evening's experience complete."

In mischief I did find him--a very harmful kind of mischief, it appeared to me. Merton was little over fifteen, and he and two or three other lads were smoking cigarettes which, to judge by their odor, must certainly have been made from the sweepings of the manufacturer's floor.

"Can't you find anything better than that to do after school?" I asked, severely.

"Well, sir," was the sullen reply, "I'd like to know what there is for a boy to do in this street."

During the walk home I tried to think of an answer to his implied question. What would I do if I were in Merton's place? I confess that I was puzzled. After sitting in school all day he must do something that the police would permit. There certainly seemed very little range of action for a growing boy. Should I take him out of school and put him into a shop or an office? If I did this his education would be sadly limited. Moreover he was tall and slender for his age, and upon his face there was a pallor which I dislike to see in a boy. Long hours of business would be very hard upon him, even if he could endure the strain at all. The problem which had been pressing on me for months--almost years--grew urgent.

With clouded brows we sat down to our modest little supper. Winifred, my wife, was hot and flushed from too near acquaintance with the stove, and wearied by a long day of toil in a room that would be the better for a gale of wind. Bobsey, as we called my little namesake, was absorbed--now that he was relieved from the fear of punishment--by the wish to "punch" the boy who had tripped him up. Winnie was watching me furtively, and wondering what had become of the paper, and what I thought of it. Merton was somewhat sullen, and a little ashamed of himself. I felt that my problem was to give these children something to do that would not harm them, for do something they certainly would. They were rapidly attaining that age when the shelter of a narrow city flat would not answer, when the influence of a crowded house and of the street might be greater than any we could bring to bear upon them.

I looked around upon the little group for whom I was responsible. My will was still law to them. While my little wife had positive ways of her own, she would agree to any decided course that I resolved upon. The children were yet under entire control, so that I sat at the head of the table, commander-in-chief of the little band. We called the narrow flat we lived in "home." The idea! with the Daggetts above and the Ricketts on the floor beneath. It was not a home, and was scarcely a fit camping-ground for such a family squad as ours. Yet we had stayed on for years in this long, narrow line of rooms, reaching from a crowded street to a little back-yard full of noisy children by day, and noisier cats by night. I had often thought of moving, but had failed to find a better shelter that was within my very limited means. The neighborhood was respectable, so far as a densely populated region can be. It was not very distant from my place of business, and my work often kept me so late at the office that we could not live in the suburb. The rent was moderate for New York, and left me some money, after food and clothing were provided, for occasional little outings and pleasures, which I believe to be needed by both body and mind. While the children were little--so long as they would "stay put" in the cradle or on the floor--we did not have much trouble. Fortunately I had good health, and, as my wife said, was "handy with children." Therefore I could help her in the care of them at night, and she had kept much of her youthful bloom. Heaven had blessed us. We had met with no serious misfortunes, nor had any of our number been often prostrated by prolonged and dangerous illness. But during the last year my wife had been growing thin, and occasionally her voice had a sharpness which was new. Every month Bobsey became more hard to manage. Our living-room was to him like a cage to a wild bird, and slip away he would, to his mother's alarm; for he was almost certain to get into mischief or trouble. The effort to perform her household tasks and watch over him was more wearing than it had been to rock him through long hours at night when he was a teething baby. These details seem very homely no doubt, yet such as these largely make up our lives. Comfort or discomfort, happiness or unhappiness, springs from them. There is no crop in the country so important as that of boys and girls. How could I manage my little home-garden in a flat?

I looked thoughtfully from one to another, as with children's appetites they became absorbed in one of the chief events of the day.

"Well," said my wife, querulously, "how are you getting on with your problem?"

"Take this extra bit of steak and I'll tell you after the children are asleep," I said.

"I can't eat another mouthful," she exclaimed, pushing back her almost untasted supper. "Broiling the steak was enough for me."

"You are quite tired out, dear," I said, very gently.

Her face softened immediately at my tone and tears came into her eyes.

"I don't know what is the matter with me," she faltered. "I am so nervous some days that I feel as if I should fly to pieces. I do try to be patient, but I know I'm growing cross!"

"Oh now, mamma," spoke up warm-hearted Merton; "the idea of your being cross."

"She is cross," Bobsey cried; "she boxed my ears this very day."

"And you deserved it," was Merton's retort. "It's a pity they are not boxed oftener."

"Yes, Robert, I did," continued my wife, sorrowfully. "Bobsey ran away four times, and vexed me beyond endurance, that is, such endurance as I have left, which doesn't seem to be very much."

"I understand, dear," I said. "You are a part of my problem, and you must help me solve it." Then I changed the subject decidedly, and soon brought sunshine to our clouded household. Children's minds are easily diverted; and my wife, whom a few sharp words would have greatly irritated, was soothed, and her curiosity awakened as to the subject of my thoughts.