The Chronicles of Clovis, by Saki

“Ministers of Grace”

Although he was scarcely yet out of his teens, the Duke of Scaw was already marked out as a personality widely differing from others of his caste and period. Not in externals; therein he conformed correctly to type. His hair was faintly reminiscent of Houbigant, and at the other end of him his shoes exhaled the right SOUPÇON of harness-room; his socks compelled one’s attention without losing one’s respect; and his attitude in repose had just that suggestion of Whistler’s mother, so becoming in the really young. It was within that the trouble lay, if trouble it could be accounted, which marked him apart from his fellows. The Duke was religious. Not in any of the ordinary senses of the word; he took small heed of High Church or Evangelical standpoints, he stood outside of all the movements and missions and cults and crusades of the day, uncaring and uninterested. Yet in a mystical-practical way of his own, which had served him unscathed and unshaken through the fickle years of boyhood, he was intensely and intensively religious. His family were naturally, though unobtrusively, distressed about it. “I am so afraid it may affect his bridge,” said his mother.

The Duke sat in a pennyworth of chair in St. James’s Park, listening to the pessimisms of Belturbet, who reviewed the existing political situation from the gloomiest of standpoints.

“Where I think you political spade-workers are so silly,” said the Duke, “is in the misdirection of your efforts. You spend thousands of pounds of money, and Heaven knows how much dynamic force of brain power and personal energy, in trying to elect or displace this or that man, whereas you could gain your ends so much more simply by making use of the men as you find them. If they don’t suit your purpose as they are, transform them into something more satisfactory.”

“Do you refer to hypnotic suggestion?” asked Belturbet, with the air of one who is being trifled with.

“Nothing of the sort. Do you understand what I mean by the verb to koepenick? That is to say, to replace an authority by a spurious imitation that would carry just as much weight for the moment as the displaced original; the advantage, of course, being that the koepenick replica would do what you wanted, whereas the original does what seems best in its own eyes.”

“I suppose every public man has a double, if not two or three,” said Belturbet; “but it would be a pretty hard task to koepenick a whole bunch of them and keep the originals out of the way.”

“There have been instances in European history of highly successful koepenickery,” said the Duke dreamily.

“Oh, of course, there have been False Dimitris and Perkin Warbecks, who imposed on the world for a time,” assented Belturbet, “but they personated people who were dead or safely out of the way. That was a comparatively simple matter. It would be far easier to pass oneself of as dead Hannibal than as living Haldane, for instance.”

“I was thinking,” said the Duke, “of the most famous case of all, the angel who koepenicked King Robert of Sicily with such brilliant results. Just imagine what an advantage it would be to have angels deputizing, to use a horrible but convenient word, for Quinston and Lord Hugo Sizzle, for example. How much smoother the Parliamentary machine would work than at present!”

“Now you’re talking nonsense,” said Belturbet; “angels don’t exist nowadays, at least, not in that way, so what is the use of dragging them into a serious discussion? It’s merely silly.”

“If you talk to me like that I shall just DO it,” said the Duke.

“Do what?” asked Belturbet. There were times when his young friend’s uncanny remarks rather frightened him.

“I shall summon angelic forces to take over some of the more troublesome personalities of our public life, and I shall send the ousted originals into temporary retirement in suitable animal organisms. It’s not every one who would have the knowledge or the power necessary to bring such a thing off —”

“Oh, stop that inane rubbish,” said Belturbet angrily; “it’s getting wearisome. Here’s Quinston coming,” he added, as there approached along the almost deserted path the well-known figure of a young Cabinet Minister, whose personality evoked a curious mixture of public interest and unpopularity.

“Hurry along, my dear man,” said the young Duke to the Minister, who had given him a condescending nod; “your time is running short,” he continued in a provocative strain; “the whole inept crowd of you will shortly be swept away into the world’s waste-paper basket.”

“You poor little strawberry-leafed nonentity,” said the Minister, checking himself for a moment in his stride and rolling out his words spasmodically; “who is going to sweep us away, I should like to know? The voting masses are on our side, and all the ability and administrative talent is on our side too. No power of earth or Heaven is going to move us from our place till we choose to quit it. No power of earth or —”

Belturbet saw, with bulging eyes, a sudden void where a moment earlier had been a Cabinet Minister; a void emphasized rather than relieved by the presence of a puffed-out bewildered-looking sparrow, which hopped about for a moment in a dazed fashion and then fell to a violent cheeping and scolding.

“If we could understand sparrow-language,” said the Duke serenely, “I fancy we should hear something infinitely worse than ‘strawberry-leafed nonentity.’”

