بخش 01

مجموعه: مجموعه بدبیاری ها / کتاب: مدرسه سختگیر / فصل 1

بخش 01

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CHAPTER One

If you were going to give a gold medal to the least delightful person on Earth, you would have to give that medal to a person named Carmelita Spats, and if you didn’t give it to her, Carmelita Spats was the sort of person who would snatch it from your hands anyway. Carmelita Spats was rude, she was violent, and she was filthy, and it is really a shame that I must describe her to you, because there are enough ghastly and distressing things in this story without even mentioning such an unpleasant person.

It is the Baudelaire orphans, thank goodness, who are the heroes of this story, not the dreadful Carmelita Spats, and if you wanted to give a gold medal to Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire, it would be for survival in the face of adversity. Adversity is a word which here means “trouble,” and there are very few people in this world who have had the sort of troubling adversity that follows these three children wherever they go. Their trouble began one day when they were relaxing at the beach and received the distressing news that their parents had been killed in a terrible fire, and so were sent to live with a distant relative named Count Olaf.

If you were going to give a gold medal to Count Olaf, you would have to lock it up some-place before the awarding ceremony, because Count Olaf was such a greedy and evil man that he would try to steal it beforehand. The Baudelaire orphans did not have a gold medal, but they did have an enormous fortune that their parents had left them, and it was that fortune Count Olaf tried to snatch. The three siblings survived living with Count Olaf, but just barely, and since then Olaf had followed them everywhere, usually accompanied by one or more of his sinister and ugly associates. No matter who was caring for the Baudelaires, Count Olaf was always right behind them, performing such dastardly deeds that I can scarcely list them all: kidnapping, murder, nasty phone calls, disguises, poison, hypnosis, and atrocious cooking are just some of the adversities the Baudelaire orphans survived at his hands. Even worse, Count Olaf had a bad habit of avoiding capture, so he was always sure to turn up again. It is truly awful that this keeps happening, but that is how the story goes.

I only tell you that the story goes this way because you are about to become acquainted with rude, violent, filthy Carmelita Spats, and if you can’t stand reading about her, you had best put this book down and read something else, because it only gets worse from here. Before too long, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire will have so much adversity that being shoved aside by Carmelita Spats will look like a trip to the ice cream store.

“Get out of my way, you cakesniffers!” said a rude, violent, and filthy little girl, shoving the Baudelaire orphans aside as she dashed by. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny were too startled to answer. They were standing on a sidewalk made of bricks, which must have been very old because there was a great deal of dark moss oozing out from in between them. Surrounding the sidewalk was a vast brown lawn that looked like it had never been watered, and on the lawn were hundreds of children running in various directions. Occasionally someone would slip and fall to the ground, only to get back up and keep running. It looked exhausting and pointless, two things that should be avoided at all costs, but the Baudelaire orphans barely glanced at the other children, keeping their eyes on the mossy bricks below them.

Shyness is a curious thing, because, like quicksand, it can strike people at any time, and also, like quicksand, it usually makes its victims look down. This was to be the Baudelaires’ first day at Prufrock Preparatory School, and all three siblings found that they would rather look at the oozing moss than at anything else.

“Have you dropped something?” Mr. Poe asked, coughing into a white handkerchief. One place the Baudelaires certainly didn’t want to look was at Mr. Poe, who was walking closely behind them. Mr. Poe was a banker who had been placed in charge of the Baudelaires’ affairs following the terrible fire, and this had turned out to be a lousy idea. Mr. Poe meant well, but a jar of mustard probably also means well and would do a better job of keeping the Baudelaires out of danger. Violet, Klaus, and Sunny had long ago learned that the only thing they could count on from Mr. Poe was that he was always coughing.

“No,” Violet replied, “we haven’t dropped anything.” Violet was the oldest Baudelaire, and usually she was not shy at all. Violet liked to invent things, and one could often find her thinking hard about her latest invention, with her hair tied up in a ribbon to keep it out of her eyes. When her inventions were done, she liked to show them to people she knew, who were usually very impressed with her skill. Right now, as she looked down at the mossy bricks, she thought of a machine she could build that could keep moss from growing on the sidewalk, but she felt too nervous to talk about it. What if none of the teachers, children, or administrative staff were interested in her inventions?

As if he were reading her thoughts, Klaus put a hand on Violet’s shoulder, and she smiled at him. Klaus had known for all twelve of his years that his older sister found a hand on her shoulder comforting—as long as the hand was attached to an arm, of course. Normally Klaus would have said something comforting as well, but he was feeling as shy as his sister. Most of the time, Klaus could be found doing what he liked to do best, which was reading. Some mornings one could find him in bed with his glasses on because he had been reading so late that he was too tired to take them off. Klaus looked down at the sidewalk and remembered a book he had read called Moss Mysteries, but he felt too shy to bring it up. What if Prufrock Preparatory School had nothing good to read?

Sunny, the youngest Baudelaire, looked up at her siblings, and Violet smiled and picked her up. This was easy to do because Sunny was a baby and only a little bit larger than a loaf of bread. Sunny was also too nervous to say anything, although it was often difficult to understand what she said when she did speak up. For instance, if Sunny had not been feeling so shy, she might have opened her mouth, revealing her four sharp teeth, and said “Marimo!” which may have meant “I hope there are plenty of things to bite at school, because biting things is one of my favorite things to do!”

“I know why you’re all so quiet,” Mr. Poe said. “It’s because you’re excited, and I don’t blame you. I always wanted to go to boarding school when I was younger, but I never had the chance. I’m a little jealous of you, if you want to know the truth.”

The Baudelaires looked at one another. The fact that Prufrock Preparatory School was a boarding school was the part that made them feel the most nervous. If no one was interested in inventions, or there was nothing to read, or biting wasn’t allowed, they were stuck there, not only all day but all night as well. The siblings wished that if Mr. Poe were really jealous of them he would attend Prufrock Preparatory School himself, and they could work at the bank.

“You’re very lucky to be here,” Mr. Poe continued. “I had to call more than four schools before I found one that could take all three of you at such short notice. Prufrock Prep—that’s what they call it, as a sort of nickname—is a very fine academy. The teachers all have advanced degrees. The dormitory rooms are all finely furnished. And most important of all, there is an advanced computer system which will keep Count Olaf away from you. Vice Principal Nero told me that Count Olaf’s complete description—everything from his one long eyebrow to the tattoo of an eye on his left ankle—has been programmed into the computer, so you three should be safe here for the next several years.”

“But how can a computer keep Count Olaf away?” Violet asked in a puzzled voice, still looking down at the ground.

“It’s an advanced computer,” Mr. Poe said, as if the word “advanced” were a proper explanation instead of a word meaning “having attained advancement.” “Don’t worry your little heads about Count Olaf. Vice Principal Nero has promised me that he will keep a close eye on you. After all, a school as advanced as Prufrock Prep wouldn’t allow people to simply run around loose.”

“Move, cakesniffers!” the rude, violent, and filthy little girl said as she dashed by them again.

“What does ‘cakesniffers’ mean?” Violet murmured to Klaus, who had an enormous vocabulary from all his reading.

“I don’t know,” Klaus admitted, “but it doesn’t sound very nice.”

“What a charming word that is,” Mr. Poe said. “Cakesniffers. I don’t know what it means, but it reminds me of pastry. Oh well, here we are.” They had come to the end of the mossy brick sidewalk and stood in front of the school. The Baudelaires looked up at their new home and gasped in surprise. Had they not been staring at the sidewalk the whole way across the lawn, they would have seen what the academy looked like, but perhaps it was best to delay looking at it for as long as possible. A person who designs buildings is called an architect, but in the case of Prufrock Prep a better term might be “depressed architect.” The school was made up of several buildings, all made of smooth gray stone, and the buildings were grouped together in a sort of sloppy line. To get to the buildings, the Baudelaires had to walk beneath an immense stone arch casting a curved shadow on the lawn, like a rainbow in which all of the colors were gray or black. On the arch were the words “PRUFROCK PREPARATORY SCHOOL” in enormous black letters, and then, in smaller letters, the motto of the school, “Memento Mori.” But it was not the buildings or the arch that made the children gasp. It was how the buildings were shaped—rectangular, but with a rounded top. A rectangle with a rounded top is a strange shape, and the orphans could only think of one thing with that shape. To the Baudelaires each building looked exactly like a gravestone.

