PARSONS TO THE RESCUE AGAIN
When Biffo and Julian enter the pantry Parsons is busy buffing up a Cellini flagon - leather positively flickering along – and simultaneously perusing a column of numbers in what Biffo assumes is the financial publication to which Julian has alluded. Parsons appears able to do two things at once - a capability foreign to his employer who always finds it taxing to complete even a single task with any degree of competence.
“Jolly good show, Parsons, old thing.” Biffo enthuses. “Richardson said you wanted to see me.... Something about the asparagus, what?”
“Milord, yes indeed, though far be it from me to summon Your Lordship.”
“Come, come, never mind the protocol, Parsons, old darling. Richardson tells me you may have a remedy for the garden prawn catastrophe – asparagus genocide, and so on.”
The butler cringes at his employer’s familiar style, but appreciates that strain is taking its toll and, as always, makes allowances.
“Milord, I understand that we are at risk of losing the asparagus crop this season.”
“Yes, that’s about the size of it. Damned garden prawns on the rampage.”
“I confess to having been unfamiliar with the invertebrates in question, Milord, but was persuaded to engage myself fully in their affairs as soon as I was made aware that our asparagus was under threat from their presence in the gardens.”
“Good show, Parsons. Jolly good show.”
Biffo awaits his butler’s findings eagerly.
“Milord, three evenings ago I encountered a young man in the village who exhibited a certain keenness to dispose of some several gross of jam jars manufactured for Messrs Wilkin and Sons Ltd - the firm which prepares ‘Tiptree’ jams and preserves.”
“I say, Parsons, old man! What the devil have jam jars - albeit ‘Tiptree’ jam jars - got to do with my asparagus? Damn it all, make our own jams, don’t we?”
“Milord, we appear to be faced with a critical situation with regard to this year’s crop. It struck me, Milord, that we have little time to spare and must move with despatch if we are to wrest virtue from necessity, and thereby turn misfortune into profit - as Mr Dickens, I imagine, might well have phrased it.”
“Maybe a bit dense, but can’t quite catch your drift, old man.”
“Forgive me, Milord, I appear to have approached the subject from an inappropriate angle. Permit me to re-phrase. It occurred to me as I observed the imperilled asparagus shoots during a brief free moment during the breakfast washing-up period on Wednesday morning, that, quite feasibly, Your Lordship could convert adversity into pecuniary advantage.”
“Parsons, old man, never at me best this time of the morning, you’ve lost me altogether.”
“Milord, whilst I was replenishing our larders at Messrs Fortnum’s on the Monday afternoon of last week, I observed that there appears to be a ‘fashion’, shall we say, for diminutive, even stunted specimens, of various vegetables of the more exotic varieties. Such of these ‘légumes’ as I observed in the Food Hall, Milord, had clearly been preserved by some means and stored in what appeared to be standard jam jars decorated with an attractive label indicating their provenance.”
“What have diminutive vegetable varieties to do with my asparagus, may I venture to ask?”
Biffo is completely at sea and beginning to glow about the forehead - as is his wont in times of stress.
“Milord, if you will grant me the benefit of your attention for just one further minute, I believe your Lordship may see the connection between the jars and your asparagus. I observed that the bottled vegetables were being ‘snapped up’, I believe is the expression, by members of the public dressed in new, but distressed, overalls, dark glasses, Barbour jackets, and green Wellington boots. I enquired of the chief buyer, my friend Mr Henderson, as to the identity of these people. He assured me that they are the ‘upwardly mobile’ of our time – often referred to as ‘Sloane Rangers’. Mr Henderson further assured me, Milord, that such people stand possessed of extensive funds not necessarily accompanied by any noteworthy degree of discrimination. Such individuals purchase and consume anything new, or peculiar, which comes onto the market. I understood from Mr Henderson that dwarf varieties of vegetable are much in demand, as are certain salad substitutes - in particular, various relatives of the dandelion family. It occurred to me that your Lordship might be able to turn a handsome profit if we supplied Messrs Fortnum with asparagus - dwarf asparagus spears in jars with an impressive label. Mr Henderson undertakes, he has assured me on the telephone, to purchase all we can supply.”
Parsons awaits his employer’s reaction with quiet satisfaction – as his toothbrush probes a cupid’s ear.
“I say, old man, but that would be trade, wouldn’t it? Can’t have that, can we - muddy the waters, what? Anyway, what about me? I want to eat my asparagus myself!”
“Milord, I was not suggesting that your Lordship should personally preserve the spears, or insert them into the jars - merely that you should extend your blessing to a project which Mrs Fenner has agreed to supervise. Your Lordship’s name would be mentioned only as the proprietor of the gardens from which the asparagus dwarves originate. A species of ‘by Appointment’ sign, as it were.”
“Sorry old boy, doesn’t answer the question of me wanting to eat my own asparagus! Sorry about that, but, well, there it is, don’t you know?”
Parsons is unfazed.
“Milord, I have taken the liberty of communicating in that regard with Mr Frimley, Lady De Barry’s butler at Netherwick Hall. Your Lordship will doubtless remember how well her Ladyship enjoyed our asparagus last April when she dined at Amblewick on the occasion of Your Lordship’s 72nd birthday.”
“Damned old trout! Never stops talking, can’t get a word in edgeways while she’s surging around the place. Female Stürmbanführer, what?”
Pictures of a uniformed McCormack-Judd flicker across His Lordship’s mental screen.
