from Sunset Magazine
Thompson's Truthful Graveyard
by Ellis Parker Butler
The town of Gloning was not unlike many other towns in California, but it had progressed less than most of them, and this was a surprise to everyone, and most of all to the people of Gloning itself. The town was on a river and during the early days it had grown rapidly and had held its own with the other California towns, and the prediction had been generally made that in time Gloning would be a western metropolis. There seemed to be good reason for the prediction. The location of the town was ideal. Beautiful hills rose from the river, not too abruptly, and made ideal residence sites, while the valleys and creek "bottoms" made equally perfect sites for business and manufacture. The soil was almost fabulously rich, part being the best quality of general orchard land, while one huge strip produced citrus fruits and winter vegetables such as could be grown as a general thing only two or three hundred miles farther south.
In addition to this, Gloning was already the shipping point for the cattle and grain of all that part of
California. It had fruit packing houses and lumber mills.
But the feature that seemed above all else to point to a great future for Gloning was its situation on the river, on a great bend, so that while Gloning had all the advantage of the river traffic it was thirty miles nearer the center of the state than any other river town. The people of Gloning were never tired of mentioning this. They called their town "the Bend City."
But when the railroads began to be distributed Gloning did not seem to get a fair share. They crossed the river at other, and less advantageous points, in spite of the great bend. It was the same with manufacturing plants. They sent their managers to Gloning, evinced interest in Gloning, and then went elsewhere. Towns on all sides grew and flourished, but Gloning hardly held its own. There was evidently something the matter with Gloning. It was stagnant. It even seemed to be going backward. Each year the buildings on Main street became more time worn, and the streets fell into worse repair. The dwellings became more and more weather beaten and the lawns more unkempt. That was when Thompson came to town.
If ever a man deserved to be called a mysterious stranger, Thompson did. He came quite unheralded, just slipped off the afternoon train quietly, and carried his own valise over to the hotel on the corner, and registered his name -- J. C. Thompson. He did not look like much, so the clerk gave him a poor room on the third floor back, and Thompson took it without a word of protest. He carried his own valise to his room and left it there, and then went down to the lobby and took a chair. He put his feet up on the brass railing and looked out of the window with the dozen or so other hotel loafers. That was all Thompson seemed to have to do. For days that was all he did. He seemed to have come to Gloning especially to sit in a chair and look lazily out of the hotel window.
Thompson was rather tall and rather thin, and less than middle-aged. He was not nattily dressed -- wore a soft black felt hut and ordinary clothes. The one thing that seemed to stick out most was his silence. He had a silent face; the face of a man who will hum a tune while at work, and answer questions with a mere "Yes" or "No" and then go on humming the tune, giving an impression that he is busy all the time with thoughts or calculations. The absent-minded sort of silence. Machinists are given to this kind, and so are inventors, and carpenters, when they have a difficult job on hand.
The only bit of talk that escaped Thompson's lips while he was sitting in the hotel window was: "How about this town of Gloning?" He dropped the question to his next neighbor the second day and after that all he had to do was to listen. Anyone in Gloning is ready at any time to explain all about it. So is anyone in any other town. The only time an American is not ready to brag about his town is when he is telling you who its mean people are and how mean they are. Thompson got the facts.
About three weeks later old Simon Dresser was walking out Fairview Avenue in his old black frock coat that had turned green with age and his silk hat that he had worn six years, and was bringing his ivory-headed cane down with sharp thumps on the walk, when he noticed Thompson. The Gloning cemetery is on Fairview Avenue and old Simon Dresser was just opposite the cemetery gate. It was a dilapidated gate and part of the fence had fallen on its side, and the drives and walks were grass grown, and the whole cemetery had a neglected look. As the cemetery, so the town -- that is a safe rule to go by, anywhere.