“Rather odd architecture,” Mr. Poe commented. “Each building looks like a thumb. In any case, you are to report to Vice Principal Nero’s office immediately. It’s on the ninth floor of the main building.”

“Aren’t you coming with us, Mr. Poe?” Violet asked. Violet was fourteen, and she knew that fourteen was old enough to go to somebody’s office by herself, but she felt nervous about walking into such a sinister-looking building without an adult nearby.

Mr. Poe coughed into his handkerchief and looked at his wristwatch at the same time. “I’m afraid not,” he said when his coughing passed. “The banking day has already begun. But I’ve talked over everything with Vice Principal Nero, and if there’s any problem, remember you can always contact me or any of my associates at Mulctuary Money Management. Now, off you go. Have a wonderful time at Prufrock Prep.”

“I’m sure we will,” said Violet, sounding much braver than she felt. “Thank you for everything, Mr. Poe.”

“Yes, thank you,” Klaus said, shaking the banker’s hand.

“Terfunt,” Sunny said, which was her way of saying “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome, all of you,” Mr. Poe said. “So long.” He nodded at all three Baudelaires, and Violet and Sunny watched him walk back down the mossy sidewalk, carefully avoiding the running children. But Klaus didn’t watch him. Klaus was looking at the enormous arch over the academy.

“Maybe I don’t know what ‘cakesniffer’ means,” Klaus said, “but I think I can translate our new school’s motto.”

“It doesn’t even look like it’s in English,” Violet said, peering up at it.

“Racho,” Sunny agreed.

“It’s not,” Klaus said. “It’s in Latin. Many mottoes are in Latin, for some reason. I don’t know very much Latin, but I do remember reading this phrase in a book about the Middle Ages. If it means what I think it means, it’s certainly a strange motto.”

“What do you think it means?” Violet asked.

“If I’m not mistaken,” said Klaus, who was rarely mistaken, “‘Memento Mori’ means ‘Remember you will die.’”

“Remember you will die,” Violet repeated quietly, and the three siblings stepped closer to one another, as if they were very cold. Everybody will die, of course, sooner or later. Circus performers will die, and clarinet experts will die, and you and I will die, and there might be a person who lives on your block, right now, who is not looking both ways before he crosses the street and who will die in just a few seconds, all because of a bus. Everybody will die, but very few people want to be reminded of that fact. The children certainly did not want to remember that they would die, particularly as they walked beneath the arch over Prufrock Prep. The Baudelaire orphans did not need to be reminded of this as they began their first day in the giant graveyard that was now their home.

CHAPTER Two

As the Baudelaire orphans stood outside Vice Principal Nero’s door, they were reminded of something their father said to them just a few months before he died. One evening, the Baudelaire parents had gone out to hear an orchestra play, and the three children had stayed by themselves in the family mansion. The Baudelaires had something of a routine on nights like this. First, Violet and Klaus would play a few games of checkers while Sunny ripped up some old newspapers, and then the three children would read in the library until they fell asleep on comfortable sofas. When their parents came home they would wake up the sleeping children, talk to them a little about the evening, and send them off to bed. But on this particular night, the Baudelaire parents came home early and the children were still up reading—or, in Sunny’s case, looking at the pictures. The siblings’ father stood in the doorway of the library and said something they never forgot. “Children,” he said, “there is no worse sound in the world than somebody who cannot play the violin who insists on doing so anyway.”

At the time, the Baudelaires had merely giggled, but as they listened outside the vice principal’s door, they realized that their father had been absolutely right. When they first approached the heavy wooden door, it sounded like a small animal was having a temper tantrum. But as they listened more closely, the children realized it was somebody who cannot play the violin insisting on doing so anyway. The sounds shrieked and hissed and scratched and moaned and made other horrible sounds that are really impossible to describe, and finally Violet could take it no longer and knocked on the door. She had to knock very hard and at length, in order to be heard over the atrocious violin recital going on inside, but at last the wooden door opened with a creak and there stood a tall man with a violin under his chin and an angry glare in his eyes.

“Who dares interrupt a genius when he is rehearsing?” he asked, in a voice so loud and booming that it was enough to make anyone shy all over again.

“The Baudelaires,” Klaus said quietly, looking at the floor. “Mr. Poe said to come right to Vice Principal Nero’s office.”

“Mr. Poe said to come right to Vice Principal Nero’s office,” the man mimicked in a high, shrieky voice. “Well, come in, come in, I don’t have all afternoon.”

The children stepped into the office and got a better look at the man who had mocked them. He was dressed in a rumpled brown suit that had something sticky on its jacket, and he was wearing a tie decorated with pictures of snails. His nose was very small and very red, as if somebody had stuck a cherry tomato in the middle of his splotchy face. He was almost completely bald, but he had four tufts of hair, which he had tied into little pigtails with some old rubber bands. The Baudelaires had never seen anybody who looked like him before and they weren’t particularly interested in looking at him any further, but his office was so small and bare that it was difficult to look at anything else. There was a small metal desk with a small metal chair behind it and a small metal lamp to one side. The office had one window, decorated with curtains that matched the man’s tie. The only other object in the room was a shiny computer, which sat in a corner of the room like a toad. The computer had a blank gray screen and several buttons as red as the pigtailed man’s nose.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the man announced in a loud voice, “Vice Principal Nero!”

There was a pause, and the three children looked all around the tiny room, wondering where Nero had been hiding all this time. Then they looked back at the man with the pigtails, who was holding both hands up in the air, his violin and bow almost touching the ceiling, and they realized that the man he had just introduced so grandly was himself. Nero paused for a moment and looked down at the Baudelaires.

“It is traditional,” he said sternly, “to applaud when a genius has been introduced.”

Just because something is traditional is no reason to do it, of course. Piracy, for example, is a tradition that has been carried on for hundreds of years, but that doesn’t mean we should all attack ships and steal their gold. But Vice Principal Nero looked so ferocious that the children felt this was a time to honor tradition, so they began clapping their hands and didn’t stop until Nero took several bows and sat down in his chair.

“Thank you very much, and welcome to Prufrock Preparatory School, blah blah blah,” he said, using the word “blah” to mean that he was too bored to finish his sentence properly. “I’m certainly doing Mr. Poe a favor in taking on three orphans at such short notice. He assured me that you won’t cause any trouble, but I did a little research of my own. You’ve been sent to legal guardian after legal guardian, and adversity has always followed. ‘Adversity’ means ‘trouble,’ by the way.”

“In our case,” Klaus said, not pointing out that he already knew what the word “adversity” meant, “‘adversity’ means Count Olaf. He was the cause of all the trouble with our guardians.”

“He was the cause of all the trouble with our guardians,” Nero said in his nasty, mimicking way. “I’m not interested in your problems, quite frankly. I am a genius and have no time for anything other than playing the violin. It’s depressing enough that I had to take this job as vice principal because not a single orchestra appreciates my genius. I’m not going to depress myself further by listening to the problems of three bratty children. Anyway, here at Prufrock Prep there’ll be no blaming your own weaknesses on this Count Olaf person. Look at this.”

Vice Principal Nero walked over to the computer and pressed two buttons over and over again. The screen lit up with a light green glow, as if it were seasick. “This is an advanced computer,” Nero said. “Mr. Poe gave me all the necessary information about the man you call Count Olaf, and I programmed it into the computer. See?” Nero pressed another button, and a small picture of Count Olaf appeared on the computer screen. “Now that the advanced computer knows about him, you don’t have to worry.”

