A Matter of Tradition
I had often heard it remarked that there was something unusual about the Bevin-Atleys, but when I asked precisely what, the speaker, at a loss to define it, would simply wave a hand in the air in a circular motion like some distraught falcon circling aimlessly, unable to spot a likely prey.
Fortunately, I had no such need to circle aimlessly—I had found my prey in the young Nevil Bevin-Atley. I was attracted to him from the start, despite even then there being something —well, unusual—about him. Not exactly diffidence, nor weakness, but a certain fatalism, as if he went about his business as assiduously as possible, yet with the realization that whatever he did could not, ultimately, affect things. Which is as close as I can get to defining it, though you will admit it is an improvement on a vague wave of a hand in the air.
Nevil was attracted to me from the first. He later explained that it was because of my assuredness. I was one (he said) that seemed to be in control of things. He envied this. "You wear your cap at a bold angle," he phrased it, although I do not wear caps, let alone hats, despite my coiffeur being suitable for a hat — short, my "no nonsense" cut, I call it. I was also of good family, of course, though not quite so good as his.
Only gradually did I discern that it was precisely his family that was the one thing Nevil declined to talk about. His estate, his horses, his dogs, his pigs, his crops, yes, with enthusiasm, but his family per se, no. It was as if there were some skeletons in the closet he thought might scare me off. I once jokingly inquired if there was a family ghost. He gave me a quizzical look. "Not exactly a ghost," he replied, without adding any more. I pictured once again the hand waving randomly in the air.
We began to see a lot of one another, and after we attended the Derby (the family horse came in second) you could say we were talked about as a likely match. This pleased me, and Nevil, if someone remarked upon it, would smile as if pleased, and then a hint of something — not exactly doubt, but something—would cross his features like a cloud yielding to the wind.
His family seemed to receive me with more enthusiasm than did Nevil, although once, when he thought I could not hear, he told an uncle who congratulated him on his conquest (meaning me), "Conquests aren't really our forte." I thought he was being modest at the time, but later, reflecting on this remark, it was the "our" that disturbed me. The use of the royal "our" (good family lineage or not) with respect to a lack of ability to conquer (although in our particular relationship who conquered may have been more apposite—it was I who felt the conquistador) was somehow disquieting, as if the whole family was somehow lacking.
Nevil was a captain in the Guards; however, when I begged him to model in full livery for me—I just love uniforms (he seemed to love tweeds)—he was reluctant to do so. Nevertheless, I am a persistent adversary and he yielded finally to my requests. When I saw him in his resplendent Guards uniform, he seemed, if anything less confident, as though the uniform, however comfortably it fitted him from a tailoring standpoint, produced, curiously, a somehow uncomfortable appearance on the part of Nevil himself. When I, in an attempt to put some backbone into his appearance, remarked that he looked positively "heroic" in it, he looked at me with that odd expression of his, and said, "'Heroic'—a nice expression." He then stared off into space as if mentally retracing his family's martial history. I assumed it was quite significant — the crest of the Bevin-Atleys is a crouching lion—I'm sure in heraldic terms it's called "recumbent" or something, but to me it seemed crouching—and so I called it. So I called it to Nevil, attempting to prove to him that 'heroic' was a great deal more than a nice expression. "Crouching—decidedly," he remarked, and once again the expression of something hidden crossed his face. It was then that the thought hit me. Cowardice? The Bevin-Atleys? Impossible. Not one to retreat myself, I asked him directly. "You don't mean the family lion is . . . (I finally bleated it out) a lamb? The Bevin-Atleys never showed the white feather, did they?"
There was a pause which must have lasted a few moments, but which seemed to me long enough to contain the full Charge of the Light Brigade, after which Nevil sighed, "No, not cowardice. Never. Not the Bevin-Atleys. No. We were always in the thick of it and gave our all." He seemed to suddenly stand taller than I had ever seen him, and I was about to hug him, to hug his whole courageous line, when he added, "Not cowardice, just a certain . . ." He hesitated, looking at me with that damned queer expression. He waved his hand in the air randomly and I wanted to break it.
"Look," I said to him, grabbing his hand in mid-flight. "I don't know whether you realize it, but there seems to be some unmentionable . . . attribute or something . . . connected with your family floating in the air. Come on, out with it, Nevil. What is the dark stain on your family escutcheon? Better before we are married than after!" I let go of his hand which I saw was red from where I had squeezed the long, finally chiseled fingers too hard.
I expected anger, embarrassment, but not what I saw on his handsome features. Relief flooded them. "I've been meaning to show you since . . . " the hand waved vaguely. I grabbed it once again, more softly. He removed it as gently and patted me twice on the cheek. "Yes, it's only fair to show you."
The word "show" disturbed me. I expected him to tell me, but show raised all sorts of specters. I am a plucky lass (so my girl's school yearbook described me), but nameless fears from perhaps an overabundance of mystery reading overcame me. It was I who hesitated.
"Come on!" Nevil said with uncharacteristic determination. He began to pull me toward a part of the manor I had never set foot in before. I held back. "It won't hurt," he added. "At least not in the physical sense." Nonetheless, I actually shuddered, thinking, better to marry him first and discover later—Nevil Bevin-Atleys do not grow on trees. And when an inner voice asked, "Who's the coward now?" I yielded to his pull.
