“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 soupc,on 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 off 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 wastepaper

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, Eugene,” 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 under-study 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 more 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 pate 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, Eugéne,” 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 if 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 any one 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.