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It is a curious thing, but as one travels the world getting older and older, it appears that happiness is easier to get used to than despair. The second time you have a root beer float, for instance, your happiness at sipping the delicious concoction may be not quite as enormous as when you first had a root beer float, and the twelfth time your happiness may be still less enormous, until root beer floats begin to offer you very little happiness at all, because you have become used to the taste of vanilla ice cream and root beer mixed together. However, the second time you find a thumbtack in your root beer float, your despair is much greater than the first time, when you dismissed the thumbtack as a freak accident rather than part of the scheme of the soda jerk, a phrase which here means “ice cream shop employee who is trying to injure your tongue,” and by the twelfth time you find a thumbtack your despair is even greater still, until you can hardly utter the phrase “root beer float” without bursting into tears. It is almost as if happiness is an acquired taste, like coconut cordial or ceviche, to which you can eventually become accustomed, but despair is something surprising each time you encounter it. As the glass shattered in the tent, the Baudelaire orphans stood and stared at the standing figure of Ishmael, but even as they felt the Medusoid Mycelium drift into their bodies, each tiny spore feeling like the footstep of an ant walking down their throats, they could not believe that their own story could contain such despair once more, or that such a terrible thing had happened.
“What happened?” Friday cried. “I heard glass breaking!”
“Never mind the breaking glass,” Erewhon said. “I feel something in my throat, like a tiny seed!”
“Never mind your seedy throat,” Finn said. “I see Ishmael standing up on his own two feet!”
Count Olaf cackled from the white sand where he lay. With one dramatic gesture he yanked the harpoon out of the mess of broken helmet and tattered dress at his stomach, and threw it at Ishmael’s clay feet. “The sound you heard was the shattering of a diving helmet,” he sneered. “The seeds you feel in your throats are the spores of the Medusoid Mycelium, and the man standing on his own two feet is the one who has slaughtered you all!”
“The Medusoid Mycelium?” Ishmael repeated in astonishment, as the islanders gasped again. “On these shores? It can’t be! I’ve spent my life trying to keep the island forever safe from that terrible fungus!”
“Nothing’s safe forever, thank goodness,” Count Olaf said, “and you of all people should know that eventually everything washes up on these shores. The Baudelaire family has finally returned to this island after you threw them off years ago, and they brought the Medusoid Mycelium with them.”
Ishmael’s eyes widened, and he jumped off the edge of the sleigh to stand and confront the Baudelaire orphans. As his feet landed on the ground, the clay cracked and fell away, and the children could see that the facilitator had a tattoo of an eye on his left ankle, just as Count Olaf had said. “You brought the Medusoid Mycelium?” he asked. “You had a deadly fungus with you all this time, and you kept it a secret from us?”
“You’re a fine one to talk about keeping secrets!” Alonso said. “Look at your healthy feet, Ishmael! Your dishonesty is the root of the trouble!”
“It’s the mutineers who are the root of the trouble!” cried Ariel. “If they hadn’t let Count Olaf out of the cage, this never would have happened!”
“It depends on how you look at it,” Professor Fletcher said. “In my opinion, all of us are the root of the trouble. If we hadn’t put Count Olaf in the cage, he never would have threatened us!”
“We’re the root of the trouble because we failed to find the diving helmet,” Ferdinand said. “If we’d retrieved it while storm scavenging, the sheep would have dragged it to the arboretum and we would have been safe!”
“Omeros is the root of the trouble,” Dr. Kurtz said, pointing at the young boy. “He’s the one who gave Ishmael the harpoon gun instead of dumping it in the arboretum!”
“It’s Count Olaf who’s the root of the trouble!” cried Larsen. “He’s the one who brought the fungus into the tent!”
“I’m not the root of the trouble,” Count Olaf snarled, and then paused to cough loudly before continuing. “I’m the king of the island!”
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re king or not,” Violet said. “You’ve breathed in the fungus like everyone else.”
“Violet’s right,” Klaus said. “We don’t have time to stand here arguing.” Even without his commonplace book, Klaus could recite a poem about the fungus that was first recited to him by Fiona shortly before she had broken his heart. “A single spore has such grim power / That you may die within the hour,” he said. “If we don’t quit our fighting and work together, we’ll all end up dead.”
The tent was filled with ululation, a word which here means “the sound of panicking islanders.” “Dead?” Madame Nordoff shrieked. “Nobody said the fungus was deadly! I thought we were merely being threatened with forbidden food!”
“I didn’t stay on this island to die!” cried Ms. Marlow. “I could have died at home!”
“Nobody is going to die,” Ishmael announced to the crowd.
“It depends on how you look at it,” Rabbi Bligh said. “Eventually we’re all going to die.”
“Not if you follow my suggestions,” Ishmael insisted. “Now first, I suggest that everyone take a nice, long drink from their seashells. The cordial will chase the fungus from your throats.”
