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I am very, very sorry to leave you hanging like that, but as I was writing the tale of the Baudelaire orphans, I happened to look at the clock and realized I was running late for a formal dinner party given by a friend of mine, Madame diLustro. Madame diLustro is a good friend, an excellent detective, and a fine cook, but she flies into a rage if you arrive even five minutes later than her invitation states, so you understand that I had to dash off. You must have thought, at the end of the previous chapter, that Sunny was dead and that this was the terrible thing that happened to the Baudelaires at Uncle Monty’s house, but I promise you Sunny survives this particular episode. It is Uncle Monty, unfortunately, who will be dead, but not yet.
As the fangs of the Incredibly Deadly Viper closed on Sunny’s chin, Violet and Klaus watched in horror as Sunny’s little eyes closed and her face grew quiet. Then, moving as suddenly as the snake, Sunny smiled brightly, opened her mouth, and bit the Incredibly Deadly Viper right on its tiny, scaled nose. The snake let go of her chin, and Violet and Klaus could see that it had left barely a mark. The two older Baudelaire siblings looked at Uncle Monty, and Uncle Monty looked back at them and laughed. His loud laughter bounced off the glass walls of the Reptile Room.
“Uncle Monty, what can we do?” Klaus said in despair.
“Oh, I’m sorry, my dears,” Uncle Monty said, wiping his eyes with his hands. “You must be very frightened. But the Incredibly Deadly Viper is one of the least dangerous and most friendly creatures in the animal kingdom. Sunny has nothing to worry about, and neither do you.”
Klaus looked at his baby sister, who was still in his arms, as she playfully gave the Incredibly Deadly Viper a big hug around its thick body, and he realized Uncle Monty must be telling the truth. “But then why is it called the Incredibly Deadly Viper?”
Uncle Monty laughed again. “It’s a misnomer,” he said, using a word which here means “a very wrong name.” “Because I discovered it, I got to name it, remember? Don’t tell anyone about the Incredibly Deadly Viper, because I’m going to present it to the Herpetological Society and give them a good scare before explaining that the snake is completely harmless! Lord knows they’ve teased me many times, because of my name. ‘Hello hello, Montgomery Montgomery,’ they say. ‘How are you how are you, Montgomery Montgomery?’ But at this year’s conference I’m going to get back at them with this prank.” Uncle Monty drew himself up to his full height and began talking in a silly, scientific voice. “‘Colleagues,’ I’ll say, ‘I would like to introduce to you a new species, the Incredibly Deadly Viper, which I found in the southwest forest of—my God! It’s escaped!’ And then, when all my fellow herpetologists have jumped up on chairs and tables and are shrieking in fear, I’ll tell them that the snake wouldn’t hurt a fly! Won’t that be hysterical?”
Violet and Klaus looked at each other, and then began laughing, half in relief that their sister was unharmed, and half with amusement, because they thought Uncle Monty’s prank was a good one.
Klaus put Sunny down on the floor, and the Incredibly Deadly Viper followed, wriggling its tail affectionately around Sunny, the way you might put your arm around someone of whom you were fond.
“Are there any snakes in this room that are dangerous?” Violet asked.
“Of course,” Uncle Monty said. “You can’t study snakes for forty years without encountering some dangerous ones. I have a whole cabinet of venom samples from every poisonous snake known to people, so I can study the ways in which these dangerous snakes work. There is a snake in this room whose venom is so deadly that your heart would stop before you even knew he’d bitten you. There is a snake who can open her mouth so wide she could swallow all of us, together, in one gulp. There is a pair of snakes who have learned to drive a car so recklessly that they would run you over in the street and never stop to apologize. But all of these snakes are in cages with much sturdier locks, and all of them can be handled safely when one has studied them enough. I promise that if you take time to learn the facts, no harm will come to you here in the Reptile Room.”
