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Plot Description

I think this story is a lot more effective if you actually visualize it like you’re seeing it on television. Dahl did, in fact, dramatize it on his show “Tales of the Unexpected” with Sir John Gielgud as the butler Jelks and Joan Collins as Natalia. Doesn’t that just make it even better?

Spoiler warning! The narrator, a newspaper society columnist, starts off by telling us the history of Sir Basil Turton. Sir Basil inherited a vast newspaper empire from his father and immediately became the most sought-after bachelor in London. He was swept off his feet by a dazzling foreign woman named Natalia and they were married not long after. The narrator meets Lady Turton at a dinner party and, though he finds her manners rude, manages to wrangle an invitation to visit her home the next weekend. When the day arrives, the narrator drives down and is astonished at the variety of topiary and sculpture on the grounds of Wooton (Sir Basil’s estate). He enters the house and is shown to his room by a footman. Instantly he can tell that something is wrong in this house. While changing for dinner, our narrator is interrupted by Jelks, the butler, who launches into a peculiar rant about tipping. The upshot is that he would rather the narrator split his card winnings from the weekend with him than to tip. The narrator agrees, but is not amused when Jelks goes on to give him tips about Lady Turton’s playing tactics. The narrator gets the idea that Jelks doesn’t much like Lady Turton, nor her other houseguests. The narrator meets everyone else at dinner, and settles down to converse with Sir Basil about sculpture. Lady Turton amuses herself with her friends Carmen La Rosa and Major Jack Haddock, a bounder that is obviously in love with her. The narrator notices that Sir Basil is well aware of his wife’s indiscretion, but he’s unable to bring himself to do anything about it. The next day, the narrator and Sir Basil go for a walk around the estate. They take a seat up high on a hill that overlooks the entire garden. In the middle of their conversation, they witness Lady Turton and Major Haddock cavorting on one of the lawns, unaware that they are being watched. Haddock has a camera and is taking pictures of Lady Turton, who is mocking one of the sculptures. As a joke, she puts her head through a hole in the sculpture and then Haddock kisses her. Unfortunately, her head gets stuck. Sir Basil suggests that perhaps they should go help her out. When Sir Basil and the narrator arrive, Natalia is embarrassed and furious. Sir Basil tells Jelks to go get him something so that he can take the sculpture apart. Jelks returns with a saw and an axe. Everybody freezes as Jelks holds out the implements, and the narrator notices that Jelks slightly pushes the axe forward. Sir Basil takes the axe. The narrator says, “For me, after that, it was like the awful moment when you see a child running out into the road and a car is coming and all you can do is shut your eyes tight and wait…” When he finally opens his eyes, Sir Basil is telling Jelks that the axe is far too dangerous and requesting the saw. Lady Turton looks quite ill and her “mouth was opening and shutting making a kind of gurgling sound”. The narrator notices that, for the first time, Sir Basil has rosy cheeks and a smile in his eyes.