“No, it won’t!” Violet cried. “Fermented coconut milk has no effect on the Medusoid Mycelium!”
“That may be so,” Ishmael said, “but at least we’ll all feel a bit calmer.”
“You mean drowsy and inactive,” Klaus corrected. “The cordial is an opiate.”
“There’s nothing wrong with cordiality,” Ishmael said. “I suggest we all spend a few minutes discussing our situation in a cordial manner. We can decide what the root of the problem is, and come up with a solution at our leisure.”
“That does sound reasonable,” Calypso admitted.
“Trahison des clercs!” Sunny cried, which meant “You’re forgetting about the quick-acting poison in the fungus!”
“Sunny’s right,” Klaus said. “We need to find a solution now, not sit around talking about it over beverages!”
“The solution is in the arboretum,” Violet said, “and in the secret space under the roots of the apple tree.”
“Secret space?” Sherman said. “What secret space?”
“There’s a library down there,” Klaus said, as the crowd murmured in surprise, “cataloging all of the objects that have washed ashore and all the stories those objects tell.”
“And kitchen,” Sunny added. “Maybe horseradish.”
“Horseradish is the one way to dilute the poison,” Violet explained, and recited the rest of the poem the children had heard aboard the Queequeg. “Is dilution simple? But of course! / Just one small dose of root of horse.” She looked around the tent at the frightened faces of the islanders. “The kitchen beneath the apple tree might have horseradish,” she said. “We can save ourselves if we hurry.”
“They’re lying,” Ishmael said. “There’s nothing in the arboretum but junk, and there’s nothing underneath the tree but dirt. The Baudelaires are trying to trick you.”
“We’re not trying to trick anyone,” Klaus said. “We’re trying to save everyone.”
“The Baudelaires knew the Medusoid Mycelium was here,” Ishmael pointed out, “and they never told us. You can’t trust them, but you can trust me, and I suggest we all sit and sip our cordials.”
“Razoo,” Sunny said, which meant “You’re the one not to be trusted,” but rather than translate, her siblings stepped closer to Ishmael so they could speak to him in relative privacy.
“Why are you doing this?” Violet asked. “If you just sit here and drink cordial, you’ll be doomed.”
“We’ve all breathed in the poison,” Klaus said. “We’re all in the same boat.”
Ishmael raised his eyebrows, and gave the children a grim smile. “We’ll see about that,” he said. “Now get out of my tent.”
“Hightail it,” Sunny said, which meant “We’d better hurry,” and her siblings nodded in agreement. The Baudelaire orphans quickly left the tent, looking back to get one more glimpse of the worried islanders, the scowling facilitator, and Count Olaf, who still lay on the sand clutching his belly, as if the harpoon had not just destroyed the diving helmet, but wounded him, too.
Violet, Klaus, and Sunny did not travel back to the far side of the island by sheep-dragged sleigh, but even as they hurried over the brae they felt as if they were aboard the Little Engine That Couldn’t, not only because of the desperate nature of their errand, but because of the poison they felt working its wicked way through the Baudelaire systems. Violet and Klaus learned what their sister had gone through deep beneath the ocean’s surface, when Sunny had nearly perished from the fungus’s deadly poison, and Sunny received a refresher course, a phrase which here means “another opportunity to feel the stalks and caps of the Medusoid Mycelium begin to sprout in her little throat.” The children had to stop several times to cough, as the growing fungus was making it difficult to breathe, and by the time they stood underneath the branches of the apple tree, the Baudelaire orphans were wheezing heavily in the afternoon sun.
“We don’t have much time,” Violet said, between breaths.
“We’ll go straight to the kitchen,” Klaus said, walking through the gap in the tree’s roots as the Incredibly Deadly Viper had shown them.
“Hope horseradish,” Sunny said, following her brother, but when the Baudelaires reached the kitchen they were in for a disappointment. Violet flicked the switch that lit up the kitchen, and the three children hurried to the spice rack, reading the labels on the jars and bottles one by one, but as they searched their hopes began to fade. The children found many of their favorite spices, including sage, oregano, and paprika, which was available in a number of varieties organized according to their level of smokiness. They found some of their least favorite spices, including dried parsley, which scarcely tastes like anything, and garlic salt, which forces the taste of everything else to flee. They found spices they associated with certain dishes, such as turmeric, which their father used to use while making curried peanut soup, and nutmeg, which their mother used to mix into gingerbread, and they found spices they did not associate with anything, such as marjoram, which everyone owns but scarcely anyone uses, and powdered lemon peel, which should only be used in emergencies, such as when fresh lemons have become extinct. They found spices used practically everywhere, such as salt and pepper, and spices used in certain regions, such as chipotle peppers and vindaloo rub, but none of the labels read HORSERADISH, and when they opened the jars and bottles, none of the powders, leaves, and seeds inside smelled like the horseradish factory that once stood on Lousy Lane.
