III. The Common Denominator
 

Three weeks had gone by since Mother Carey's departure for Fortress Monroe, and the children had mounted from one moral triumph to another. John Bunyan, looking in at the windows, might have exclaimed:--

  Who would true valor see
  Let him come hither.

It is easy to go wrong in a wicked world, but there are certain circumstances under which one is pledged to virtue; when, like a knight of the olden time, you wear your motto next your heart and fight for it,--"Death rather than defeat!" "We are able because we think we are able!" "Follow honor!" and the like. These sentiments look beautifully as class mottoes on summer graduation programmes, but some of them, apparently, disappear from circulation before cold weather sets in.

It is difficult to do right, we repeat, but not when mother is away from us for the first time since we were born; not when she who is the very sun of home is shining elsewhere, and we are groping in the dim light without her, only remembering her last words and our last promises. Not difficult when we think of the eyes the color of the blue velvet bonnet, and the tears falling from them. They are hundreds of miles away, but we see them looking at us a dozen times a day and the last thing at night.

Not difficult when we think of father; gay, gallant father, desperately ill and mother nursing him; father, with the kind smile and the jolly little sparkles of fun in his eyes; father, tall and broad-shouldered, splendid as the gods, in full uniform; father, so brave that if a naval battle ever did come his way, he would demolish the foe in an instant; father, with a warm strong hand clasping ours on high days and holidays, taking us on great expeditions where we see life at its best and taste incredible joys.

The most quarrelsome family, if the house burns down over their heads, will stop disputing until the emergency is over and they get under a new roof. Somehow, in times of great trial, calamity, sorrow, the differences that separate people are forgotten. Isn't it rather like the process in mathematics where we reduce fractions to a common denominator?

It was no time for anything but superior behavior in the Carey household; that was distinctly felt from kitchen to nursery. Ellen the cook was tidier, Joanna the second maid more amiable. Nancy, who was "responsible," rose earlier than the rest and went to bed later, after locking doors and windows that had been left unlocked since the flood. "I am responsible," she said three or four times each day, to herself, and, it is to be feared, to others! Her heavenly patience in dressing Peter every few hours without comment struck the most callous observer as admirable. Peter never remembered that he had any clothes on. He might have been a real stormy petrel, breasting the billows in his birthday suit and expecting his feathers to be dried when and how the Lord pleased. He comported himself in the presence of dust, mud, water, liquid refreshment, and sticky substances, exactly as if clean white sailor suits grew on every bush and could be renewed at pleasure.

Even Gilbert was moved to spontaneous admiration and respect at the sight of Nancy's zeal. "Nobody would know you, Nancy; it is simply wonderful, and I only wish it could last," he said. Even this style of encomium was received sweetly, though there had been moments in her previous history when Nancy would have retorted in a very pointed manner. When she was "responsible," not even had he gone the length of calling Nancy an unspeakable pig, would she have said anything. She had a blissful consciousness that, had she been examined, indications of angelic wings, and not bristles, would have been discovered under her blouse.

Gilbert, by the way, never suspected that the masters in his own school wondered whether he had experienced religion or was working on some sort of boyish wager. He took his two weekly reports home cautiously for fear that they might break on the way, pasted them on large pieces of paper, and framed them in elaborate red, white, and blue stars united by strips of gold paper. How Captain and Mrs. Carey laughed and cried over this characteristic message when it reached them! "Oh! they are darlings," Mother Carey cried. "Of course they are," the Captain murmured feebly. "Why shouldn't they be, considering you?"

"It is really just as easy to do right as wrong, Kathleen," said Nancy when the girls were going to bed one night.

"Ye-es!" assented Kathleen with some reservations in her tone, for she was more judicial and logical than her sister. "But you have to keep your mind on it so, and never relax a single bit! Then it's lots easier for a few weeks than it is for long stretches!"

"That's true," agreed Nancy; "it would be hard to keep it up forever. And you have to love somebody or something like fury every minute or you can't do it at all. How do the people manage that can't love like that, or haven't anybody to love?"

"I don't know." said Kathleen sleepily. "I'm so worn out with being good, that every night I just say my prayers and tumble into bed exhausted. Last night I fell asleep praying, I honestly did!"

"Tell that to the marines!" remarked Nancy incredulously.