But it was not the cemetery that attracted Simon Dresser's attention. It was the improvement being made on the other side of the avenue. What had once been a potato field was now nicely leveled. Instead of the loose barbwire fence a neat white picket fence faced the avenue and in place of a gate there was a white arch. On the arch in black letters were the words:
Leaning against the arch, whittling a stick and humming, was Thompson. Simon Dresser stopped. He was one of the stockholders of the Gloning Cemetery Company, and the cemetery was a good dividend-paying property. He was also the wealthiest man in Gloning, a millionaire, and as close-fisted and mean as man can be. He was one of the people Thompson had heard about while sitting in the hotel lobby. He had made his money in the town but he never did a thing for the town. He would not help any industry that started or tried to start. He opposed anything that looked like an improvement. He was the worst type of small-town millionaire. The town had many like him but he was the wealthiest.
There were other men in Gloning who owned most of the vacant land. Two or three owned all the marshy creek bottoms, which were worth nothing except as factory sites, and when a factory threatened to come to Gloning they asked unheard-of prices for the wasteland, and the factories went elsewhere. They went to towns that were willing and eager to donate land and there were plenty such towns. There were other men who had claimed greedy prices for rights-of-way asked by proposed railways and had driven the railways away. Still other wealthy men had refused regularly to aid in raising bonuses for this and the other thing. All had refused to aid in securing public libraries, hospitals, street paving and all the things that make a town worth living in.
Simon Dresser stopped. His large stomach shook with indignation and he pointed at the leveled field with his cane.
"Huh!" he ejaculated. "What fool is doing that?"
"I am," said Thompson thoughtfully, and continued humming and whittling.
"Waste of money!" said Simon Dresser gruffly. "Money thrown away! Fool's idea! There's a law that no more cemeteries shall be allowed within the city limits. You can't bury anybody there!"
"Don't want to," said Thompson good-naturedly.
"Don't want to!" exclaimed Simon Dresser. "Fool's idea! What do you want a graveyard for, if you can't bury anyone in it?"
"Tombstones," said Thompson. "I'm fond of them."
Simon Dresser looked at Thompson curiously. Here was evidently a man who was unbalanced mentally. He smiled his dry, hard smile.
"Expect to have much of a collection?" he asked.
For answer Thompson motioned with his knife to where a tall pile of boards stood at one side of the field. They were all planed boards, an inch thick and four feet tall, square at one end and rounded at the other. The top board of the pile was painted white.
"Huh!" said Simon Dresser. He took one step toward the arch, and then hesitated.
"Come in!" said Thompson warmly. "Come right in. Everybody welcome." He pointed to the lettering on the side of the arch. "Public Welcome. Come in and walk around," it said. Simon Dresser walked in and made his stately way to the pile of boards. Thompson, humming and whittling, followed him. He pulled the top painted board from the pile and stood it up so Simon Dresser could see it. One side was lettered in black on the white ground. It bore these words:
J. C. THOMPSON
BORN AT NEWTONVILLE. MASS.
DEC. 9. 1862
DIED ________ AGED ________
NEVER DID ANYTHING PUBLIC-SPIRITED
REST IN PEACE
"Sample," said Thompson.
"Who is Thompson?" asked Simon Dresser.
"I am," said Thompson, sliding the board back on top of the pile.
"And are you going to put that board up?" asked Simon. Dresser.
"No," said Thompson. "Not if I stay reformed. It is a warning to me."
The millionaire wrinkled his brow. It was all beyond his comprehension. He slapped the pile of boards with his hand.
"And these?" he asked. "What are these for?"
"Gravestones," said Thompson.
"Huh!" said Simon Dresser. "But what for? What is the object? Why do you do it?"
"Truth," said Thompson. "It is just a fad of mine. I have a feeling that gravestones oughtn't to lie so much -- they ought to tell the truth oftener. A stranger gets no pleasure out of an ordinary gravestone. They are like a publisher's own criticism of his own book -- always favorable. So I just thought I'd try to run a truthful graveyard. I sort of thought it might make me popular."
"Huh!" grunted Simon Dresser. "Fool's idea! Who are you going to have in it?"
"I don't know," said Thompson thoughtfully. "What might your name be?"
"Huh!" exclaimed Simon Dresser, and he stumped out of the place and down the avenue leaving Thompson whittling and humming as he leaned against the arch of his Truthful Graveyard.