“But how can a computer keep Count Olaf away?” Klaus asked. “He could still show up and cause trouble, no matter what appears on a computer screen.”

“I shouldn’t have bothered trying to explain this to you,” Vice Principal Nero said. “There’s no way uneducated people like yourself can understand a genius like me. Well, Prufrock Prep will take care of that. You’ll get an education here if we have to break both your arms to do it. Speaking of which, I’d better show you around. Come here to the window.”

The Baudelaire orphans walked to the window and looked down at the brown lawn. From the ninth floor, all the children running around looked like tiny ants, and the sidewalk looked like a ribbon somebody had thrown away. Nero stood behind the siblings and pointed at things with his violin.

“Now, this building you’re in is the administrative building. It is completely off-limits to students. Today is your first day, so I’ll forgive you, but if I see you here again, you will not be allowed to use silverware at any of your meals. That gray building over there contains the classrooms. Violet, you will be studying with Mr. Remora in Room One, and Klaus, you will be studying with Mrs. Bass in Room Two. Can you remember that, Room One and Room Two? If you don’t think you can remember, I have a felt-tipped marker, and I will write ‘Room One’ and ‘Room Two’ on your hands in permanent ink.”

“We can remember,” Violet said quickly. “But which classroom is Sunny’s?”

Vice Principal Nero drew himself up to his full height, which in his case was five feet, ten inches. “Prufrock Preparatory School is a serious academy, not a nursery school. I told Mr. Poe that we would have room for the baby here, but we do not have a classroom for her. Sunny will be employed as my secretary.”

“Aregg?” Sunny asked incredulously. “Incredulously” is a word which here means “not being able to believe it,” and “Aregg” is a word which here means “What? I can’t believe it.”

“But Sunny’s a baby,” Klaus said. “Babies aren’t supposed to have jobs.”

“Babies aren’t supposed to have jobs,” Nero mimicked again, and then continued. “Well, babies aren’t supposed to be at boarding schools, either,” Nero pointed out. “Nobody can teach a baby anything, so she’ll work for me. All she has to do is answer the phone and take care of paperwork. It’s not very difficult, and it’s an honor to work for a genius, of course. Now, if either of you are late for class, or Sunny is late for work, your hands will be tied behind your back during meals. You’ll have to lean down and eat your food like a dog. Of course, Sunny will always have her silverware taken away, because she will work in the administrative building, where she’s not allowed.”

“That’s not fair!” Violet cried.

“That’s not fair!” the vice principal squealed back at her. “The stone building over there contains the cafeteria. Meals are served promptly at breakfast time, lunchtime, and dinnertime. If you’re late we take away your cups and glasses, and your beverages will be served to you in large puddles. That rectangular building over there, with the rounded top, is the auditorium. Every night I give a violin recital for six hours, and attendance is mandatory. The word ‘mandatory’ means that if you don’t show up, you have to buy me a large bag of candy and watch me eat it. The lawn serves as our sports facility. Our regular gym teacher, Miss Tench, accidentally fell out of a third-story window a few days ago, but we have a replacement, who should arrive shortly. In the meantime, I’ve instructed the children just to run around as fast as they can during gym time. I think that just about covers everything. Are there any questions?”

“Could anything be worse than this?” was the question Sunny had, but she was too well mannered to ask this. “Are you kidding about all these incredibly cruel punishments and rules?” was the question Klaus thought of, but he already knew that the answer was no. Only Violet thought of a question that seemed useful to ask.

“I have a question, Vice Principal Nero,” she said. “Where do we live?”

Nero’s response was so predictable that the Baudelaire orphans could have said it along with this miserable administrator. “Where do we live?” he said in his high, mocking tone, but when he was done making fun of the children he decided to answer it. “We have a magnificent dormitory here at Prufrock Prep,” he said. “You can’t miss it. It’s a gray building, entirely made of stone and shaped like a big toe. Inside is a huge living room with a brick fireplace, a game room, and a large lending library. Every student has his or her own room, with a bowl of fresh fruit placed there every Wednesday. Doesn’t that sound nice?”

“Yes, it does,” Klaus admitted.

“Keeb!” Sunny shrieked, which meant something along the lines of “I like fruit!”

“I’m glad you think so,” Nero said, “although you won’t get to see much of the place. In order to live in the dormitory, you must have a permission slip with the signature of a parent or guardian. Your parents are dead, and Mr. Poe tells me that your guardians have either been killed or have fired you.”

“But surely Mr. Poe can sign our permission slip,” Violet said.

“He surely can not,” Nero replied. “He is neither your parent nor your guardian. He is a banker who is in charge of your affairs.”

“But that’s more or less the same thing,” Klaus protested.

“That’s more or less the same thing,” Nero mimicked. “Perhaps after a few semesters at Prufrock Prep, you’ll learn the difference between a parent and a banker. No, I’m afraid you’ll have to live in a small shack, made entirely of tin. Inside there is no living room, no game room, and no lending library whatsoever. You three will each have your own bale of hay to sleep on, but no fruit. It’s a dismal place, but Mr. Poe tells me that you’ve had a number of uncomfortable experiences, so I figured you’d be used to such things.”

“Couldn’t you please make an exception?” Violet asked.

“I’m a violinist!” Nero cried. “I have no time to make exceptions! I’m too busy practicing the violin. So if you will kindly leave my office, I can get back to work.”

Klaus opened his mouth to say something more, but when he looked at Nero, he knew that there was no use saying another word to such a stubborn man, and he glumly followed his sisters out of the vice principal’s office. When the office door shut behind them, however, Vice Principal Nero said another word, and he said it three times. The three children listened to these three words that he said and knew for certain that he had not been sorry at all. For as soon as the Baudelaires left the office and Nero thought he was alone, he said to himself, “Hee hee hee.”

Now, the vice principal of Prufrock Preparatory School did not actually say the syllables “hee hee hee,” of course. Whenever you see the words “hee hee hee” in a book, or “ha ha ha,” or “har har har,” or “heh heh heh,” or even “ho ho ho,” those words mean somebody was laughing. In this case, however, the words “hee hee hee” cannot really describe what Vice Principal Nero’s laugh sounded like. The laugh was squeaky, and it was wheezy, and it had a rough, crackly edge to it, as if Nero were eating tin cans as he laughed at the children. But most of all, the laugh sounded cruel. It is always cruel to laugh at people, of course, although sometimes if they are wearing an ugly hat it is hard to control yourself. But the Baudelaires were not wearing ugly hats. They were young children receiving bad news, and if Vice Principal Nero really had to laugh at them, he should have been able to control himself until the siblings were out of earshot. But Nero didn’t care about controlling himself, and as the Baudelaire orphans listened to the laugh, they realized that what their father had said to them that night when he’d come home from the symphony was wrong. There was a worse sound in the world than somebody who cannot play the violin insisting on doing so anyway. The sound of an administrator laughing a squeaky, wheezy, rough, crackly, cruel laugh at children who have to live in a shack was much, much worse. So as I hide out here in this mountain cabin and write the words “hee hee hee,” and you, wherever you are hiding out, read the words “hee hee hee,” you should know that “hee hee hee” stands for the worst sound the Baudelaires had ever heard.

CHAPTER Three

The expression “Making a mountain out of a molehill” simply means making a big deal out of something that is actually a small deal, and it is easy to see how this expression came about. Molehills are simply mounds of earth serving as condominiums for moles, and they have never caused anyone any harm except for maybe a stubbed toe if you were walking through the wilderness without any shoes on. Mountains, however, are very large mounds of earth and are constantly causing problems. They are very tall, and when people try to climb them they often fall off, or get lost and die of starvation. Sometimes two countries fight over who really owns a mountain, and thousands of people have to go to war and come home grumpy or wounded. And, of course, mountains serve as homes to mountain goats and mountain lions, who enjoy attacking helpless picnickers and eating sandwiches or children. So when someone is making a mountain out of a molehill, they are pretending that something is as horrible as a war or a ruined picnic when it is really only as horrible as a stubbed toe.

