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....