It does not take long for news to circulate in a town like Gloning and soon everyone had heard of Thompson's Truthful Graveyard and had not only heard of it but had seen it. Fairview Avenue became the popular place for afternoon strolls on Sunday, and those who had time strolled out that way on other days just to see how the new graveyard was progressing. But Thompson seemed to have plenty of time. He appeared to be in no hurry. He finished his leveling slowly and sowed grass seed and with his own hands laid gravel walks and planted a few flowers along their edges. Then he began painting the wooden gravestones white, giving them three coats of paint. He was most leisurely about it and this only increased the interest of the townsfolks. They crowded out to his graveyard and asked numberless questions but after his interview with Simon Dresser not a word could be got out of Thompson. He worked and hummed.
But one Sunday afternoon when the usual crowd walked out Fairview Avenue they found that Thompson had begun planting his graveyard. Glaring white and startlingly severe one single wooden gravestone stood in one corner of the graveyard. It was all spotlessly white except for a name painted in neat Roman letters across the top. The name was
The rest of the inscription had been painted over with three coats of white paint.
This was not much of a start but it increased the interest in Thompson's Truthful Graveyard considerably. It looked as if he was getting down to business but it was rather disappointing. The people of Gloning had hoped, in their usual backbiting way, that when the gravestones began to grow they would spring up well covered with scandalous epitaphs so that they would afford some titillating sensations. Gossip had it that Thompson meant to tell the absolute truth on his gravestones, regardless of anything, that he would not regard a man's position as to wealth or worldly affairs but would tell the real truth about his character and life, and it was a disappointment to find only a blank gravestone.
But the next Sunday there was a second gravestone in Thompson's Truthful Graveyard. There it stood, glaringly white, right alongside Thompson's own and so close to it that only a couple of inches intervened, and on it were but two words: the two words of a name --
Nothing else -- just the name. Not a word of epitaph; not a word of blame. Nothing but the name. But the name stood out in heavy block letters, in glaring black on the white surface of the gravestone.
That was enough, too. It was worse than if Thompson had given a full history of all Simon Dresser's mean traits. It set the people thinking and talking. It set them imagining what the epitaph would be when the time came, and for a week nothing was talked about but Simon Dresser and what his epitaph would probably be. Every mean trait he had ever shown was pulled out and discussed and long forgotten ones were dug up and given air again. Persons to whom he had done petty smallnesses, and who had been afraid to mention them because of his money and influence, now spoke right out. But the loudest of all the comment was that of Philip Quat, the president of the bank that was the rival of that over which Simon Dresser presided. The next Sunday a third gravestone had joined the other two in Thompson's Truthful Graveyard, and the name on it was --
After that the gravestones grew rapidly. Thompson did not have to allow for graves, and he could set his gravestones close together, allowing only room between the rows for paths, and one by one the names of all the prominent, hard old citizens with fat money bags bloomed on white gravestones, and as each new name, or batch of names, appeared that man's character received the airing it deserved at the hands of his fellow townsmen. It became a most exciting affair to guess who would be the next man to have a place in the long white rows.
Then some bright man or woman -- it was probably Lawyer Cassidy -- noticed that there was one peculiarity about the graveyard: it had places for only the well-to-do and respectable citizens. Murgatroyd, who was well known to have an intrigue with Grevin's wife, was not there. Denroy, who gambled, was not there. None of the town reprobates were there at all. No one guilty of the full-blooded sins had any place in Thompson's Truthful Graveyard -- only the close-fisted men who might have done the town some good, but who had not. Cassidy explained this to everyone. He was an unsuccessful lawyer. If he had been successful enough to have been retained by the moneyed interests he would not have mentioned this aspect at all. Judge Carmichael did not mention it, for example, but his name was on gravestone number 34.
One day in the fall, when Thompson had four rows of gravestones pretty well filled, he was leaning against the entrance arch with his feet crossed, and humming and whittling, when a carriage drove up to the edge of the walk beside him and a young woman got out.