When the Baudelaire orphans reached the shack where they were going to live, however, they realized that Vice Principal Nero hadn’t been making a mountain out of a molehill at all when he had said that the shack was a dismal place. If anything, he had been making a molehill out of a mountain. It was true that the shack was tiny, as Nero had said, and made of tin, and it was true that there was no living room, no game room, and no lending library. It was true that there were three bales of hay instead of beds, and that there was absolutely no fresh fruit in sight. But Vice Principal Nero had left out a few details in his description, and it was these details that made the shack even worse. The first detail the Baudelaires noticed was that the shack was infested with small crabs, each one about the size of a matchbox, scurrying around the wooden floor with their tiny claws snapping in the air. As the children walked across the shack to sit glumly on one of the bales of hay, they were disappointed to learn that the crabs were territorial, a word which here means “unhappy to see small children in their living quarters.” The crabs gathered around the children and began snapping their claws at them. Luckily, the crabs did not have very good aim, and luckily, their claws were so small that they probably wouldn’t hurt any more than a good strong pinch, but even if they were more or less harmless they did not make for a good shack.

When the children reached the bale of hay and sat down, tucking their legs up under them to avoid the snapping crabs, they looked up at the ceiling and saw another detail Nero had neglected to mention. Some sort of fungus was growing on the ceiling, a fungus that was light tan and quite damp. Every few seconds, small drops of moisture would fall from the fungus with a plop! and the children had to duck to avoid getting light tan fungus juice on them. Like the small crabs, the plop!ing fungus did not appear to be very harmful, but also like the small crabs, the fungus made the shack even more uncomfortable than the vice principal had described it.

And lastly, as the children sat on the bale of hay with their legs tucked beneath them and ducked to avoid fungus juice, they saw one more harmless but unpleasant detail of the shack that was worse than Nero had led them to believe, and that was the color of the walls. Each tin wall was bright green, with tiny pink hearts painted here and there as if the shack were an enormous, tacky Valentine’s Day card instead of a place to live, and the Baudelaires found that they would rather look at the bales of hay, or the small crabs on the floor, or even the light tan fungus on the ceiling than the ugly walls.

Overall, the shack was too miserable to serve as a storage space for old banana peels, let alone as a home for three young people, and I confess that if I had been told that it was my home I probably would have lain on the bales of hay and thrown a temper tantrum. But the Baudelaires had learned long ago that temper tantrums, however fun they may be to throw, rarely solve whatever problem is causing them. So after a long, miserable silence, the orphans tried to look at their situation in a more positive light.

“This isn’t such a nice room,” Violet said finally, “but if I put my mind to it, I bet I can invent something that can keep these crabs away from us.”

“And I’m going to read up on this light tan fungus,” Klaus said. “Maybe the dormitory library has information on how to stop it from dripping.”

“Ivoser,” Sunny said, which meant something like “I bet I can use my four sharp teeth to scrape this paint away and make the walls a bit less ugly.”

Klaus gave his baby sister a little kiss on the top of her head. “At least we get to go to school,” he pointed out. “I’ve missed being in a real classroom.”

“Me too,” Violet agreed. “And at least we’ll meet some people our own age. We’ve only had the company of adults for quite some time.”

“Wonic,” Sunny said, which probably meant “And learning secretarial skills is an exciting opportunity for me, although I should really be in nursery school instead.”

“That’s true,” Klaus said. “And who knows? Maybe the advanced computer really can keep Count Olaf away, and that’s the most important thing of all.”

“You’re right,” Violet said. “Any room that doesn’t have Count Olaf in it is good enough for me.”

“Olo,” Sunny said, which meant “Even if it’s ugly, damp, and filled with crabs.”

The children sighed and then sat quietly for a few moments. The shack was quiet, except for the snapping of tiny crab claws, the plop! of fungus, and the sighs of the Baudelaires as they looked at the ugly walls. Try as they might, the youngsters just couldn’t make the shack into a molehill. No matter how much they thought of real classrooms, people their own age, or the exciting opportunity of secretarial skills, their new home seemed much, much worse than even the sorest of stubbed toes.

“Well,” Klaus said after a while, “it feels like it’s about lunchtime. Remember, if we’re late they take away our cups and glasses, so we should probably get a move on.”

“Those rules are ridiculous,” Violet said, ducking to avoid a plop! “Lunchtime isn’t a specific time, so you can’t be late for it. It’s just a word that means ‘around lunch.’”

“I know,” Klaus said, “and the part about Sunny being punished for going to the administrative building, when she has to go there to be Nero’s secretary, is completely absurd.”

“Kalc!” Sunny said, putting her little hand on her brother’s knee. She meant something like “Don’t worry about it. I’m a baby, so I hardly ever use silverware. It doesn’t matter that it’ll be taken away from me.”

Ridiculous rules or not, the orphans did not want to be punished, so the three of them walked gingerly—the word “gingerly” here means “avoiding territorial crabs”—across the shack and out onto the brown lawn. Gym class must have been over, because all the running children were gone, and this only made the Baudelaires walk even more quickly to the cafeteria.

Several years before this story took place, when Violet was ten and Klaus was eight and Sunny was not even a fetus, the Baudelaire family went to a county fair in order to see a pig that their Uncle Elwyn had entered in a contest. The pig contest turned out to be a bit dull, but in the neighboring tent there was another contest that the family found quite interesting: the Biggest Lasagna Contest. The lasagna that won the blue ribbon had been baked by eleven nuns, and was as big and soft as a large mattress. Perhaps because they were at such an impressionable age—the phrase “impressionable age” here means “ten and eight years old, respectively”—Violet and Klaus always remembered this lasagna, and they were sure they would never see another one anywhere near as big.

Violet and Klaus were wrong. When the Baudelaires entered the cafeteria, they found a lasagna waiting for them that was the size of a dance floor. It was sitting on top of an enormous trivet to keep it from burning the floor, and the person serving it was wearing a thick metal mask as protection, so that the children could only see their eyes peeking out from tiny eyeholes. The stunned Baudelaires got into a long line of children and waited their turn for the metal-masked person to scoop lasagna onto ugly plastic trays and hand it wordlessly to the children. After receiving their lasagna, the orphans walked further down the line and helped themselves to green salad, which was waiting for them in a bowl the size of a pickup truck. Next to the salad was a mountain of garlic bread, and at the end of the line was another metal-masked person, handing out silverware to the students who had not been inside the administrative building.

The Baudelaires said “thank you” to the person, who gave them a slow metallic nod in return. They took a long look around the crowded cafeteria. Hundreds of children had already received their lasagna and were sitting at long rectangular tables. The Baudelaires saw several other children who had undoubtedly been in the administrative building, because they had no silverware. They saw several more students who had their hands tied behind their backs as punishment for being late to class. And they saw several students who had a sad look on their faces, as if they had been forced to buy somebody a bag of candy and watch them eat it, and the orphans guessed that these students had failed to show up to one of Nero’s six-hour concerts.

But it was none of these punishments that made the Baudelaire orphans pause for so long. It was the fact that they did not know where to sit. Cafeterias can be confusing places, because there are different rules for each one, and sometimes it is difficult to know where one should eat. Normally, the Baudelaires would simply eat with one of their friends, but their friends were far, far away from Prufrock Preparatory School, and Violet, Klaus, and Sunny gazed around the cafeteria full of strangers and thought they might never put down their ugly trays. Finally, they caught the eye of the girl they had seen on the lawn, who had called them such a strange name, and walked a few steps toward her.

Now, you and I know that this loathsome little girl was Carmelita Spats, but the Baudelaires had not been properly introduced to her and so did not realize just how loathsome she was, although as the orphans drew closer she gave them an instant education.