There is a type of situation, which occurs all too often and which is occurring at this point in the story of the Baudelaire orphans, called “dramatic irony.” Simply put, dramatic irony is when a person makes a harmless remark, and someone else who hears it knows something that makes the remark have a different, and usually unpleasant, meaning. For instance, if you were in a restaurant and said out loud, “I can’t wait to eat the veal marsala I ordered,” and there were people around who knew that the veal marsala was poisoned and that you would die as soon as you took a bite, your situation would be one of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony is a cruel occurrence, one that is almost always upsetting, and I’m sorry to have it appear in this story, but Violet, Klaus, and Sunny have such unfortunate lives that it was only a matter of time before dramatic irony would rear its ugly head.
As you and I listen to Uncle Monty tell the three Baudelaire orphans that no harm will ever come to them in the Reptile Room, we should be experiencing the strange feeling that accompanies the arrival of dramatic irony. This feeling is not unlike the sinking in one’s stomach when one is in an elevator that suddenly goes down, or when you are snug in bed and your closet door suddenly creaks open to reveal the person who has been hiding there. For no matter how safe and happy the three children felt, no matter how comforting Uncle Monty’s words were, you and I know that soon Uncle Monty will be dead and the Baudelaires will be miserable once again.
During the week that followed, however, the Baudelaires had a wonderful time in their new home. Each morning, they woke up and dressed in the privacy of their very own rooms, which they had chosen and decorated to their liking. Violet had chosen a room that had an enormous window looking out onto the snake-shaped hedges on the front lawn. She thought such a view might inspire her when she was inventing things. Uncle Monty had allowed her to tack up large pieces of white paper on each wall, so she could sketch out her ideas, even if they came to her in the middle of the night. Klaus had chosen a room with a cozy alcove in it—the word “alcove” here means “a very, very small nook just perfect for sitting and reading.” With Uncle Monty’s permission, he had carried up a large cushioned chair from the living room and placed it right in the alcove, under a heavy brass reading lamp. Each night, rather than reading in bed, he would curl himself in the chair with a book from Uncle Monty’s library, sometimes until morning. Sunny had chosen a room right between Violet’s and Klaus’s, and filled it with small, hard objects from all over the house, so she could bite them when she felt like it. There were also assorted toys for the Incredibly Deadly Viper so the two of them could play together whenever they wanted, within reason.
But where the Baudelaire orphans most liked to be was the Reptile Room. Each morning, after breakfast, they would join Uncle Monty, who would have already started work on the upcoming expedition. Violet sat at a table with the ropes, gears, and cages that made up the different snake traps, learning how they worked, repairing them if they were broken, and occasionally making improvements to make the traps more comfortable for the snakes on their long journey from Peru to Uncle Monty’s house. Klaus sat nearby, reading the books on Peru Uncle Monty had and taking notes on a pad of paper so they could refer to them later. And Sunny sat on the floor, biting a long rope into shorter pieces with great enthusiasm. But what the Baudelaire youngsters liked best was learning all about the reptiles from Uncle Monty. As they worked, he would show them the Alaskan Cow Lizard, a long green creature that produced delicious milk. They met the Dissonant Toad, which could imitate human speech in a gravelly voice. Uncle Monty taught them how to handle the Inky Newt without getting its black dye all over their fingers, and how to tell when the Irascible Python was grumpy and best left alone. He taught them not to give the Green Gimlet Toad too much water, and to never, under any circumstances, let the Virginian Wolfsnake near a typewriter.
While he was telling them about the different reptiles, Uncle Monty would often segue—a word which here means “let the conversation veer off”—to stories from his travels, describing the men, snakes, women, toads, children, and lizards he’d met on his journeys. And before too long, the Baudelaire orphans were telling Uncle Monty all about their own lives, eventually talking about their parents and how much they missed them. Uncle Monty was as interested in the Baudelaires’ stories as they were in his, and sometimes they got to talking so long they scarcely had time to gobble down dinner before cramming themselves into Uncle Monty’s tiny jeep and heading to the movies.