Did I say young? She was thirty, at least, but what is that if not young? She was tall and so well developed that she was almost matronly. Her hair was light, with a golden tinge; her eyes were clear, cold blue, and her skin was of that transparent white that is so rare that after searching everywhere for a simile a writer usually ends by calling it "alabaster." In addition to all this she held her chin in the air.
She swept across the narrow walk and stopped short before Thompson, like a living challenge -- like a goddess challenging a worm.
Thompson did not seem to know he was being metaphorically ground into the mud beneath her heel. He glanced up carelessly, and then sighted carefully along the stick he was whittling, hesitated, chose the other side of the stick, and went on whittling.
"Yes," he said, in an off-hand way, "I'm Thompson."
The blond goddess breathed hard. Her cold eyes flashed.
"Well," said Thompson, "how is the old man, anyway?"
Zora Dresser (it was she) set her teeth and glared.
"The old boy must be pretty sick, yes?" said Thompson, indifferently. "But it can't be done."
"What can't be done? What right have you to say so? And why can't it? Who are you to set yourself up as censor of this town -- of your betters? What right have you to come here and malign --" Thompson glanced up into her face and began humming his little monotonous tune. That was just to show how indifferent he was.
"Oh, not malign!" he said.
"Not malign!" cried the angry goddess. "What then? What do all those gravestones mean then? What do they mean but blackmail? What are you going to use them for, if not to cover them with lies, when those men are dead and cannot protect their good names? But I tell you one thing, Mr. Thompson! I came here because father is sick very sick - to pay you your blackmail, and I would have done it if you had behaved like a -- like a decent -- swindler. But not one cent shall you have, now! I tell you now, and I warn you, that if you paint one single lie on that board --"
"I won't," said Thompson wearily. "I won't! And I hadn't meant to. Only the truth. So," he said cheerfully, "that is all settled! And we are all happy again."
But Miss Dresser did not go. She lingered. For a moment she stood watching Thompson whittle. She hesitated. Thompson turned his stick over and shook his head.
"No," he said, as if answering her unasked question; "I can't do that."
"Can't do what?" she asked, but she blushed.
"Put a lie on the board instead of the truth. Put the lie you would like to see there. No, ma'am! That wouldn't do! What I aim for is to make this a popular graveyard -- a downright popular graveyard -- and lies won't do it. It would lack originality. But there! I don't blame you for not understanding. I might have looked to people like you for support and sympathy -- but let that go! I made a mistake. I thought people like you would be proud to have -- But when the best people in town take the stand you do it's discouraging. I -- but there! I don't blame you. You haven't seen my model."
"My model. My model graveyard. It's in my tool shed. If --
"Let me see it," said Miss Dresser.
Thompson led the way, whittling. When he reached the tool shed he threw open the door and let Miss Dresser go in. He took a seat on a pile of raw material for wooden gravestones outside and whittled. It did not take Miss Dresser long to look at the model, for it was small. It consisted of five miniature wooden gravestones whittled out of cigar-box wood, each bearing a name JOHN DOE, JOHN ROE, JOHN SMITH, etc. -- and under each a few imaginary facts:
A Useful Citizen -- Donated the Gloning Public Library -- Donated a New Fence for the Gloning Cemetery -- Assisted by a Liberal Donation in Securing the P & Q Railway for Gloning.
And so on. There was never in the world such a lot of liberal-minded and public-spirited imaginary citizens. There was certainly none such buried in the Gloning cemetery.
When Miss Dresser came out her chin was still in the air -- it always was and it was becoming to her -- but she was not angry. She was thoughtful.
"Now, in the first place --" said Thompson, moving over on his pile of raw material, so that she could sit beside him.
"-- every aid and assistance that I can, Mr. Thompson," said Miss Dresser, when at length she arose. And then she shook hands with him.
Three weeks later, on a Sunday, the crowd of sightseers, walking into Thompson's Truthful Graveyard, found Thompson coming out of his tool house with his paint pot and brush in his hands, and as he walked to the far end of the first row of his gravestones they followed him curiously. He stopped before the gravestone of Simon Dresser and bent down, and the gathered populace crowded about him.
