The Father's Hand by George
The Dean and I were sitting after dinner discussing
the shortage of students at Oxford since the war
“You have no idea,” he was saying, “how strange it
is to lecture to a class of four or five when one has been
accustomed to forty or fifty. This morning, for instance....”
“Well, Dean,” I put in, “after the war there will be
no lectures on Latin poetry. The times are changing.”
The old man threw back his head, and his silvery beard
waved in the candle-light.
“Listen,” he began, “you remember the passage
where a father was trying to carve a picture of his son’s
“Bis patriae manus cecidere,” I quoted. “Twice the
hands of the father fell. Icarus, was it not, for whom his
father had made wings, and who flew too near the sun
and fell down to earth?”
He nodded. “Bis patriae manus cecidere—twice the
father’s hands fell to his sides. In our village in the first
few months of the war, there came an old man, a refugee
from Alsace-Lorraine. By profession, he was a monument
carver, and out of the exercise of his craft he
had acquired a considerable familiarity with what one
might call Phśnix-Latin, the kind that is only called into
being when ‘Our Esteemed Fellow-Townsman’ dies.
He had all the pedant’s love for the language. Often he
would exchange tags with me when I met him in the
“‘Quomodo es? How are you,’ he would laugh in
the tiny general store, to the mystification of the little
“‘Bene, domine,’ was my grave answer,—‘Very
“Soon he became very popular in the village, though
he was regarded as something of a crank. It appeared
that he was of the old days when Alsace-Lorraine belonged
to the French. Of his private affairs we could
learn nothing, except that he had married young and that
his wife had died at the birth of a son. When he was
questioned about his early life, he would affect not to
understand—‘Je ne comprend pas, m’sieu’—this and
a shrug of the shoulders was all that we could get out
“Well, the old fellow prided himself on his excellent
eyesight, and in the fairly frequent air raids, he refused
to go into shelter, preferring instead to remain lying down
on the hill outside the village, where he would watch the
hostile aeroplane pursued by our guns until it became a
speck in the distance toward London. Then he would
trudge back again.
“‘The pigs are gone,’ he would reassure us in our
cellars, shaking his fist at the sky. ‘Ah the cochons!
Sus Germanicus!’ and we would crawl out again into
God’s air, pleased to see him and knowing that there was
no longer any danger even if the ‘all clear’ signal had
not yet sounded. For he was always right. He knew
from bitter experience.
“One day I saw him in conference with the little knot
of sailors that presided over our anti-aircraft defences.
He was pointing to the sky rather excitedly and telling
them in his broken English something about aeroplanes
and ‘it is necessaire that they pass so,’ at the same time
indicating a track of sky.
“‘What is it?’ I asked the petty officer.
“‘He’s got an idea for bringing down the Germans,’
explained the man, twitching his thumb rather contemptuously
toward my old friend. ‘He says they always
pass over that point above the headland before they turn
to London. I never noticed it myself, but there may be
something in it. I’ll tell the captain.’
“‘En hostes,’ cried the old man in Latin to me, pointing
to the place. ‘Behold the enemy. It is quite necessaire
that he pass by here what you call the landmark,
is it not? The German precision, toujours the same.’
“I laughed and took him by the arm, down to the village,
marvelling at the intense hatred with which he spat
out the words. ‘The German pigs,’ he muttered as we
went along. ‘They have my country.’
“Soon after there came another raid. We heard the
gunfire, without paying much attention to it, so customary
had it become. When the safety siren was heard, we
all went back to our occupations as usual. I wondered
why the old fellow had not appeared, and began to grow
anxious, thinking he might have been killed. I was just
setting out to look for him when I caught sight of him
running toward me over a ploughed field, stopping every
other moment to pick up his battered black hat, and looking,
even at a quarter of a mile, as if he was full of news
of some kind. When he came within a hundred yards
or so, still running, he shouted something at me, raising
his hands to the sky and then pointing to the earth.
“‘Fuit Ilium,’ I heard. ‘Troy is fallen. The German
is destroyed. They have him shot, so,’ and he
brought his arm from above his head to the ground in a
magnificently dramatic sweep.
“‘What is it?’ I asked as I reached him.
“Perspiring and mopping his face with the tricolor
handkerchief that some would-be wag had given him,
he told his tale. The gunners had taken his advice, and
fired at the spot he told them, and a German aeroplane
had actually been brought down.
“That week the village was jubilant, and my old
friend found himself suddenly a hero. The local papers
brought out a long account of the affair, with a leader
about the ‘victim of German autocracy, whom we are
proud to shelter in our midst. With the courage that
we know so well in our brave allies, he stayed out unprotected
and discerned the weak spot in the foe’s armor.
