فصل 07

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فصل 07

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“My, my, my, my, my,” said a voice from behind them, and the Baudelaire orphans turned to find Stephano standing there, the black suitcase with the shiny silver padlock in his hands and a look of brummagem surprise on his face. “Brummagem” is such a rare word for “fake” that even Klaus didn’t know what it meant, but the children did not have to be told that Stephano was pretending to be surprised. “What a terrible accident has happened here. Snakebite. Whoever discovers this will be most upset.”

“You—” Violet began to say, but her throat fluttered, as if the fact of Uncle Monty’s death were food that tasted terrible. “You—” she said again.

Stephano took no notice. “Of course, after they discover that Dr. Montgomery is dead, they’ll wonder what became of those repulsive orphans he had lying around the house. But they’ll be long gone. Speaking of which, it’s time to leave. The Prospero sails at five o’clock from Hazy Harbor and I’d like to be the first passenger aboard. That way I’ll have time for a bottle of wine before lunch.”

“How could you?” Klaus whispered hoarsely. He couldn’t take his eyes off Uncle Monty’s pale, pale face. “How could you do this? How could you murder him?”

“Why, Klaus, I’m surprised,” Stephano said, and walked over to Uncle Monty’s body. “A smarty-pants boy like you should be able to figure out that your chubby old uncle died from snakebite, not from murder. Look at those teeth marks. Look at his pale, pale face. Look at these staring eyes.”

“Stop it!” Violet said. “Don’t talk like that!”

“You’re right!” Stephano said. “There’s no time for chitchat! We have a ship to catch! Let’s move!”

“We’re not going anywhere with you,” Klaus said. His face was pinched with the effort of focusing on their predicament rather than going to pieces. “We will stay here until the police come.”

“And how do you suppose the police will know to come?” Stephano said.

“We will call them,” Klaus said, in what he hoped was a firm tone of voice, and began to walk toward the door.

Stephano dropped his suitcase, the shiny silver padlock making a clattering sound as it hit the marble floor. He took a few steps and blocked Klaus’s way, his eyes wide and red with fury. “I am so tired,” Stephano snarled, “of having to explain everything to you. You’re supposed to be so very smart, and yet you always seem to forget about this!” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the jagged knife. “This is my knife. It is very sharp and very eager to hurt you—almost as eager as I am. If you don’t do what I say, you will suffer bodily harm. Is that clear enough for you? Now, get in the damn jeep.”

It is, as you know, very, very rude and usually unnecessary to use profanity, but the Baudelaire orphans were too terrified to point this out to Stephano. Taking a last look at their poor Uncle Monty, the three children followed Stephano to the door of the Reptile Room to get in the damn jeep. To add insult to injury—a phrase which here means “forcing somebody to do an unpleasant task when they’re already very upset”—Stephano forced Violet to carry his suitcase out of the house, but she was too lost in her own thoughts to care. She was remembering the last conversation she and her siblings had had with Uncle Monty, and thinking with a cold rush of shame that it hadn’t really been a conversation at all. You will recall, of course, that on the ride home from seeing Zombies in the Snow, the children had been so worried about Stephano that they hadn’t said a word to Uncle Monty, and that when the jeep had arrived at the house, the Baudelaire orphans had dashed upstairs to hash out the situation, without even saying good night to the man who now lay dead under a sheet in the Reptile Room. As the youngsters reached the jeep, Violet tried to remember if they had even thanked him for taking them to the movies, but the night was all a blur. She thought that she, Klaus, and Sunny had probably said “Thank you, Uncle Monty,” when they were standing together at the ticket booth, but she couldn’t be sure. Stephano opened the door of the jeep and gestured with the knife, ushering Klaus and Sunny into the tiny backseat and Violet, the black suitcase heavy on her lap, into the front seat beside him. The orphans had a brief hope that the engine would not start when Stephano turned the key in the ignition, but this was a futile hope. Uncle Monty took good care of his jeep, and it started right up.

Violet, Klaus, and Sunny looked behind them as Stephano began to drive alongside the snake-shaped hedges. At the sight of the Reptile Room, which Uncle Monty had filled so carefully with his specimens and in which he was now a sort of specimen himself, the weight of the Baudelaires’ despair was too much for them and they quietly began to cry. It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things. The Baudelaire orphans were crying not only for their Uncle Monty, but for their own parents, and this dark and curious feeling of falling that accompanies any great loss.

What was to happen to them? Stephano had heartlessly slaughtered the man who was supposed to be watching over the Baudelaires, and now they were all alone. What would Stephano do to them? He was supposed to be left behind when they went to Peru, and now he would be leaving with them on the Prospero. And what terrible things would happen in Peru? Would anybody rescue them there? Would Stephano get his hands on the fortune? And what would happen to the three children afterward? These are frightening questions, and if you are thinking about such matters, they require your full attention, and the orphans were so immersed in thinking about them that they didn’t realize that Stephano was about to collide with another automobile until the moment of impact.