“But good Heavens, Eugène,” said Belturbet hoarsely, “what has become of — Why, there he is! How on earth did he get there?” And he pointed with a shaking finger towards a semblance of the vanished Minister, which approached once more along the unfrequented path.

The Duke laughed.

“It is Quinston to all outward appearance,” he said composedly, “but I fancy you will find, on closer investigation, that it is an angel understudy of the real article.”

The Angel–Quinston greeted them with a friendly smile.

“How beastly happy you two look sitting there!” he said wistfully.

“I don’t suppose you’d care to change places with poor little us,” replied the Duke chaffingly.

“How about poor little me?” said the Angel modestly. “I’ve got to run about behind the wheels of popularity, like a spotted dog behind a carriage, getting all the dust and trying to look as if I was an important part of the machine. I must seem a perfect fool to you onlookers sometimes.”

“I think you are a perfect angel,” said the Duke.

The Angel-that-had-been-Quinston smiled and passed on his way, pursued across the breadth of the Horse Guards Parade by a tiresome little sparrow that cheeped incessantly and furiously at him.

“That’s only the beginning,” said the Duke complacently; “I’ve made it operative with all of them, irrespective of parties.”

Belturbet made no coherent reply; he was engaged in feeling his pulse. The Duke fixed his attention with some interest on a black swan that was swimming with haughty, stiff-necked aloofness amid the crowd of lesser water-fowl that dotted the ornamental water. For all its pride of bearing, something was evidently ruffling and enraging it; in its way it seemed as angry and amazed as the sparrow had been.

At the same moment a human figure came along the pathway. Belturbet looked up apprehensively.

“Kedzon,” he whispered briefly.

“An Angel–Kedzon, if I am not mistaken,” said the Duke. “Look, he is talking affably to a human being. That settles it.”

A shabbily dressed lounger had accosted the man who had been Viceroy in the splendid East, and who still reflected in his mien some of the cold dignity of the Himalayan snow-peaks.

“Could you tell me, sir, if them white birds is storks or halbatrosses? I had an argyment —”

The cold dignity thawed at once into genial friendliness.

“Those are pelicans, my dear sir. Are you interested in birds? If you would join me in a bun and a glass of milk at the stall yonder, I could tell you some interesting things about Indian birds. Right oh! Now the hill-mynah, for instance —”

The two men disappeared in the direction of the bun stall, chatting volubly as they went, and shadowed from the other side of the railed enclosure by a black swan, whose temper seemed to have reached the limit of inarticulate rage.

Belturbet gazed in an open-mouthed wonder after the retreating couple, then transferred his attention to the infuriated swan, and finally turned with a look of scared comprehension at his young friend lolling unconcernedly in his chair. There was no longer any room to doubt what was happening. The “silly talk” had been translated into terrifying action.

“I think a prairie oyster on the top of a stiffish brandy-and-soda might save my reason,” said Belturbet weakly, as he limped towards his club.

It was late in the day before he could steady his nerves sufficiently to glance at the evening papers. The Parliamentary report proved significant reading, and confirmed the fears that he had been trying to shake off. Mr. Ap Dave, the Chancellor, whose lively controversial style endeared him to his supporters and embittered him, politically speaking, to his opponents, had risen in his place to make an unprovoked apology for having alluded in a recent speech to certain protesting taxpayers as “skulkers.” He had realized on reflection that they were in all probability perfectly honest in their inability to understand certain legal technicalities of the new finance laws. The House had scarcely recovered from this sensation when Lord Hugo Sizzle caused a further flutter of astonishment by going out of his way to indulge in an outspoken appreciation of the fairness, loyalty, and straightforwardness not only of the Chancellor, but of all the members of the Cabinet. A wit had gravely suggested moving the adjournment of the House in view of the unexpected circumstances that had arisen.

Belturbet anxiously skimmed over a further item of news printed immediately below the Parliamentary report: “Wild cat found in an exhausted condition in Palace Yard.”

“Now I wonder which of them —” he mused, and then an appalling idea came to him. “Supposing he’s put them both into the same beast!” He hurriedly ordered another prairie oyster.

Belturbet was known in his club as a strictly moderate drinker; his consumption of alcoholic stimulants that day gave rise to considerable comment.