We passed through a couple of halls of ordinarily well-heeled appearance, though I shuddered at the stags' heads and boars' heads staring down at me from the walls. These yielded to the less threatening, if no less disturbing, stuffed pheasants, partridges , and grouse. We continued into a kind of armory full of spears, helmets, breastplates, suits of armor. Oddly, there were no swords.
Finally we came to a locked ancient oak door upon which had been burned (how long ago?) in careful letters: "Ne Vile Velis." I asked Nevil to translate (I had never had the patience for Latin). "'Form no mean wish,'" he replied. I had only one wish — to get this business over with and marry him. Nevil produced a key from somewhere and started to unlock the door. The key made a laboring, rusty sound which told me this door wasn't opened often, and my inner voice took to repeating, "A cask of amontillado, a cask of amontillado" over and over, to be supplanted by "Don't enter. How well do you really know Nevil Bevin-Atley?" That his face was now fuller of that odd look than I had ever seen it did not help matters. The door opened and he waved me within. I felt like saying, "After you," but if I was to live up to my yearbook designation of "plucky," now was the time.
To my surprise and relief we were in a hall hung not with anything gruesome or sinister like leg-irons or racks, but with nothing more threatening than . . . paintings. That Nevil did not relock the door from inside after closing it added to my confidence. He took my arm.
"Here before you, in ascending history — chronically speaking —is the history of the House of Bevin-Atley." He stopped before the first painting. Its colors had faded, in a corner the paint was flaking off. A man was handing a sword hilt-first to another man as a circle of the receiving chap's comrades looked on. The man handing the sword bore a distinct resemblance to the Bevin-Atley who stood next to me staring at —
"My forebear," he said, taking the words from my mind. "Cedwick Atley—not yet Bevin," he added.
"What is he doing?" I asked.
He paused and the quizzical look returned. "Surrendering."
"Oh, I see." I touched his arm gently. "I'm sure he fought well."
"No doubt, no doubt," he replied with what seemed to hover between irony and assurance.
He led me to a second picture. Again a man was handing his sword to another man. They stood alone, but eyes seemed to watch them from the surrounding trees. The sword-giver bore a decided resemblance to Nevil.
"What is he—" I stopped. I remembered I had asked that question in front of the first picture. And I remembered his answer. Nevil supplied it nevertheless.
"You have to lose some before you win some," I said.
He looked at me closely. "Theoretically," he said. "My great ancestor Oliver handing his sword to the Bruce."
A thought was beginning to form, but before I could grasp it, he took my arm and guided me to the next painting. I found myself not entirely surprised to see it depicted a man handing over his sword to another. The first bore a decided resemblance to Nevil.
"Sir Richard Bevin-Atley surrendering his sword after the Battle of Northampton."
What could I say? Commiseration loses its effectiveness with repetition. Except for his brief explanations, Nevil led me silently from painting to painting.
Poor Nevil led me through surrenders at Steinkirk, at Landen, at Madras, at — I lost track of all the names. I was numb from surrendering — until, finally, blessedly, he halted me before the last painting, the colors of which seemed as fresh as if they had just been applied.
"And this," Nevil said (and I noticed an involuntary shudder move upward from the base of his spine to the smart collar of his tunic), "is the most ignominious surrender of them all."
A man, clearly Nevil's ancestor, dressed in a red coat was handing his sword to a roughly dressed man that seemed more a citizen-soldier than an officer. Where this time? I wondered. Nevil supplied the answer.
"Yorktown? But I thought Cornwallis —"
"He was the ranking officer, but actually it was great great grandfather George Bevin-"Atley who handed over his sword."
"I see," I said, attempting to keep my upper lip firmly in place.
"It rankles the most. To the Americans."
I felt so bad for Nevil. So bad for myself. I was perilously close to marrying into this tradition. Suddenly I seized at a hope. "Your name Bevin-Atley. Do you have some Norman claret in your line?"
"And so at Hastings you — that it, your ancestor, must have received the surrender."
He smiled weakly. "Alas, we have Saxon blood, too. The painting faded completely so it isn't hung. It depicted Cerdic Atley surrendering his sword."
He turned to face me, planting both hands firmly on my shoulders."Now you understand. Do you want to be married to a chap who may have to surrender his—-whatever—maybe a laser gun since swords are out of fashion—to the enemy?"
"Perhaps there will be no need —no war." I couldn't bear to look at him.
"Perhaps," he said.
There was something in the way he said it that made me look up at him. His face bore that expression.
I looked back and saw the paintings. The angle of light from a high window in the hall seemed to fall upon the swords in the paintings. They appeared to merge into one long weary sword being surrendered.
"Perhaps," he repeated, very softly, his hand this time not waving randomly in the air, but thrust out determinedly before him, as if he were already carrying on the family tradition.
The stories, poetry, and humor of Larry Lefkowitz have been widely published in the U.S. and abroad in print, online, and ebooks. His book Laughing into the Fourth Dimension, 25 Humorous Fantasy and Science Fiction Stories has recently been published by Wayman Publishing.