“Don’t even think of eating around here, you cakesniffers!” Carmelita Spats cried, and several of her rude, filthy, violent friends nodded in agreement. “Nobody wants to have lunch with people who live in the Orphans Shack!”

“I’m terribly sorry,” Klaus said, although he wasn’t terribly sorry at all. “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

Carmelita, who had apparently never been to the administrative building, picked up her silverware and began to bang it on her tray in a rhythmic and irritating way. “Cakesniffing orphans in the Orphans Shack! Cakesniffing orphans in the Orphans Shack!” she chanted, and to the Baudelaires’ dismay, many other children joined right in. Like many other rude, violent, filthy people, Carmelita Spats had a bunch of friends who were always happy to help her torment people—probably to avoid being tormented themselves. In a few seconds, it seemed like the entire cafeteria was banging their silverware and chanting, “Cakesniffing orphans in the Orphans Shack!” The three siblings stepped closer together, craning their necks to see if there was any possible place to which they could escape and eat their lunch in peace.

“Oh, leave them alone, Carmelita!” a voice cried over the chanting. The Baudelaires turned around and saw a boy with very dark hair and very wide eyes. He looked a little older than Klaus and a little younger than Violet and had a dark green notebook tucked into the pocket of his thick wool sweater. “You’re the cakesniffer, and nobody in their right mind would want to eat with you anyway. Come on,” the boy said, turning to the Baudelaires. “There’s room at our table.”

“Thank you very much,” Violet said in relief and followed the boy to a table that had plenty of room. He sat down next to a girl who looked absolutely identical to the boy. She looked about the same age, and also had very dark hair, very wide eyes, and a notebook tucked into the pocket of her thick wool sweater. The only difference seemed to be that the girl’s notebook was pitch black. Seeing two people who look so much alike is a little bit eerie, but it was better than looking at Carmelita Spats, so the Baudelaires sat down across from them and introduced themselves.

“I’m Violet Baudelaire,” said Violet Baudelaire, “and this is my brother, Klaus, and our baby sister, Sunny.”

“It’s nice to meet you,” said the boy. “My name is Duncan Quagmire, and this is my sister, Isadora. And the girl who was yelling at you, I’m sorry to say, was Carmelita Spats.”

“She didn’t seem very nice,” Klaus said.

“That is the understatement of the century,” Isadora said. “Carmelita Spats is rude, filthy, and violent, and the less time you spend with her the happier you will be.”

“Read the Baudelaires the poem you wrote about her,” Duncan said to his sister.

“You write poetry?” Klaus asked. He had read a lot about poets but had never met one.

“Just a little bit,” Isadora said modestly. “I write poems down in this notebook. It’s an interest of mine.”

“Sappho!” Sunny shrieked, which meant something like “I’d be very pleased to hear a poem of yours!”

Klaus explained to the Quagmires what Sunny meant, and Isadora smiled and opened her notebook. “It’s a very short poem,” she said. “Only two rhyming lines.”

“That’s called a couplet,” Klaus said. “I learned that from a book of literary criticism.”

“Yes, I know,” Isadora said, and then read her poem, leaning forward so Carmelita Spats would not overhear:

“I would rather eat a bowl of vampire bats than spend an hour with Carmelita Spats.”

The Baudelaires giggled and then covered their mouths so nobody would know they were laughing at Carmelita. “That was great,” Klaus said. “I like the part about the bowl of bats.”

“Thanks,” Isadora said. “I would be interested in reading that book of literary criticism you told me about. Would you let me borrow it?”

Klaus looked down. “I can’t,” he said. “That book belonged to my father, and it was destroyed in a fire.”

The Quagmires looked at one another, and their eyes grew even wider. “I’m very sorry to hear that,” Duncan said. “My sister and I have been through a terrible fire, so we know what that’s like. Did your father die in the fire?”

“Yes he did,” Klaus said, “and my mother too.”

Isadora put down her fork, reached across the table, and patted Klaus on the hand. Normally this might have embarrassed Klaus a little bit, but under the circumstances it felt perfectly natural. “I’m so sorry to hear that,” she said. “Our parents died in a fire as well. It’s awful to miss your parents so much, isn’t it?”

“Bloni,” Sunny said, nodding.

“For a long time,” Duncan admitted, “I was afraid of any kind of fire. I didn’t even like to look at stoves.”

Violet smiled. “We stayed with a woman for a while, our Aunt Josephine, who was afraid of stoves. She was afraid that they might explode.”

“Explode!” Duncan said. “Even I wasn’t afraid as all that. Why aren’t you staying with your Aunt Josephine now?”

Now it was Violet’s turn to look down, and Duncan’s turn to reach across the table and take her hand. “She died too,” Violet said. “To tell you the truth, Duncan, our lives have been very topsy-turvy for quite some time.”

“I’m very sorry to hear it,” Duncan said, “and I wish I could tell you that things will get better here. But between Vice Principal Nero playing the violin, Carmelita Spats teasing us, and the dreadful Orphans Shack, Prufrock Prep is a pretty miserable place.”

“I think it’s awful to call it the Orphans Shack,” Klaus said. “It’s a bad enough place without giving it an insulting nickname.”

“The nickname is more of Carmelita’s handiwork, I’m sorry to say,” Isadora said. “Duncan and I had to live there for three semesters because we needed a parent or guardian to sign our permission slip, and we didn’t have one.”

“That’s the same thing that happened to us!” Violet cried. “And when we asked Nero to make an exception—”

“He said he was too busy practicing the violin,” Isadora said, nodding as she finished Violet’s sentence. “He always says that. Anyway, Carmelita called it the Orphans Shack when we were living there, and it looks like she’s going to keep on doing it.”

“Well,” Violet sighed, “Carmelita’s nasty names are the least of our problems in the shack. How did you deal with the crabs when you lived there?”

Duncan let go of her hand to take his notebook out of his pocket. “I use my notebook to take notes on things,” he explained. “I plan to be a newspaper reporter when I get a little older and I figure it’s good to start practicing. Here it is: notes on the crabs. They’re afraid of loud noises, you see, so I have a list of things we did to scare them away from us.”

“Afraid of loud noises,” Violet repeated, and tied her hair up in a ribbon to keep it out of her eyes.

“When she ties her hair up like that,” Klaus explained to the Quagmires, “it means she’s thinking of an invention. My sister is quite an inventor.”

“How about noisy shoes?” Violet said suddenly. “If we took small pieces of metal and glued them to our shoes? Then wherever we walked would make a loud noise, and I bet we’d hardly ever see those crabs.”

“Noisy shoes!” Duncan cried. “Isadora and I lived in the Orphans Shack all that time and never thought of noisy shoes!” He took a pencil out of his pocket and wrote “noisy shoes” in the dark green notebook, and then turned a page. “I do have a list of fungus books that are in the school library, if you need help with that tan stuff on the ceiling.”

“Zatwal!” Sunny shrieked.

“We’d love to see the library,” Violet translated. “It sure is lucky that we ran into you two twins.”

Duncan’s and Isadora’s faces fell, an expression which does not mean that the front part of their heads actually fell to the ground. It simply means that the two siblings suddenly looked very sad.

“What’s wrong?” Klaus asked. “Did we say something that upset you?”

“Twins,” Duncan said, so softly that the Baudelaires could barely hear him.

“You are twins, aren’t you?” Violet asked. “You look just alike.”

“We’re triplets,” Isadora said sadly.

“I’m confused,” Violet said. “Aren’t triplets three people born at the same time?”

“We were three people born at the same time,” Isadora explained, “but our brother, Quigley, died in the fire that killed our parents.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Klaus said. “Please forgive our calling you twins. We meant no disrespect to Quigley’s memory.”

“Of course you didn’t,” Duncan said, giving the Baudelaires a small smile. “There’s no way you could have known. Come on, if you’re done with your lasagna we’ll show you the library.”