“It doesn’t have to be horseradish,” Violet said quickly, putting down a jar of tarragon in frustration. “Wasabi was an adequate substitute when Sunny was infected.”
“Or Eutrema,” Sunny wheezed.
“There’s no wasabi here, either,” Klaus said, sniffing a jar of mace and frowning. “Maybe it’s hidden somewhere.”
“Who would hide horseradish?” Violet asked, after a long cough.
“Our parents,” Sunny said.
“Sunny’s right,” Klaus said. “If they knew about Anwhistle Aquatics, they might have known of the dangers of the Medusoid Mycelium. Any horseradish that washed up on the island would have been very valuable indeed.”
“We don’t have time to search the entire arboretum to find horseradish,” Violet said. She reached into her pocket, her fingers brushing against the ring Ishmael had given her, and found the ribbon the facilitator had been using as a bookmark, which she used to tie up her hair so she might think better. “That would be harder than trying to find the sugar bowl in the entire Hotel Denouement.”
At the mention of the sugar bowl, Klaus gave his glasses a quick polish and began to page through his commonplace book, while Sunny picked up her whisk and bit it thoughtfully. “Maybe it’s hidden in one of the other spice jars,” the middle Baudelaire said.
“We smelled them all,” Violet said, between wheezes. “None of them smelled like horseradish.”
“Maybe the scent was disguised by another spice,” Klaus said. “Something that was even more bitter than horseradish would cover the smell. Sunny, what are some of the bitterest spices?”
“Cloves,” said Sunny, and wheezed. “Cardamom, arrowroot, wormwood.”
“Wormwood,” Klaus said thoughtfully, and flipped the pages of his commonplace book. “Kit mentioned wormwood once,” he said, thinking of poor Kit alone on the coastal shelf. “She said tea should be as bitter as wormwood and as sharp as a two-edged sword. We were told the same thing when we were served tea right before our trial.”
“No wormwood here,” Sunny said.
“Ishmael also said something about bitter tea,” Violet said. “Remember? That student of his was afraid of being poisoned.”
“Just like we are,” Klaus said, feeling the mushrooms growing inside him. “I wish we’d heard the end of that story.”
“I wish we’d heard every story,” Violet said, her voice sounding hoarse and rough from the poison. “I wish our parents had told us everything, instead of sheltering us from the treachery of the world.”
“Maybe they did,” Klaus said, his voice as rough as his sister’s, and the middle Baudelaire walked to the reading chairs in the middle of the room and picked up A Series of Unfortunate Events. “They wrote all of their secrets here. If they hid the horseradish, we’ll find it in this book.”
“We don’t have time to read that entire book,” Violet said, “any more than we have time to search the entire arboretum.”
“If we fail,” Sunny said, her voice heavy with fungus, “at least we die reading together.”
The Baudelaire orphans nodded grimly, and embraced one another. Like most people, the children had occasionally been in a curious and somewhat morbid mood, and had spent a few moments wondering about the circumstances of their own deaths, although since that unhappy day on Briny Beach when Mr. Poe had first informed them about the terrible fire, the children had spent so much time trying to avoid their own deaths that they preferred not to think about it in their time off. Most people do not choose their final circumstances, of course, and if the Baudelaires had been given the choice they would have liked to live to a very old age, which for all I know they may be doing. But if the three children had to perish while they were still three children, then perishing in one another’s company while reading words written long ago by their mother and father was much better than many other things they could imagine, and so the three Baudelaires sat together in one of the reading chairs, preferring to be close to one another rather than having more room to sit, and together they opened the enormous book and turned back the pages until they reached the moment in history when their parents arrived on the island and began taking notes. The entries in the book alternated between the handwriting of the Baudelaire father and the handwriting of the Baudelaire mother, and the children could imagine their parents sitting in these same chairs, reading out loud what they had written and suggesting things to add to the register of crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind that comprised A Series of Unfortunate Events. The children, of course, would have liked to savor each word their parents had written—the word “savor,” you probably know, here means “read slowly, as each sentence in their parents’ handwriting was like a gift from beyond the grave”—but as the poison of the Medusoid Mycelium advanced further and further, the siblings had to skim, scanning each page for the words “horseradish” or “wasabi.” As you know if you’ve ever skimmed a book, you end up getting a strange view of the story, with just glimpses here and there of what is going on, and some authors insert confusing sentences in the middle of a book just to confuse anyone who might be skimming. Three very short men were carrying a large, flat piece of wood, painted to look like a living room. As the Baudelaire orphans searched for the secret they hoped they would find, they caught glimpses of other secrets their parents had kept, and as Violet, Klaus, and Sunny spotted the names of people the Baudelaire parents had known, things they had whispered to these people, the codes hidden in the whispers, and many other intriguing details, the children hoped they would have the opportunity to reread A Series of Unfortunate Events on a less frantic occasion. On that afternoon, however, they read faster and faster, looking desperately for the one secret that might save them as the hour began to pass and the Medusoid Mycelium grew faster and faster inside them, as if the deadly fungus also did not have time to savor its treacherous path. As they read more and more, it grew harder and harder for the Baudelaires to breathe, and when Klaus finally spotted one of the words he had been looking for, he thought for a moment it was just a vision brought on by all the stalks and caps growing inside him.