“Her Ladyship certainly has her ways, Milord, but I must bow to your Lordship’s intimate knowledge of her political peccadillos, if indeed she has any. However, with reference to my conversation with the esteemed Mr Frimley, I was able to remind him, “en passant” I believe might be the expression, Milord, that your Lordship had gifted a generous consignment of quorms from your asparagus beds to Lady De Barry.
“Had to get rid of the old bat, somehow!”
Parsons refuses to be thrown off course and continues.
“It would appear, Milord, that Her Ladyship’s beds have produced what I understand is referred to as a ‘bumper crop’ this season.”
“Don’t rub salt into the gaping, Parsons old man, dash it!”
“During the course of my conversation with Mr Frimley, Milord, I was given to understand that her Ladyship has been staying in Monte-Carlo this spring in the company of her Ladyship’s sister-inlaw, the Dowager Duchess of Weedon - and is proposing to spend the remainder of the summer in Rome, at her customary hotel near the Corso. She left Monaco for Italy yesterday morning according to Mr Frimley’s latest information.”
“How the devil do these women do it?”
Biffo is genuinely, if somewhat irrelevantly disturbed.
“Damned Weedon woman snapped up “Pooky” ffoulkes as soon as our backs were turned, don’t you know!”
Parsons pauses momentarily in deference to his master’s voice.
“Indeed, Milord? Your Lordship’s knowledge of such matters far exceeds my own. However, if I may venture to return to the matter in hand - the asparagus dilemma.......”
He clears his throat deferentially and continues.
“I am sure your Lordship will be aware that by the time her Ladyship returns from foreign parts, in September, Milord, the asparagus season will be over and the crop will have gone to seed.”
“But Parsons, that’s intolerable! Perish the thought, what?”
“Precisely, my Lord. However, Mr Frimley assures me that should agents of ours chance to pass by Netherwick during the season he will be delighted to instruct the head Gardener, Mr Smithers, to supply all Your Lordship's needs in the matter of asparagus."
Biffo thinks he can discern a slight shimmering of gold at the end of his tunnel.
“Well, there does indeed seem to be a faint ray on the horizon - but wouldn’t it be a bit dubious - raping the old bird's asparagus beds when she's not in res?”
“The ethics of the matter, Milord, are in your Lordship’s demesne and not for me to assess. However, if I might venture to set your Lordship’s mind at rest.....”
The pause is trifling.
“The tips in Her Ladyship's beds are, after all, grist of your mill, fruit of your own quorms - originating as they did as a gift from your Lordship’s estates to that of Netherwick. For your Lordship to find himself obliged passively to witness this excellent produce going to waste through sheer negligence would seem to be nothing short of profligate. Furthermore, for your Lordship to be deprived of his greatest joy merely on account of a trivial pestilential assault - the pain of which might so easily have been assuaged - would be no less than criminal.”
There is a momentary pause as Parsons probes a further Cellini ‘putto’ with his leather. Biffo, in turn, gazes upon a bleak landscape where gone-to-seed asparagus teeters Heavenwards - roasted by the summer sun.
“After careful deliberation, Milord, I have come to the conclusion that my little stratagem will nip your problem ‘in the bud’, as it were.”
The good butler further applies himself to the Cellini patina.
Biffo focusses a little nervously on the possibility of salvation.
“Sorely tempted, have to admit. So, how would it all go, what?”
“Milord, Mr Richardson and Mr Judd.......”
“McCormack-Judd,” corrects Biffo with an uneasy glance over his shoulder.
“Yes, Milord, permit me to re-shape that last essay. The garden staff, Milord, will neatly cull all the dwarf spears in your beds. They will be delivered in baskets to our kitchens here at the Castle, where Mrs Fenner has undertaken to prepare them for bottling. There will, of course, be plenty for your Lordship’s immediate needs.”
Visions of baby asparagus shoots on the Crown Derby – swimming in Jersey butter shimmer before him - but give him his due Biffo’s concern is for the future.
“What about the quorms?” he quavers.
“Richardson has assured me, Milord, that all healthy stock will be looked after in the appropriate manner to ensure that this season’s disaster will remain as a mere ‘blip’ on the screen of your Lordship’s gardening memory.”
“Jolly good show. We appear to have considered all the relevant angles, what?”
“We have endeavoured so to do, Milord.”
Biffo is nearly, but not yet entirely, convinced.
“But you said something about bottles? Suppose you’ll have to get them in from your chap in the village; and then there are the labels to organise - lot of work, what?”
“I had anticipated your Lordship’s affirmative decision in the matter and have already purchased the jars at a much reduced figure - bearing in mind that the young man in whose possession they were until yesterday was recently apprehended whilst poaching out of season pheasant in the park. Promise of a word on his behalf to Constable Southgate and the jars were immediately delivered to the stables - where they await your Lordship’s inspection.”
“And the labels?”
“Milord, I further took the liberty of having them designed and set. The proofs arrived by courier this morning. They await your Lordship’s approval in a large buff envelope on the library desk. And now, Milord, if you will excuse me, I must re-visit the gardens to set matters in train.”
Parsons backs smoothly from the presence and Biffo mops his brow.
“No doubt about it, man’s a gem. What on earth would I do without him?”
It is with a distinct lightness of step that he and Tessa head for the stables to reverse his father’s stately 1938 Wolseley 25/30 into the stable-yard.
“Pangleton and smoked salmon canapés here we come!” Biffo twinkles to himself, “Damned stiff gin and tonic or three as well, thank Heavens.”
The old car positively purrs along. Biffo fumbles in the glove compartment for a Bendicks Bittermint – Tessa’s favourite treat. The voles are in the hedgerows, the lark is in the sky, so to speak. God is in His heaven, and everything is absolutely spiffing in His Lordship’s world.