“And maybe we can find some pieces of metal,” Isadora said, “for noisy shoes.”

The Baudelaire orphans smiled, and the five of them bussed their trays and walked out of the cafeteria. The library turned out to be a very pleasant place, but it was not the comfortable chairs, the huge wooden bookshelves, or the hush of people reading that made the three siblings feel so good as they walked into the room. It is useless for me to tell you all about the brass lamps in the shapes of different fish, or the bright blue curtains that rippled like water as a breeze came in from the window, because although these were wonderful things they were not what made the three children smile. The Quagmire triplets were smiling, too, and although I have not researched the Quagmires nearly as much as I have the Baudelaires, I can say with reasonable accuracy that they were smiling for the same reason.

It is a relief, in hectic and frightening times, to find true friends, and it was this relief that all five children were feeling as the Quagmires gave the Baudelaires a tour of the Prufrock Library. Friends can make you feel that the world is smaller and less sneaky than it really is, because you know people who have similar experiences, a phrase which here means “having lost family members in terrible fires and lived in the Orphans Shack.” As Duncan and Isadora whispered to Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, explaining how the library was organized, the Baudelaire children felt less and less distressed about their new circumstances, and by the time Duncan and Isadora were recommending their favorite books, the three siblings thought that perhaps their troubles were coming to an end at last. They were wrong about this, of course, but for the moment it didn’t matter. The Baudelaire orphans had found friends, and as they stood in the library with the Quagmire triplets, the world felt smaller and safer than it had for a long, long time.

CHAPTER Four

If you have walked into a museum recently—whether you did so to attend an art exhibition or to escape from the police—you may have noticed a type of painting known as a triptych. A triptych has three panels, with something different painted on each of the panels. For instance, my friend Professor Reed made a triptych for me, and he painted fire on one panel, a typewriter on another, and the face of a beautiful, intelligent woman on the third. The triptych is entitled What Happened to Beatrice and I cannot look upon it without weeping.

I am a writer, and not a painter, but if I were to try and paint a triptych entitled The Baudelaire Orphans’ Miserable Experiences at Prufrock Prep, I would paint Mr. Remora on one panel, Mrs. Bass on another, and a box of staples on the third, and the results would make me so sad that between the Beatrice triptych and the Baudelaire triptych I would scarcely stop weeping all day.

Mr. Remora was Violet’s teacher, and he was so terrible that Violet thought that she’d almost rather stay in the Orphans Shack all morning and eat her meals with her hands tied behind her back rather than hurry to Room One and learn from such a wretched man. Mr. Remora had a dark and thick mustache, as if somebody had chopped off a gorilla’s thumb and stuck it above Mr. Remora’s lip, and also like a gorilla, Mr. Remora was constantly eating bananas. Bananas are a fairly delicious fruit and contain a healthy amount of potassium, but after watching Mr. Remora shove banana after banana into his mouth, dropping banana peels on the floor and smearing banana pulp on his chin and in his mustache, Violet never wanted to see another banana again. In between bites of banana, Mr. Remora would tell stories, and the children would write the stories down in notebooks, and every so often there would be a test. The stories were very short, and there were a whole lot of them on every conceivable subject. “One day I went to the store to purchase a carton of milk,” Mr. Remora would say, chewing on a banana. “When I got home, I poured the milk into a glass and drank it. Then I watched television. The end.” Or: “One afternoon a man named Edward got into a green truck and drove to a farm. The farm had geese and cows. The end.” Mr. Remora would tell story after story, and eat banana after banana, and it would get more and more difficult for Violet to pay attention. To make things better, Duncan sat next to Violet, and they would pass notes to one another on particularly boring days. But to make things worse, Carmelita Spats sat right behind Violet, and every few minutes she would lean forward and poke Violet with a stick she had found on the lawn. “Orphan,” she would whisper and poke Violet with the stick, and Violet would lose her concentration and forget to write down some detail of Mr. Remora’s latest story.

Across the hall in Room Two was Klaus’s teacher Mrs. Bass, whose black hair was so long and messy that she also vaguely resembled a gorilla. Mrs. Bass was a poor teacher, a phrase which here does not mean “a teacher who doesn’t have a lot of money” but “a teacher who is obsessed with the metric system.” The metric system, you probably know, is the system by which the majority of the world measures things. Just as it is perfectly all right to eat a banana or two, it is perfectly all right to be interested in measuring things. Klaus could remember a time, when he was about eight years old, when he had measured the width of all the doorways in the Baudelaire mansion when he was bored one rainy afternoon. But rain or shine, all Mrs. Bass wanted to do was measure things and write down the measurements on the chalkboard. Each morning, she would walk into Room Two carrying a bag full of ordinary objects—a frying pan, a picture frame, the skeleton of a cat—and place an object on each student’s desk. “Measure!” Mrs. Bass would shout, and everybody would take out their rulers and measure whatever it was that their teacher had put on their desks. They would call out the measurements to Mrs. Bass, who would write them on the board and then have everybody switch objects. The class would continue on in this way for the entire morning, and Klaus would feel his eyes glaze over—the phrase “glaze over” here means “ache slightly out of boredom.” Across the room, Isadora Quagmire’s eyes were glazing over too, and occasionally the two of them would look at one another and stick their tongues out as if to say, Mrs. Bass is terribly boring, isn’t she?

But Sunny, instead of going into a classroom, had to work in the administrative building, and I must say that her situation was perhaps the worst in the entire triptych. As Vice Principal Nero’s secretary, Sunny had numerous duties assigned to her that were simply impossible for a baby to perform. For instance, she was in charge of answering the telephone, but people who called Vice Principal Nero did not always know that “Seltepia!” was Sunny’s way of saying “Good morning, this is Vice Principal Nero’s office, how may I help you?” By the second day Nero was furious at her for confusing so many of his business associates. In addition, Sunny was in charge of typing, stapling, and mailing all of Vice Principal Nero’s letters, which meant she had to work a typewriter, a stapler, and stamps, all of which were designed for adult use. Unlike many babies, Sunny had some experience in hard work—after all, she and her siblings had worked for some time at the Lucky Smells Lumbermill—but this equipment was simply inappropriate for such tiny fingers. Sunny could scarcely move the typewriter’s keys, and even when she could she did not know how to spell most of the words Nero dictated. She had never used a stapler before, so she sometimes stapled her fingers by mistake, which hurt quite a bit. And occasionally one of the stamps would stick to her tongue and wouldn’t come off.

In most schools, no matter how miserable, the students have a chance to recuperate during the weekend, when they can rest and play instead of attending wretched classes, and the Baudelaire orphans looked forward to taking a break from looking at bananas, rulers, and secretarial supplies. So they were quite distressed one Friday when the Quagmires informed them that Prufrock Prep did not have weekends. Saturday and Sunday were regular schooldays, supposedly in keeping with the school’s motto. This rule did not really make any sense—it is, after all, just as easy to remember you will die when you are relaxing as when you are in school—but that was the way things were, so the Baudelaires could never remember exactly what day it was, so repetitive was their schedule. So I am sorry to say that I cannot tell you what day it was when Sunny noticed that the staple supply was running low, but I can tell you that Nero informed her that because she had wasted so much time learning to be a secretary he would not buy any more when they ran out. Instead Sunny would have to make staples herself, out of some skinny metal rods Nero kept in a drawer.

“That’s ridiculous!” Violet cried when Sunny told her of Nero’s latest demand. It was after dinner, and the Baudelaire orphans were in the Orphans Shack with the Quagmire triplets, sprinkling salt at the ceiling. Violet had found some pieces of metal behind the cafeteria and had fashioned five pairs of noisy shoes: three for the Baudelaires and two for the Quagmires so the crabs wouldn’t bother them when they visited the Orphans Shack. The problem of the tan fungus, however, was yet to be solved. With Duncan’s help, Klaus had found a book on fungus in the library and had read that salt might make this particular fungus shrivel up. The Quagmires had distracted some of the masked cafeteria workers by dropping their trays on the ground, and while Nero yelled at them for making a mess, the Baudelaires had slipped three saltshakers into their pockets. Now, in the brief recess after dinner, the five children were sitting on bales of hay, trying to toss salt onto the fungus and talking about their day.

