The Ethics of the Stationers

“M. LE COMTE,” remarked Saint-Simon’s valet to him every morning, according to orders, “remember thou hast great things to do in this world.” History fails to record whether Saint-Simon received this daily remark with unvarying complacency, and we wonder if occasionally the valet did not dodge a boot.

Absurd as this reminder may seem, it has had many parallels. “Sire, remember the Athenians,” observed Darius’s servant daily at dinner; and in those times, whose traditions gave rise to that of Alice’s Queen, we doubt not that Darius’s favorite retort was “Off with his head!”

These sturdy reminiscents have their modern as well as ancient counterparts. To-day Darius would hang a photograph of Athens beside his desk, and write “Get busy " underneath it. Saint-Simon would purchase a Van Dykelet and set it on his chiffonier. The up-to-date stationer is on his way to become a great reformer. He does more preaching and gives more advice than the average clergyman or the Salvation Army. He gets better pay, too, for his trouble. The clergyman makes his parish calls and strives to leave a word of encouragement and inspiration at each place; his remarks are received with mingled suspicion and reserve. The stationer, on the other hand, is busy all day handing out quotations from Emerson, Newman, or Stevenson, and gets ten cents each time in return. He puts them in his window; the passers-by stop, gaze, and go on their way toiling and rejoicing, like the worthy blacksmith they have just been reading about. Moreover, the stationer need not be consistent. The cynic’s calendar may be hung above the “ Pathway to Peace,” and Emerson contradict Newman from the opposite side of the window, and no one thinks of calling the stationer to account. If his sense of responsibility is keen, if he realizes that his incandescent light is not to shine upon a bushel of flippancy, and that the illuminated maxims, by the barter of which he gets his bread and jam, are put down by his recording angel as his good deeds in a naughty world, then he will be careful to display most conspicuously the purely ethical. Of course, flippancy and cynicism have their use. They serve to keep level the balance of sanity and common sense. They cater to the sense of humor, which, after all, is a requisite to righteous living.

But to go back to the stationer’s window. Here you get a consensus of opinions. You are told how to conduct your life by teachers, preachers, poets, essayists, philosophers, from Thomas àa Kempis down to Fanny Crosby. Here are many men of many minds. You go inside, pay ten cents or a quarter, and whatever system of ethics you want, in Tiffany text, with illuminated initial, on a piece of cardboard in neat passepartout, and provided with a ring to hang it up by, is yours. You take it home and refresh your good intentions with it every morning over the shaving mug.

So far, so good. The wife of your bosom conies in and reads it. You survey her furtively, not wishing to appear aggressively sanctified. She makes no comment, acting, she believes, with consummate tact, but she thinks to herself, “I never knew George cared for this sort of thing.” She goes shopping; then appear mysteriously a few other placards, panels, plates, with various devices upon them. Evidently, if you have shown a desire to live a better life, as the Christian Endeavorers have it, she is going to aid and abet you. Stevenson comes down. Up goes Phillips Brooks. You were, she tacitly inferred, trying “to be honest, to be kind, to make a family, on the whole, happier for your presence.” You also professed to believe that this is a task that takes “all a man has of fortitude and delicacy.” Evidently Ethel does not think this is suited to your needs. Your new spiritual adviser exhorts you “not to pray for an easier life, but rather to be a stronger man.” You accept the change with that meekness which has characterized you since your marriage, and trust that the matter will stop there.

But no; the passion for mottoes is upon Ethel. In the front hall she hangs the “House Blessing.” The parlor fireplace soon bears the legend; “Friend, speak evil of no man around this hearth.”“Sleep sweet within this quiet room " dangles from the bedpost. Ethel’s workbasket, her waste basket, her hairpin tray, all bear mottoes that might have been clever once, but now are weakly flat. She broaches the subject of a sun-dial in the back yard, and it is easy to elicit the fact that she has already chosen a motto for it. The climax, however, is reached one day when you come home to dinner and find Ethel has introduced the skeleton at the feast. Above the sideboard hangs a china plaque which reads: “We never repent having eaten too little.”

“I got that for you, George,” she remarks. “I know you like that sort of thing.”

This goes to show, you conclude, that even ethics can be overdone. They tell us that the moral code is fairly adequate, that most men mean well, but that the impulses to make the best of life are intermittent. Hence it is the duty of stationers to provide us with spurs for our lagging consciences. The daily motto, no one can deny, is a good thing, if you do not run motto-mad.

The most joyous use of all for our dodgers is to give them to our friends. Personally, I have always longed to distribute tracts. I could play the part of parish missionary with unction, I believe. But since my minister thinks otherwise, I have had to content myself with sending dodgers to my friends. I have selected and distributed according to special needs and temperamental deficiencies. I have tried to reform the scold, the hypochondriac, and the shirk. I have thus freed my mind in a way with which not my most fiery outburst of temper could compare, — and not given offense. To be sure, Aunt Eliza sent one back, saying that since the coat did not fit, she could not put it on; and other acceptances have reminded me of the Christmas when I gave all my mission boys a cake of soap apiece. Nevertheless, I know that I am engaged in a good work, and if I am ever called upon to earn my living, I shall open a stationer’s shop.