“Horseradish!” he said, his voice rough and wheezy. “Look: ‘Ishmael’s fearmongering has stopped work on the passageway, even though we have a plethora of horseradish in case of any emergency.’”
Violet started to speak, but then choked on the fungus and coughed for a long while. “What does ‘fearmongering’ mean?” she said finally.
“‘Plethora’?” Sunny’s voice was little more than a mushroom-choked whisper.
“‘Fearmongering’ means ‘making people afraid,’” said Klaus, whose vocabulary was unaffected by the poison, “and ‘plethora’ means ‘more than enough.’” He gave a large, shuddering wheeze, and continued to read. “‘We’re attempting a botanical hybrid through the tuberous canopy, which should bring safety to fruition despite its dangers to our associates in utero. Of course, in case we are banished, Beatrice is hiding a small amount in a vess—’”
The middle Baudelaire interrupted himself with a cough that was so violent he dropped the book to the floor. His sisters held him tightly as his body shook against the poison and one pale hand pointed at the ceiling. “‘Tuberous canopy,’” he wheezed finally. “Our father means the roots above our heads. A botanical hybrid is a plant made from the combination of two other plants.” He shuddered, and his eyes, behind his glasses, filled with tears. “I don’t know what he’s talking about,” he said finally.
Violet looked at the roots over their heads, where the periscope disappeared into the network of the tree. To her horror she found that her vision was becoming blurry, as if the fungus was growing over her eyes. “It sounds like they put the horseradish into the roots of the plant, in order to make everyone safe,” she said. “That’s what ‘bringing safety to fruition’ would be, the way a tree brings its crop to fruition.”
“Apples!” cried Sunny in a strangled voice. “Bitter apples!”
“Of course!” Klaus said. “The tree is a hybrid, and its apples are bitter because they contain horseradish!”
“If we eat an apple,” Violet said, “the fungus will be diluted.”
“Gentreefive,” Sunny agreed in a croak, and lowered herself off her siblings’ laps, wheezing desperately as she tried to get to the gap in the roots. Klaus tried to follow her, but when he stood up the poison made him so dizzy that he had to sit back down and clasp his throbbing head. Violet coughed painfully, and gripped her brother’s arm.
“Come on,” she said, in a frantic wheeze.
Klaus shook his head. “I’m not sure we can make it,” he said.
Sunny reached toward the gap in the roots and then curled to the floor in pain. “Kikbucit?” she asked, her voice weak and faint.
“We can’t die here,” Violet said, her voice so feeble her siblings could scarcely hear her. “Our parents saved our lives in this very room, many years ago, without even knowing it.”
“Maybe not,” Klaus said. “Maybe this is the end of our story.”
“Tumurchap,” Sunny said, but before anyone could ask what she meant, the children heard another sound, faint and strange, in the secret space beneath the apple tree their parents had hybridized with horseradish long ago. The sound was sibilant, a word which might appear to have something to do with siblings, but actually refers to a sort of whistle or hiss, such as a steam engine might make as it comes to a stop, or an audience might make after sitting through one of Al Funcoot’s plays. The Baudelaires were so desperate and frightened that for a moment they thought it might be the sound of Medusoid Mycelium, celebrating its poisonous triumph over the three children, or perhaps just the sound of their hopes evaporating. But the sibilance was not the sound of evaporating hope or celebrating fungus, and thank goodness it was not the sound of a steam engine or a disgruntled theatrical audience, as the Baudelaires were not strong enough to confront such things. The hissing sound came from one of the few inhabitants of the island whose story contained not one but two shipwrecks, and perhaps because of its own sad history, this inhabitant was sympathetic to the sad history of the Baudelaires, although it is difficult to say how much sympathy can be felt by an animal, no matter how friendly. I do not have the courage to do much research on this matter, and my only herpetological comrade’s story ended quite some time ago, so what this reptile was thinking as it slid toward the children is a detail of the Baudelaires’ history that may never be revealed. But even with this missing detail, it is quite clear what happened. The snake slithered through the gap in the roots of the tree, and whatever the serpent was thinking, it was quite clear from the sibilant sound that came hissing through the reptile’s clenched teeth that the Incredibly Deadly Viper was offering the Baudelaire orphans an apple.
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