“It certainly is ridiculous,” Klaus agreed. “It’s silly enough that Sunny has to be a secretary, but making her own staples? I’ve never heard of anything so unfair.”

“I think staples are made in factories,” Duncan said, pausing to flip through his green notebook to see if he had any notes on the matter. “I don’t think people have made staples by hand since the fifteenth century.”

“If you could snitch some of the skinny metal rods, Sunny,” Isadora said, “we could all help make the staples after dinnertime. If five of us worked together, it would be much less trouble. And speaking of trouble, I’m working on a poem about Count Olaf, but I’m not sure I know words that are terrible enough to describe him.”

“And I imagine it’s difficult to find words that rhyme with ‘Olaf,’” Violet said.

“It is difficult,” Isadora admitted. “All I can think of so far is ‘pilaf,’ which is a kind of rice dish. And that’s more a half-rhyme, anyway.”

“Maybe someday you’ll be able to publish your poem about Count Olaf,” Klaus said, “and everyone will know how horrible he is.”

“And I’ll write a newspaper article all about him,” Duncan volunteered.

“I think I could build a printing press myself,” Violet said. “Maybe when I come of age, I can use some of the Baudelaire fortune to buy the materials I would need.”

“Could we print books, too?” Klaus asked.

Violet smiled. She knew her brother was thinking of a whole library they could print for themselves. “Books, too,” she said.

“The Baudelaire fortune?” Duncan asked. “Did your parents leave behind a fortune, too? Our parents owned the famous Quagmire sapphires, which were unharmed in the fire. When we come of age, those precious jewels will belong to us. We could start our printing business together.”

“That’s a wonderful idea!” Violet cried. “We could call it Quagmire-Baudelaire Incorporated.”

“We could call it Quagmire-Baudelaire Incorporated!” The children were so surprised to hear the sneering voice of Vice Principal Nero that they dropped their saltshakers on the ground. Instantly, the tiny crabs in the Orphans Shack picked them up and scurried away with them before Nero could notice. “I’m sorry to interrupt you in the middle of your important business meeting,” he said, although the youngsters could see that the vice principal wasn’t sorry one bit. “The new gym teacher has arrived, and he was interested in meeting our orphan population before my concert began. Apparently orphans have excellent bone structure or something. Isn’t that what you said, Coach Genghis?”

“Oh yes,” said a tall, skinny man, who stepped forward to reveal himself to the children. The man was wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt, such as any gym teacher might wear. On his feet were some expensive-looking running shoes with very high tops, and around his neck was a shiny silver whistle. Wrapped around the top of his head was a length of cloth secured in place with a shiny red jewel. Such things are called turbans and are worn by some people for religious reasons, but Violet, Klaus, and Sunny took one look at this man and knew that he was wearing a turbans for an entirely different reason.

“Oh yes,” the man said again. “All orphans have perfect legs for running, and I couldn’t wait to see what specimens were waiting for me here in the shack.”

“Children,” Nero said, “get up off of your hay and say hello to Coach Genghis.”

“Hello, Coach Genghis,” Duncan said.

“Hello, Coach Genghis,” Isadora said.

The Quagmire triplets each shook Coach Genghis’s bony hand and then turned and gave the Baudelaires a confused look. They were clearly surprised to see the three siblings still sitting on the hay and staring up at Coach Genghis rather than obeying Nero’s orders. But had I been there in the Orphans Shack, I most certainly would not have been surprised, and I would bet What Happened to Beatrice, my prized triptych, that had you been there you would not have been surprised, either. Because you have probably guessed, as the Baudelaires guessed, why the man who was calling himself Coach Genghis was wearing a turban. A turban covers people’s hair, which can alter their appearance quite a bit, and if the turban is arranged so that it hangs down rather low, as this one did, the folds of cloth can even cover the eyebrows—or in this case, eyebrow—of the person wearing it. But it cannot cover someone’s shiny, shiny eyes, or the greedy and sinister look that somebody might have in their eyes when the person looks down at three relatively helpless children.

What the man who called himself Coach Genghis had said about all orphans having perfect legs for running was utter nonsense, of course, but as the Baudelaires looked up at their new gym teacher, they wished that it weren’t nonsense. As the man who called himself Coach Genghis looked back at them with his shiny, shiny eyes, the Baudelaire orphans wished more than anything that their legs could carry them far, far away from the man who was really Count Olaf.

CHAPTER Five

The expression “following suit” is a curious one, because it has nothing to do with walking behind a matching set of clothing. If you follow suit, it means you do the same thing somebody else has just done. If all of your friends decided to jump off a bridge into the icy waters of an ocean or river, for instance, and you jumped in right after them, you would be following suit. You can see why following suit can be a dangerous thing to do, because you could end up drowning simply because somebody else thought of it first.

This is why, when Violet stood up from the hay and said, “How do you do, Coach Genghis?” Klaus and Sunny were reluctant to follow suit. It was inconceivable to the younger Baudelaires that their sister had not recognized Count Olaf, and that she hadn’t leaped to her feet and informed Vice Principal Nero what was going on. For a moment, Klaus and Sunny even considered that Violet had been hypnotized, as Klaus had been back when the Baudelaire orphans were living in Paltryville. But Violet’s eyes did not look any wider than they did normally, nor did she say “How do you do, Coach Genghis?” in the dazed tone of voice Klaus had used when he had been under hypnosis.

But although they were puzzled, the younger Baudelaires trusted their sister absolutely. She had managed to avoid marrying Count Olaf when it had seemed like it would be inevitable, a word which here means “a lifetime of horror and woe.” She had made a lockpick when they’d needed one in a hurry, and had used her inventing skills to help them escape from some very hungry leeches. So even though they could not think what the reason was, Klaus and Sunny knew that Violet must have had a good reason to greet Count Olaf politely rather than reveal him instantly, and so, after a pause, they followed suit.

“How do you do, Coach Genghis?” Klaus said.

“Gefidio!” Sunny shrieked.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” Coach Genghis said, and smirked. The Baudelaires could tell he thought he had fooled them completely and was very pleased with himself.

“What do you think, Coach Genghis?” Vice Principal Nero asked. “Do any of these orphans have the legs you’re looking for?”

Coach Genghis scratched his turban and looked down at the children as if they were an all-you-can-eat salad bar instead of five orphans. “Oh yes,” he said in the wheezy voice the Baudelaires still heard in their nightmares. With his bony hands, he pointed first at Violet, then at Klaus, and lastly at Sunny. “These three children here are just what I’m looking for, all right. I have no use for these twins, however.”

“Neither do I,” Nero said, not bothering to point out that the Quagmires were triplets. He then looked at his watch. “Well, it’s time for my concert. Follow me to the auditorium, all of you, unless you are in the mood to buy me a bag of candy.”

The Baudelaire orphans hoped never to buy their vice principal a gift of any sort, let alone a bag of candy, which the children loved and hadn’t eaten in a very long time, so they followed Nero out of the Orphans Shack and across the lawn to the auditorium. The Quagmires followed suit, staring up at the gravestone buildings, which looked even spookier in the moonlight.

“This evening,” Nero said, “I will be playing a violin sonata I wrote myself. It only lasts about a half hour, but I will play it twelve times in a row.”

“Oh, good,” Coach Genghis said. “If I may say so, Vice Principal Nero, I am an enormous fan of your music. Your concerts were one of the main reasons I wanted to work here at Prufrock Prep.”

“Well, it’s good to hear that,” Nero said. “It’s difficult to find people who appreciate me as the genius I am.”