"D," he painted.
"Why?" said someone, "Old Dresser ain't dead. I seen him not half an hour ago, walkin' down Main street."
"O," painted Thompson, carefully, humming the while.
"Hadn't that ought to be an 'I,' mister?" asked someone. "You don't spell 'died' with an 'O,' do you?"
"NATED," continued Thompson with his brush, until the whole legend stood out clear and black on the white surface: "Donated Twenty Thousand Dollars for the Establishment of a Free Public Hospital." For a moment there was an astonished silence, and then someone in the front row clapped his hands, and then everyone clapped their hands, and a few yelled, and over in the yard back of Thompson's Truthful Cemetery a rooster, dazed by this breaking of the Sunday calm, flew up onto a fence and crowed. And Thompson, having finished his lettering, took his paint pot and brush back to the tool house, and then went and stood leaning against his entrance arch with his feet crossed, whittling.
Someone unknown -- it was a poor mother who had lost her child three months before because there was no place where he could receive the right attention -- hung a wreath of blossoms on Simon Dresser's wooden gravestone that night, and Thompson let it remain there, but the rest of the graveyard was bleak in its whiteness. People could not avoid noticing it. There was Simon Dresser's gravestone with the fine, public-spirited epitaph on it, and then gravestone after gravestone, one after another -- all blank except for the names -- PHILIP QUAT -- DARIUS J. MILLER -- HENRY GAMMAGE -- -- ORION BLISS -- M. H. BRITT, and so on, row after row. Heavens, they looked bare, those gravestones! The blank spaces beneath the names looked worse than a list of sins would have looked. But all Thompson did was to stand around and whittle.
He was whittling when Zora Dresser drove up one day. She stepped lightly out of her carriage and ran across the walk, and this time Thompson stopped whittling. He did not even hum his tune. Zora's alabaster cheeks -- alabaster, you see -- were glowing with color, and her blue eyes were sparkling. She came like a maiden to a love tryst, but what she said, breathlessly, was:
"The Ladies' Auxiliary of the Gloning Public Library Association --"
"Yes?" queried Thompson.
"Philip Quat. Ten thousand dollars!" she half cried and half laughed, and before he knew how it happened she had both Thompson's hands in hers and was shaking them joyfully. He had to drop his knife. It might have cut her hand.
"And the ladies of the Cemetery Improvement Association --" she said, when she had dropped his hands.
"Yes?" queried Thompson, stooping to pick up his knife.
"Have had a donation of five thousand dollars for a new fence, gate and chapel," said Miss Dresser.
"Name?" asked Thompson.
"It's -- it's anonymous," said Miss Dresser, blushing through that same alabaster.
Anonymous! Not that way could Thompson be fooled. He put a new gravestone in his yard that evening, and it bore the name ZORA DRESSER
Well, what do you expect when the women get into a thing? What is likely to happen when a truthful graveyard is backed up by ladies' associations and unions and circles and organizations? Thompson's graveyard began to be as full of inscriptions as the rosetta stone:
Subscribed $5000 Toward Securing the P & Q Railway,
Donated Ten Acres of Land to the New Plow Factory, and all that sort of thing. It was the new era -- the era everyone had talked about for forty years -- the era that was coming to Gloning; and here they had found they had had it with them all the time! Had it all right there in town, in their own pockets, and all they had to do was to take it out and unroll it. The only difficulty was that Gloning was like some other towns: what it needed most was a few funerals among its wealthy men. Thompson saw that, and he saw that he couldn't provide the funerals, so he did the next best thing: he provided a truthful graveyard. And why did he do it, you ask? Tchut! What I ask is why no one else has ever done it.
But all the same he made Gloning a town worth living in; a town he was willing and glad to live in himself, and one day he went into his tool shed and brought out two pots of paint, and two brushes, and with the white paint he painted out a name on one of his wooden gravestones, and then with the black paint, he painted another in its place. The name he painted out was
The name he painted in its place was
"Virtue has --" No, put it this way -- "Enterprise has its own reward." Love is a reward, isn't it?