PARSONS TO THE RESCUE
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
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
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,
“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
“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
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.