“I know the feeling,” Coach Genghis said. “I’m the finest gym teacher the world has ever seen, and yet there hasn’t even been one parade in my honor.”

“Shocking,” Nero said, shaking his head.

The Baudelaires and the Quagmires, who were walking behind the adults, looked at one another in disgust at the braggy conversation they were overhearing, but they didn’t dare speak to one another until they arrived at the auditorium, taking seats as far away as possible from Carmelita Spats and her loathsome friends.

There is one, and only one, advantage to somebody who cannot play the violin insisting on doing so anyway, and the advantage is that they often play so loudly that they cannot hear if the audience is having a conversation. It is extremely rude, of course, for an audience to talk during a concert performance, but when the performance is a wretched one, and lasts six hours, such rudeness can be forgiven. So it was that evening, for after introducing himself with a brief, braggy speech, Vice Principal Nero stood on the stage of the auditorium and began playing his sonata for the first time.

When you listen to a piece of classical music, it is often amusing to try and guess what inspired the composer to write those particular notes. Sometimes a composer will be inspired by nature and will write a symphony imitating the sounds of birds and trees. Other times a composer will be inspired by the city and will write a concerto imitating the sounds of traffic and sidewalks. In the case of this sonata, Nero had apparently been inspired by somebody beating up a cat, because the music was loud and screechy and made it quite easy to talk during the performance. As Nero sawed away at his violin, the students of Prufrock Prep began to talk amongst themselves. The Baudelaires even noticed Mr. Remora and Mrs. Bass, who were supposed to be figuring out which students owed Nero bags of candy, giggling and sharing a banana in the back row. Only Coach Genghis, who was sitting in the center of the very front row, seemed to be paying any attention to the music.

“Our new gym teacher looks creepy,” Isadora said.

“That’s for sure,” Duncan agreed. “It’s that sneaky look in his eye.”

“That sneaky look,” Violet said, taking a sneaky look herself to make sure Coach Genghis wasn’t listening in, “is because he’s not really Coach Genghis. He’s not really any coach. He’s Count Olaf in disguise.”

“I knew you recognized him!” Klaus said.

“Count Olaf?” Duncan said. “How awful! How did he follow you here?”

“Stewak,” Sunny said glumly.

“My sister means something like ‘He follows us everywhere,’” Violet explained, “and she’s right. But it doesn’t matter how he found us. The point is that he’s here and that he undoubtedly has a scheme to snatch our fortune.”

“But why did you pretend not to recognize him?” Klaus asked.

“Yes,” Isadora said. “If you told Vice Principal Nero that he was really Count Olaf, then Nero could throw the cakesniffer out of here, if you’ll pardon my language.”

Violet shook her head to indicate that she disagreed with Isadora and that she didn’t mind about “cakesniffer.” “Olaf’s too clever for that,” she said. “I knew that if I tried to tell Nero that he wasn’t really a gym teacher, he would manage to wiggle out of it, just as he did with Aunt Josephine and Uncle Monty and everybody else.”

“That’s good thinking,” Klaus admitted. “Plus, if Olaf thinks that he’s fooled us, it might give us some more time to figure out exactly what he’s up to.”

“Lirt!” Sunny pointed out.

“My sister means that we can see if any of his assistants are around,” Violet translated. “That’s a good point, Sunny. I hadn’t thought of that.”

“Count Olaf has assistants?” Isadora asked. “That’s not fair. He’s bad enough without people helping him.”

“His assistants are as bad as he is,” Klaus said. “There are two powder-faced women who forced us to be in his play. There’s a hook-handed man who helped Olaf murder our Uncle Monty.”

“And the bald man who bossed us around at the lumbermill, don’t forget him,” Violet added.

“Aeginu!” Sunny said, which meant something like “And the assistant that looks like neither a man nor a woman.”

“What does ‘aeginu’ mean?” Duncan asked, taking out his notebook. “I’m going to write down all these details about Olaf and his troupe.”

“Why?” Violet asked.

“Why?” Isadora repeated. “Because we’re going to help you, that’s why! You don’t think we’d just sit here while you tried to escape from Olaf’s clutches, would you?”

“But Count Olaf is very dangerous,” Klaus said. “If you try and help us, you’ll be risking your lives.”

“Never mind about that,” Duncan said, although I am sorry to tell you that the Quagmire triplets should have minded about that. They should have minded very much. Duncan and Isadora were very brave and caring to try and help the Baudelaire orphans, but bravery often demands a price. By “price” I do not mean something along the lines of five dollars. I mean a much, much bigger price, a price so dreadful that I cannot speak of it now but must return to the scene I am writing at this moment.

“Never mind about that,” Duncan said. “What we need is a plan. Now, we need to prove to Nero that Coach Genghis is really Count Olaf. How can we do that?”

“Nero has that computer,” Violet said thoughtfully. “He showed us a little picture of Olaf on the screen, remember?”

“Yes,” Klaus said, shaking his head. “He told us that the advanced computer system would keep Olaf away. So much for computers.”

Sunny nodded her head in agreement, and Violet picked her up and put her on her lap. Nero had reached a particularly shrieky section of his sonata, and the children had to lean forward to one another in order to continue their conversation. “If we go and see Nero first thing tomorrow morning,” Violet said, “we can talk to him alone, without Olaf butting in. We’ll ask him to use the computer. Nero might not believe us, but the computer should be able to convince him to at least investigate Coach Genghis.”

“Maybe Nero will make him take off the turban,” Isadora said, “revealing Olaf’s only eyebrow.”

“Or take off those expensive-looking running shoes,” Klaus said, “revealing Olaf’s tattoo.”

“But if you talk to Nero,” Duncan said, “then Coach Genghis will know that you’re suspicious.”

“That’s why we’ll have to be extra careful,” Violet said. “We want Nero to find out about Olaf, without Olaf finding out about us.”

“And in the meantime,” Duncan said, “Isadora and I will do some investigating ourselves. Perhaps we can spot one of these assistants you’ve described.”

“That would be very useful,” Violet said, “if you’re sure about wanting to help us.”

“Say no more about it,” Duncan said and patted Violet’s hand. And they said no more about it. They didn’t say another word about Count Olaf for the rest of Nero’s sonata, or while he performed it the second time, or the third time, or the fourth time, or the fifth time, or even the sixth time, by which time it was very, very late at night. The Baudelaire orphans and the Quagmire triplets merely sat in a companionable comfort, a phrase which here means many things, all of them happy even though it is quite difficult to be happy while hearing a terrible sonata performed over and over by a man who cannot play the violin, while attending an atrocious boarding school with an evil man sitting nearby undoubtedly planning something dreadful. But happy moments came rarely and unexpectedly in the Baudelaires’ lives, and the three siblings had learned to accept them. Duncan kept his hand on Violet’s and talked to her about terrible concerts he had attended back when the Quagmire parents were alive, and she was happy to hear his stories. Isadora began working on a poem about libraries and showed Klaus what she had written in her notebook, and Klaus was happy to offer suggestions. And Sunny snuggled down in Violet’s lap and chewed on the armrest of her seat, happy to bite something that was so sturdy.

I’m sure you would know, even if I didn’t tell you, that things were about to get much worse for the Baudelaires, but I will end this chapter with this moment of companionable comfort rather than skip ahead to the unpleasant events of the next morning, or the terrible trials of the days that followed, or the horrific crime that marked the end of the Baudelaires’ time at Prufrock Prep. These things happened, of course, and there is no use pretending they didn’t. But for now let us ignore the terrible sonata, the dreadul teachers, the nasty, teasing students, and the even more wretched things that will be happening soon enough. Let us enjoy this brief moment of comfort, as the Baudelaires enjoyed it in the company of the Quagmire triplets and, in Sunny’s case, an armrest. Let us enjoy, at the end of this chapter, the last happy moment any of these children would have for a long, long time.

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