Monday, May 27, 2013

Chapter 23


          The following morning dawns fine and not dissimilar to the first paragraph 
of the story - ducks, kingfisher, etc. The only blot on the landscape is the brooding 
presence of the blighted Marguerite, to Biffo’s left at the breakfast table.

          She has not, she informs him acidly, ‘had a wink of sleep’. The reason for this 
has been the brooding silence of the countryside, broken by the fabled Amblewick 
screech owls. These avians have chosen, maybe with foresight, to nest in the 
chimney of the Red Chamber where their human counterpart has, fortuitously, been 
roosting. The resultant, and inevitable, abusive monologue is somewhat ameliorated 
by the comforting presence of Parsons, once more shimmering about in his 
customary collected manner. 

          He returned on the milk train - arriving in Ipswich at an early hour with a rich 
cargo of stores from Fortnum’s. By prior arrangement he was met at the station 
by Harry Richardson in the estate van. His presence at the breakfast table gives 
considerable comfort to Biffo who has been finding the Huntington-Smythe invasion 
rather too much to handle on his own.

          Biffo is saddened, but, he has to admit to himself, rather relieved, that his 
customary “Pick-Me-Up”, and its attendant Lanson, are absent from the table this 

          “At least I don’t have to run that gauntlet at such an uncivilised hour” he 
breathes to himself, “Praise the Lord for Parsons!” 

          Biffo raises his eyes to the ceiling, not with any expectation of divine 
intervention - rather more in line with the view that the Heavens are ‘up’ rather 
than ‘down’. It is as he settles himself into his place, and is lifting the lid of his 
chafing dish to inspect its contents, that he observes from the corner of his eye that 
Parsons is making a smooth exit through the double doors into the Hall. Biffo is not 
normally an observant man but, on this particular morning, he needs to keep his 
essential factotum well within his sights. No sooner has Parsons shimmered from 
view, and as Biffo is ladling his Kedgeree from chafing dish to Meissen, than Cousin 
Marguerite rivets him with her glittering, gimlet eye, and snaps. 

          “Not only do I have a sleepless night behind me, but also the prospect of your 
bloated company for the best part of the day. You look like the Wrath of God. I trust 
you will pull yourself together and endeavour to apply yourself to essential matters 
pertaining to Her Majesty’s Jubilee.” 

          She is pecking viciously at a meanly-buttered piece of toast.

          “We shall meet in the Estate Office at ten precisely. I have instructed the 
agent, Anderson, and all relevant staff to attend. Do I have a clear undertaking that 
you will be present, in good order - although, I have good reason for skepticism in 
that regard - and on time?” 

          Her voice, when raised, and raised it now is, has, Biffo concludes, something 
of the timbre of a slate blackboard in contact with a ripped sticking-plaster tin.

          He shrinks under the barrage. The kedgeree turns to ashes before him. He 
glances hopefully in the direction of the Hall, but manages to croak the required 

          “Absolutely, old thing, everything tickety-boo, what? Ten, on the dot.”

         “I’ve instructed that little runt at the bank - what’s his name? – also to be 
present. Got to make sure they know where they stand, these usurer Johnnies - as 
well as just who’s in charge. I trust that the money has been placed on deposit prior 
to expenditure?”

          Biffo, who has a very clear understanding of exactly who is in charge, is also 
aware that the Jubilee funds are still in his current account. He therefore replies 
with a non-committal, “Hrumph”, which deteriorates halfway through into a wheezy 

          “Listen to you, you buffoon. Health down the drain. Damned stinking cigars. 
Beginning to wonder if you’ll even live to see the Jubilee.” 

          She reaches for a Capstan and ignites it with the by now familiar belch of 

          “Blithering idiot!”

          Biffo, who has resisted the cigar for some years, makes a mental note to light 
up a Cohiba upon the completion of luncheon - and sneezes into his silk hanky to 
gain time. It is at this low point in the proceedings that Parsons floats back in his 
Guardian Angel role and stage-whispers into his employer’s ear. 

          “Lady Constance is on the telephone, Milord.”

          “Gosh! I say. Problem, what?”

          “Her Ladyship did not elaborate, Milord, but I was able to ascertain during 
the course of our brief altercation, that the matter was of some immediacy.”

          “Lead on, Parsons!”

          Biffo grinds back the Chippendale and scrambles to his feet. 

         “Be back in a trice, my dear,” he tosses in Marguerite’s direction. “Duty calls, 
if you know what one means, what?”

          He leaves that lady in the grip of her next spiteful regurgitation, and exits 
smartly into the Hall, followed by the good Parsons who closes the doors with the 
discreet, but familiar, Rolls-Royce click.

          The old woman’s nostrils are assailed by the scent of mildly-curried Haddock 
emanating from Biffo’s plate. 

         “Damned, colonial pap!” she squawks.


          Once in the Hall, His Lordship whispers feverishly to his retainer. 

         “I say, Parsons, damned poor show, what? Old buzzard jumped the gun, don’t 
you know? Sitting on the South lawn having a ‘zizzz’, and there she was, surging in 
fangs to the fore; all guns blazing. Damned old trout!”