We are proud of our guest.’ It was, indeed, a proud time
for our refugee.
“The naval authorities took over charge of the wrecked
aeroplane, and the remains of the fallen aviator were
gathered together to be buried the following week in the
village cemetery. We were a simple, kind-hearted community,
far away in the country, and many of the villagers
had themselves sons fighting at the front. So we decided
that the village should erect a simple tombstone over the
fallen enemy—the resolution being made, I suspect,
chiefly as the result of a sermon of the worthy pastor, who
pointed out that the dead man was more sinned against
than sinning, that he was the victim of the German system,
and that we ought not to think bitterly of a fallen
foe who died at what he conceived to be his duty.
“The next question was as to the inscription. The
old Frenchman brought out a book, which he explained
was the ‘Vade mecum for cutters of tombs.’ From it he
produced a marvellous quotation, which he said came
from Seneca. He was listened to now with respect, but
I could see that the idea was not popular. No one liked
to oppose him, until I finally remarked that something
simpler would perhaps be better, and suggested, ‘Here
lies a fallen German,’ with the date. The old refugee
was obviously very reluctant to give up his wonderful
epitaph, but my reading was clearly the favorite, and
it was adopted in the end. The obvious man to do the
carving was the old stonecutter who had brought down
the aeroplane. He was given the commission.
“The burial took place, and the village went back to its
normal routine, the old man being supposed to be working
on the inscription.
“It was about the time of the discussion of the epitaph
that the relics from the recent raid were exposed for
view in the little museum at the school. There was no
address found on the body, and almost the only personal
effect that had survived the terrible fall was a
photograph of a woman, young and fair-haired, with
the inscription, ‘Meine Mutter,’ which I translated to
the admiring villagers as meaning, ‘My Mother.’ Nothing
else. I went to tell the old Frenchman and ask him
if he had seen the curiosities. I found him sitting in the
garden of the cottage where he lived, in the little shed he
called his workshop, where the tombstone had been
brought. To my surprise, he was lying on the ground,
and beside his open hand lay a chisel.
“‘What is it?’ I asked him.
“He started up when he saw me. ‘I was tired,’ he
answered confusedly. ‘Fatigatus opere, weary with
labor. N’est-ce-pas?’ and his poor old face relapsed
into a sad attempt at a smile.
“‘But you have not begun to labor,’ I answered, trying
to joke away an impending feeling of tragedy that I but
dimly understood. ‘Why do you not do the work?’
“‘Ah, I cannot. My hands are old, and I can no more.’
“Then I saw that his hands were shaking, and I grew
alarmed. I could see that the strain of the last few days
was telling on him. He seemed years older. So I gently
helped him up and took him indoors, where the good
woman of the house put him to bed. I asked her how
long he had been sick, and she told me that he had gone
out that afternoon, looking well, and intending to buy
a chisel and visit the little museum. She had not seen
him again till I brought him in from the garden.
“From that time the poor old man seemed to grow
feebler and feebler, and we began to think that his last
joke had been cracked and all his troubles ended. He
seemed to lose all wish to live, lying on his bed without
a word, and only taking food when it was almost forced
down his throat. I frequently visited him and tried to
console him. For the one thing that now troubled him
was that he would not be able to execute his commission
before he died. ‘Never have I promised and not perform,’
he would say. ‘Oh, for one day of my pristini
roboris—my youthful strength.’
“I comforted him and told him, against my belief,
that he would be out cutting the inscription next spring.
But he shook his head sorrowfully, and at each visit he
seemed to grow weaker and weaker. The climax came
quite suddenly. Summer had turned to fall, and I was
taking my usual walk by the light of the harvest moon,
passing through the old churchyard, where the German
had been buried and the cross had now been put, uncarved.
For we boasted no other stonecutter in the
village. I went up to look at it, and by the moonlight I
caught sight of the figure of a man. Bending down, I
saw my old friend, dead, by the work he had promised.
It was not till the next day that they found his chisel by
the tombstone, and about a dozen letters which he had
chiselled. The villagers thought that the old man had
gone out of his mind, for the letters on the stone were
not the beginning of the epitaph we had agreed on. They
think so yet. For I never told them, and I am the only
man who can read what is written on the stone.”
Here the Dean was silent a moment or so.
“Well, what had he carved?” I asked.
“Bis patriae m ... Twice the hand of the father
failed. The dead man was his son.”