One morning, however, when the three children finished their breakfast and went into the Reptile Room, they found not Uncle Monty, but a note from him. The note read as follows:
I have gone into town to buy a few last things we need for the expedition: Peruvian wasp repellent, toothbrushes, canned peaches, and a fireproof canoe. It will take a while to find the peaches, so don’t expect me back until dinnertime.
Stephano, Gustav’s replacement, will arrive today by taxi. Please make him feel welcome. As you know, it is only two days until the expedition, so please work very hard today.
Your giddy uncle, Monty
“What does ‘giddy’ mean?” Violet asked, when they had finished reading the note.
“‘Dizzy and excited,’” Klaus said, having learned the word from a collection of poetry he’d read in first grade. “I guess he means excited about Peru. Or maybe he’s excited about having a new assistant.”
“Or maybe he’s excited about us,” Violet said.
“Kindal!” Sunny shrieked, which probably meant “Or maybe he’s excited about all these things.”
“I’m a little giddy myself,” Klaus said. “It’s really fun to live with Uncle Monty.”
“It certainly is,” Violet agreed. “After the fire, I thought I would never be happy again. But our time here has been wonderful.”
“I still miss our parents, though,” Klaus said. “No matter how nice Uncle Monty is, I wish we still lived in our real home.”
“Of course,” Violet said quickly. She paused, and slowly said out loud something she had been thinking about for the past few days. “I think we’ll always miss our parents. But I think we can miss them without being miserable all the time. After all, they wouldn’t want us to be miserable.”
“Remember that time,” Klaus said wistfully, “when we were bored one rainy afternoon, and all of us painted our toenails bright red?”
“Yes,” Violet said, grinning, “and I spilled some on the yellow chair.”
“Archo!” Sunny said quietly, which probably meant something like “And the stain never really came out.” The Baudelaire orphans smiled at each other and, without a word, began to do the day’s work. For the rest of the morning they worked quietly and steadily, realizing that their contentment here at Uncle Monty’s house did not erase their parents’ death, not at all, but at least it made them feel better after feeling so sad, for so long.
It is unfortunate, of course, that this quiet happy moment was the last one the children would have for quite some time, but there is nothing anyone can do about it now. Just when the Baudelaires were beginning to think about lunch, they heard a car pull up in front of the house and toot its horn. To the children it signaled the arrival of Stephano. To us it should signal the beginning of more misery.
“I expect that’s the new assistant,” Klaus said, looking up from The Big Peruvian Book of Small Peruvian Snakes. “I hope he’s as nice as Monty.”
“Me too,” Violet said, opening and shutting a toad trap to make sure it worked smoothly. “It would be unpleasant to travel to Peru with somebody who was boring or mean.”
“Gerja!” Sunny shrieked, which probably meant something like “Well, let’s go find out what Stephano is like!”
The Baudelaires left the Reptile Room and walked out the front door to find a taxi parked next to the snake-shaped hedges. A very tall, thin man with a long beard and no eyebrows over his eyes was getting out of the backseat, carrying a black suitcase with a shiny silver padlock.
“I’m not going to give you a tip,” the bearded man was saying to the driver of the taxi, “because you talk too much. Not everybody wants to hear about your new baby, you know. Oh, hello there. I am Stephano, Dr. Montgomery’s new assistant. How do you do?”
“How do you do?” Violet said, and as she approached him, there was something about his wheezy voice that seemed vaguely familiar.
“How do you do?” Klaus said, and as he looked up at Stephano, there was something about his shiny eyes that seemed quite familiar.
“Hooda!” Sunny shrieked. Stephano wasn’t wearing any socks, and Sunny, crawling on the ground, could see his bare ankle between his pant cuff and his shoe. There on his ankle was something that was most familiar of all.
The Baudelaire orphans all realized the same thing at the same time, and took a step back as you might from a growling dog. This man wasn’t Stephano, no matter what he called himself. The three children looked at Uncle Monty’s new assistant from head to toe and saw that he was none other than Count Olaf. He may have shaved off his one long eyebrow, and grown a beard over his scraggly chin, but there was no way he could hide the tattoo of an eye on his ankle.
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