          “Milord, I was made aware of Mrs Huntington-Smythe’s advent into our 
midst by the good offices of Mr Owen at the Neptune Hotel, who observed, by mere 
chance, the somewhat violent passage of a 1938 Ariel “Square-Four” motor-bicycle 
combination piloted by the said lady and heading in the direction of the Castle 
grounds. Mr Owen has always been a man of singular integrity in matters which 
concern us all at the Castle. He has my London number, and telephoned my sister, 
who referred him to Fortnum’s where I was in conference regarding your Lordship’s 
asparagus and certain other pertinent matters, with my friend Mr Henderson, in his 
private office adjacent to the Food Hall.”

          “Jolly good show, what?”  

          Biffo’s brain is firing on even fewer cylinders than usual. 

         “But how did Owen know it was our old bat on that motorcycle thingy?”

          “Some years ago, Milord, when the esteemed Mrs Huntington-Smythe was 
at the peak of her fitness, Mr Owen was the recipient of a black-eye from that lady. 
This was the result of his determined, possibly vociferous, youthful defence of 
Worthington “E” from the Wood: a defence which he admits had been much to the 
detriment of a certain northern brew, the name of which Mr Owen withheld, but 
which he assures me was the preferred beverage of Mrs Huntington-Smythe.”


          “Mr Owen assured me that receipt of a ‘shiner’ from any individual, let alone 
a female of the species, ensures accurate mental recall of the face whose fists 
administered it. He also assured me that the reason for his call to me at Messrs 
Fortnums, was a deep regard for your Lordship’s family and a fear that harm might 
come, either to yourself, or other family members, if he did not transmit knowledge 
of the Lady’s transit towards the Castle to a responsible resident.”

          “Good for Owen, what?” Biffo is always glad of allies in times of stress. 
“Allies few and far between these days, eh, Parsons?” 

          “Precisely, Milord”. Parsons is impassive.

          Biffo drags his mind back to Corrie and her call. 

          “Good Heavens – completely forgot about her! Corrie on the telephone, 
you said?”

          “Her Ladyship has not, in fact, telephoned this morning, Milord. I felt obliged 
to resort to a certain persiflage, if not indeed subterfuge,” his face is 
expressionless, “in order to facilitate your Lordship’s, dare we say, escape, from 
the dining-room, so that matters might be restored, in so far as that was possible 
under the prevailing circumstances, to their normal elegant sufficiency. I have 
taken the liberty of providing your Lordship’s customary breakfast refreshment 
here, in the Hall, rather than under the gaze of a person who might read into it 
other than its true function.”

          “What the Devil are you talking about Parsons, old thing? Bit obtuse these 
days, what?”

          “Your morning’s prescription will be found on the telephone table, Milord. 
          And now, if your Lordship will excuse me, I have to discuss the luncheon and 
dinner menus with Mrs Fenner a little early this morning, in order punctually to be 
attendant at Mrs Huntington-Smythe’s Jubilee Meeting in the Estate Office - at 
ten o’clock precisely.” 

          Biffo may well be ‘seeing things’, but he has the distinct impression of a smile 
curling, momentarily, about his butler’s normally inscrutable lips as he flits towards 
the green baize door and disappears from view. 

         “But not from mind,” he muses thankfully. 

          The ancient patrician eye espies a silver salver on the indicated table - a salver 
bearing a ‘Perkins Pick-Me-Up’ and his accustomed half bottle of Lanson. A little 
chafing dish beside the beverages reveals two glistening devilled kidneys on toast, 
and a tiny silver knife and fork with which to administer them. 

         “Good old Parsons. Capital chap, what?” his Lordship ruminates.

          Things are sometimes so much better than they seem. He subsides onto the 
strategically placed carver next the table and proceeds to right the morning’s wrongs 
with a slurp and an accompanying deep sigh of appreciation. 

         Subtly restored, Biffo positively sails back into the dining-room, ready to face 
any reptilian broadside which may be spewed in his direction. 

          “Any further instructions, old girl? Got to potter up to the gardens before 
McCormack Judd roots the whole place up.”

          “You sound, and look, as though you’ve just come home from a four-ale bar.” 

          The dart is shrewd, but the Lanson holds up well. 

         “Feeling pretty active this morning on the whole. Nothing else of import, was 
there? I’ll tootle off, then. Should be asparagus for dinner this evening. Amazing 
what can happen if you keep your pecker up, don’t you know, what?”

          Marguerite regards him sourly. 

        “Just be on time at the office, you miserable discredit to the Arbuthnot name.”

        “Absolutely, old girl. ‘À bientôt’, as they say in foreign parts. Fret thou not, the 
meeting shall proceed as thou hast planned,” Biffo blows her a sprightly kiss, “till 
then, au-revoir!” 

         He is out the windows, across the moat and up the steps to the gardens before 
she can dredge up something pithy with which to deflate him.

1 comment:

  1. great stuff Micawber - could do with a parson's pick-me-up meself ;)