The events of the next few days were piquantly bewildering to the world at large; to Belturbet, who knew dimly what was happening, the situation was fraught with recurring alarms. The old saying that in politics it’s the unexpected that always happens received a justification that it had hitherto somewhat lacked, and the epidemic of startling personal changes of front was not wholly confined to the realm of actual politics. The eminent chocolate magnate, Sadbury, whose antipathy to the Turf and everything connected with it was a matter of general knowledge, had evidently been replaced by an Angel–Sadbury, who proceeded to electrify the public by blossoming forth as an owner of race-horses, giving as a reason his matured conviction that the sport was, after all, one which gave healthy open-air recreation to large numbers of people drawn from all classes of the community, and incidentally stimulated the important industry of horse-breeding. His colours, chocolate and cream hoops spangled with pink stars, promised to become as popular as any on the Turf. At the same time, in order to give effect to his condemnation of the evils resulting from the spread of the gambling habit among wage-earning classes, who lived for the most part from hand to mouth, he suppressed all betting news and tipsters’ forecasts in the popular evening paper that was under his control. His action received instant recognition and support from the Angel-proprietor of the EVENING VIEWS, the principal rival evening halfpenny paper, who forthwith issued an ukase decreeing a similar ban on betting news, and in a short while the regular evening Press was purged of all mention of starting prices and probable winners. A considerable drop in the circulation of all these papers was the immediate result, accompanied, of course, by a falling-off in advertisement value, while a crop of special betting broadsheets sprang up to supply the newly-created want. Under their influence the betting habit became if anything rather wore widely diffused than before. The Duke had possibly overlooked the futility of koepenicking the leaders of the nation with excellently intentioned angel under-studies, while leaving the mass of the people in its original condition.

Further sensation and dislocation was caused in the Press world by the sudden and dramatic RAPPROCHEMENT which took place between the Angel–Editor of the SCRUTATOR and the Angel–Editor of the ANGLIAN REVIEW, who not only ceased to criticize and disparage the tone and tendencies of each other’s publication, but agreed to exchange editorships for alternating periods. Here again public support was not on the side of the angels; constant readers of the SCRUTATOR complained bitterly of the strong meat which was thrust upon them at fitful intervals in place of the almost vegetarian diet to which they had become confidently accustomed; even those who were not mentally averse to strong meat as a separate course were pardonably annoyed at being supplied with it in the pages of the SCRUTATOR. To be suddenly confronted with a pungent herring salad when one had attuned oneself to tea and toast, or to discover a richly truffled segment of PATÉ DE FOIE dissembled in a bowl of bread and milk, would be an experience that might upset the equanimity of the most placidly disposed mortal. An equally vehement outcry arose from the regular subscribers of the ANGLIAN REVIEW who protested against being served from time to time with literary fare which no young person of sixteen could possibly want to devour in secret. To take infinite precautions, they complained, against the juvenile perusal of such eminently innocuous literature was like reading the Riot Act on an uninhabited island. Both reviews suffered a serious falling-off in circulation and influence. Peace hath its devastations as well as war.

The wives of noted public men formed another element of discomfiture which the young Duke had almost entirely left out of his calculations. It is sufficiently embarrassing to keep abreast of the possible wobblings and veerings-round of a human husband, who, from the strength or weakness of his personal character, may leap over or slip through the barriers which divide the parties; for this reason a merciful politician usually marries late in life, when he has definitely made up his mind on which side he wishes his wife to be socially valuable. But these trials were as nothing compared to the bewilderment caused by the Angel-husbands who seemed in some cases to have revolutionized their outlook on life in the interval between breakfast and dinner, without premonition or preparation of any kind, and apparently without realizing the least need for subsequent explanation. The temporary peace which brooded over the Parliamentary situation was by no means reproduced in the home circles of the leading statesmen and politicians. It had been frequently and extensively remarked of Mrs. Exe that she would try the patience of an angel; now the tables were reversed, and she unwittingly had an opportunity for discovering that the capacity for exasperating behaviour was not all on one side.

And then, with the introduction of the Navy Estimates, Parliamentary peace suddenly dissolved. It was the old quarrel between Ministers and the Opposition as to the adequacy or the reverse of the Government’s naval programme. The Angel–Quinston and the Angel–Hugo-Sizzle contrived to keep the debates free from personalities and pinpricks, but an enormous sensation was created when the elegant lackadaisical Halfan Halfour threatened to bring up fifty thousand stalwarts to wreck the House if the Estimates were not forthwith revised on a Two–Power basis. It was a memorable scene when he rose in his place, in response to the scandalized shouts of his opponents, and thundered forth, “Gentlemen, I glory in the name of Apache.”

Belturbet, who had made several fruitless attempts to ring up his young friend since the fateful morning in St. James’s Park, ran him to earth one afternoon at his club, smooth and spruce and unruffled as ever.

