Chapter II. I State the Case

I pondered deeply while my wife and Winnie cleared away the dishes and put Bobsey into his little crib. I felt that the time for a decided change had come, and that it should be made before the evils of our lot brought sharp and real trouble.

How should I care for my household? If I had been living on a far frontier among hostile Indians I should have known better how to protect them. I could build a house of heavy logs and keep my wife and children always near me while at work. But it seemed to me that Melissa Daggett and her kin with their flashy papers, and the influence of the street for Merton and Bobsey, involved more danger to my little band than all the scalping Modocs that ever whooped. The children could not step outside the door without danger of meeting some one who would do them harm. It is the curse of crowded city life that there is so little of a natural and attractive sort for a child to do, and so much of evil close at hand.

My wife asked me humorously for the news. She saw that I was not reading my paper, and my frowning brow and firm lips proved my problem was not of a trifling nature. She suspected nothing more, however, than that I was thinking of taking rooms in some better locality, and she was wondering how I could do it, for she knew that my income now left but a small surplus above expenses.

At last Winnie too was ready to go to bed, and I said to her, gravely: "Here is money to pay Melissa for that paper. It was only fit for the gutter, and into the gutter I put it. I wish you to promise me never to look at such pictures again, or you can never hope to grow up to be a lady like mamma."

The child flushed deeply, and went tearful and penitent to bed. Mousie also retired with a wistful look upon her face, for she saw that something of grave importance occupied my mind.

No matter how tired my wife might be, she was never satisfied to sit down until the room had been put in order, a green cloth spread upon the supper-table and the student lamp placed in its centre.

Merton brought his school-books, and my wife took up her mending, and we three sat down within the circle of light.

"Don't do any more work to-night," I said, looking into my wife's face, and noting for a few moments that it was losing its rounded lines.

Her hands dropped wearily into her lap, and she began gratefully: "I'm glad you speak so kindly to-night, Robert, for I am so nervous and out of sorts that I couldn't have stood one bit of fault- finding--I should have said things, and then have been sorry all day to-morrow. Dear knows, each day brings enough without carrying anything over. Come, read the paper to me, or tell me what you have been thinking about so deeply, if you don't mind Merton's hearing you. I wish to forget myself, and work, and everything that worries me, for a little while."

"I'll read the paper first, and then, after Merton has learned his lessons, I will tell you my thoughts--my purpose, I may almost say. Merton shall know about it soon, for he is becoming old enough to understand the 'why' of things. I hope, my boy, that your teacher lays a good deal of stress on the why in all your studies."

"Oh, yes, after a fashion."

"Well, so far as I am your teacher, Merton, I wish you always to think why you should do a thing or why you shouldn't, and to try not to be satisfied with any reason but a good one."

Then I gleaned from the paper such items as I thought would interest my wife. At last we were alone, with no sound in the room but the low roar of the city, a roar so deep as to make one think that the tides of life were breaking waves.

I was doing some figuring in a note-book when my wife asked: "Robert, what is your problem to-night? And what part have I in it?"

"So important a part that I couldn't solve it without you," I replied, smiling at her.

"Oh, come now," she said, laughing slightly for the first time in the evening; "you always begin to flatter a little when you want to carry a point."

"Well, then, you are on your guard against my wiles. But believe me, Winifred, the problem on my mind is not like one of my ordinary brown studies; in those I often try to get back to the wherefore of things which people usually accept and don't bother about. The question I am considering comes right home to us, and we must meet it. I have felt for some time that we could not put off action much longer, and to-night I am convinced of it."

Then I told her how I had found three of the children engaged that evening, concluding: "The circumstances of their lot are more to blame than they themselves. And why should I find fault with you because you are nervous? You could no more help being nervous and a little impatient than you could prevent the heat of the lamp from burning you, should you place your finger over it. I know the cause of it all. As for Mousie, she is growing paler and thinner every day. You know what my income is; we could not change things much for the better by taking other rooms and moving to another part of the city, and we might find that we had changed for the worse. I propose that we go to the country and get our living out of the soil."

"Why, Robert! what do you know about farming or gardening?"

"Not very much, but I am not yet too old to learn; and there would be something for the children to do at once, pure air for them to breathe, and space for them to grow healthfully in body, mind, and soul. You know I have but little money laid by, and am not one of those smart men who can push their way. I don't know much besides bookkeeping, and my employers think I am not remarkably quick at that. I can't seem to acquire the lightning speed with which things are done nowadays; and while I try to make up by long hours and honesty, I don't believe I could ever earn much more than I am getting now, and you know it doesn't leave much of a margin for sickness or misfortune of any kind. After all, what does my salary give us but food and clothing and shelter, such as it is, with a little to spare in some years? It sends a cold chill to my heart to think what should become of you and the children if I should be sick or anything should happen to me. Still, it is the present welfare of the children that weighs most on my mind, Winifred. They are no longer little things that you can keep in these rooms and watch over; there is danger for them just outside that door. It wouldn't be so if beyond the door lay a garden and fields and woods. You, my overtaxed wife, wouldn't worry about them the moment they were out of sight, and my work, instead of being away from them all day, could be with them. And all could do something, even down to pale Mousie and little Bobsey. Outdoor life and pure air, instead of that breathed over and over, would bring quiet to your nerves and the roses back to your cheeks. The children would grow sturdy and strong; much of their work would be like play to them; they wouldn't be always in contact with other children that we know nothing about. I am aware that the country isn't Eden, as we have imagined it--for I lived there as a boy--but it seems like Eden compared to this place and its surroundings; and I feel as if I were being driven back to it by circumstances I can't control."