“Tell me, what on earth have you turned Cocksley Coxon into?” Belturbet asked anxiously, mentioning the name of one of the pillars of unorthodoxy in the Anglican Church. “I don’t fancy he BELIEVES in angels, and if he finds an angel preaching orthodox sermons from his pulpit while he’s been turned into a fox-terrier, he’ll develop rabies in less than no time.”

“I rather think it was a fox-terrier,” said the Duke lazily.

Belturbet groaned heavily, and sank into a chair.

“Look here, Eugène,” he whispered hoarsely, having first looked well round to see that no one was within hearing range, “you’ve got to stop it. Consols are jumping up and down like bronchos, and that speech of Halfour’s in the House last night has simply startled everybody out of their wits. And then on the top of it, Thistlebery —”

“What has he been saying?” asked the Duke quickly.

“Nothing. That’s just what’s so disturbing. Every one thought it was simply inevitable that he should come out with a great epoch-making speech at this juncture, and I’ve just seen on the tape that he has refused to address any meetings at present, giving as a reason his opinion that something more than mere speech-making was wanted.”

The young Duke said nothing, but his eyes shone with quiet exultation.

“It’s so unlike Thistlebery,” continued Belturbet; “at least,” he said suspiciously, “it’s unlike the REAL Thistlebery —”

“The real Thistlebery is flying about somewhere as a vocally-industrious lapwing,” said the Duke calmly; “I expect great things of the Angel–Thistlebery,” he added.

At this moment there was a magnetic stampede of members towards the lobby, where the tape-machines were ticking out some news of more than ordinary import.

“COUP D’ÉTAT in the North. Thistlebery seizes Edinburgh Castle. Threatens civil war unless Government expands naval programme.”

In the babel which ensued Belturbet lost sight of his young friend. For the best part of the afternoon he searched one likely haunt after another, spurred on by the sensational posters which the evening papers were displaying broadcast over the West End. “General Baden–Baden mobilizes Boy–Scouts. Another COUP D’ÉTAT feared. Is Windsor Castle safe?” This was one of the earlier posters, and was followed by one of even more sinister purport: “Will the Test-match have to be postponed?” It was this disquietening question which brought home the real seriousness of the situation to the London public, and made people wonder whether one might not pay too high a price for the advantages of party government. Belturbet, questing round in the hope of finding the originator of the trouble, with a vague idea of being able to induce him to restore matters to their normal human footing, came across an elderly club acquaintance who dabbled extensively in some of the more sensitive market securities. He was pale with indignation, and his pallor deepened as a breathless newsboy dashed past with a poster inscribed: “Premier’s constituency harried by moss-troopers. Halfour sends encouraging telegram to rioters. Letchworth Garden City threatens reprisals. Foreigners taking refuge in Embassies and National Liberal Club.”

“This is devils’ work!” he said angrily.

Belturbet knew otherwise.

At the bottom of St. James’s Street a newspaper motor-cart, which had just come rapidly along Pall Mall, was surrounded by a knot of eagerly talking people, and for the first time that afternoon Belturbet heard expressions of relief and congratulation.

It displayed a placard with the welcome announcement: “Crisis ended. Government gives way. Important expansion of naval programme.”

There seemed to be no immediate necessity for pursuing the quest of the errant Duke, and Belturbet turned to make his way homeward through St. James’s Park. His mind, attuned to the alarums and excursions of the afternoon, became dimly aware that some excitement of a detached nature was going on around him. In spite of the political ferment which reigned in the streets, quite a large crowd had gathered to watch the unfolding of a tragedy that had taken place on the shore of the ornamental water. A large black swan, which had recently shown signs of a savage and dangerous disposition, had suddenly attacked a young gentleman who was walking by the water’s edge, dragged him down under the surface, and drowned him before anyone could come to his assistance. At the moment when Belturbet arrived on the spot several park-keepers were engaged in lifting the corpse into a punt. Belturbet stooped to pick up a hat that lay near the scene of the struggle. It was a smart soft felt hat, faintly reminiscent of Houbigant.

More than a month elapsed before Belturbet had sufficiently recovered from his attack of nervous prostration to take an interest once more in what was going on in the world of politics. The Parliamentary Session was still in full swing, and a General Election was looming in the near future. He called for a batch of morning papers and skimmed rapidly through the speeches of the Chancellor, Quinston, and other Ministerial leaders, as well as those of the principal Opposition champions, and then sank back in his chair with a sigh of relief. Evidently the spell had ceased to act after the tragedy which had overtaken its invoker. There was no trace of angel anywhere.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:29