There was a horrible tearing sound of metal and glass as a black car crashed into Uncle Monty’s jeep, throwing the children to the floor with a jarring thump that felt as though it left the Baudelaire stomachs up on the seat. The black suitcase lurched into Violet’s shoulder and then forward into the windshield, which immediately cracked in a dozen places so it looked like a spiderweb. Stephano gave a cry of surprise and turned the steering wheel this way and that, but the two vehicles were locked together and, with another thump, veered off the road into a small pile of mud. It is a rare occurrence when a car accident can be called a stroke of good fortune, but that was most certainly the case here. With the snake-shaped hedges still clearly visible behind them, the Baudelaires’ journey toward Hazy Harbor had stopped.

Stephano gave another sharp cry, this one of rage. “Blasted furnaces of hell!” he shouted, as Violet rubbed her shoulder to make sure she wasn’t seriously hurt. Klaus and Sunny got up cautiously from the jeep floor and looked out the cracked windshield. There appeared to be only one person in the other car, but it was hard to tell, as that vehicle had clearly suffered much more damage than Monty’s jeep. Its entire front had pleated itself together, like an accordion, and one hubcap was spinning noisily on the pavement of Lousy Lane, making blurry circles as if it were a giant coin somebody had dropped. The driver was dressed in gray and making a rough hacking sound as he opened the crumpled door of the car and struggled his way out. He made the hacking sound again, and then reached into a pocket of his suit and pulled out a white handkerchief.

“It’s Mr. Poe!” Klaus cried.

It was Mr. Poe, coughing away as usual, and the children were so delighted to see him that they found themselves smiling despite their horrible circumstances. “Mr. Poe! Mr. Poe!” Violet cried, reaching around Stephano’s suitcase to open the passenger door.

Stephano reached out an arm and grabbed her sore shoulder, turning his head slowly so that each child saw his shiny eyes. “This changes nothing!” he hissed at them. “This is a bit of luck for you, but it is your last. The three of you will be back in this car with me and heading toward Hazy Harbor in time to catch the Prospero, I promise you.”

“We’ll see about that,” Violet replied, opening the door and sliding out from beneath the suitcase. Klaus opened his door and followed her, carrying Sunny. “Mr. Poe! Mr. Poe!”

“Violet?” Mr. Poe asked. “Violet Baudelaire? Is that you?”

“Yes, Mr. Poe,” Violet said. “It’s all of us, and we’re so grateful you ran into us like this.”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that,” Mr. Poe said. “This was clearly the other driver’s fault. You ran into me.”

“How dare you!” Stephano shouted, and got out of the car himself, wrinkling his nose at the smell of horseradish that filled the air. He stomped over to where Mr. Poe was standing, but halfway there the children saw his face change from one of pure rage to one of brummagem confusion and sadness. “I’m sorry,” he said, in a high, fluttery voice. “This whole thing is my fault. I’m so distressed by what has happened that I wasn’t paying any attention to the rules of the road. I hope you’re not hurt, Mr. Foe.”

“It’s Poe,” Mr. Poe said. “My name is Poe. I’m not hurt. Luckily, it looks like nobody was hurt. I wish the same could be said for my car. But who are you and what are you doing with the Baudelaire children?”

“I’ll tell you who he is,” Klaus said. “He’s—”

“Please, Klaus,” Mr. Poe admonished, a word which here means “reprimanded Klaus even though he was interrupting for a very good reason.” “It is not polite to interrupt.”

“My name is Stephano,” Stephano said, shaking Mr. Poe’s hand. “I am—I mean I was—Dr. Montgomery’s assistant.”

“What do you mean was?” Mr. Poe asked sternly. “Were you fired?”

“No. Dr. Montgomery—oh, excuse me—” Stephano turned away and pretended to dab at his eyes as if he were too sad to continue. Facing away from Mr. Poe, he gave the orphans a big wink before continuing. “I’m sorry to tell you there’s been a horrible accident, Mr. Doe. Dr. Montgomery is dead.”

“Poe,” Mr. Poe said. “He’s dead? That’s terrible. What has happened?”

“I don’t know,” Stephano said. “It looks like snakebite to me, but I don’t know anything about snakes. That’s why I was going into town, to get a doctor. The children seemed too upset to be left alone.”

“He’s not taking us to get a doctor!” Klaus shouted. “He’s taking us to Peru!”

“You see what I mean?” Stephano said to Mr. Poe, patting Klaus’s head. “The children are obviously very distressed. Dr. Montgomery was going to take them to Peru today.”

“Yes, I know,” Mr. Poe said. “That’s why I hurried over here this morning, to finally bring them their luggage. Klaus, I know you’re confused and upset over this accident, but please try to understand that if Dr. Montgomery is really dead, the expedition is canceled.”

“But Mr. Poe—” Klaus said indignantly.

“Please,” Mr. Poe said. “This is a matter for adults to discuss, Klaus. Clearly, a doctor needs to be called.”

“Well, why don’t you drive on up to the house,” Stephano said, “and I’ll take the children and find a doctor.”

“José!” Sunny shrieked, which probably meant something like “No way!”

“Why don’t we all go to the house,” Mr. Poe said, “and call for a doctor?”

Stephano blinked, and for a second his face grew angry again before he was able to calm himself and answer smoothly. “Of course,” he said. “I should have called earlier. Obviously I’m not thinking as clearly as you. Here, children, get back in the jeep, and Mr. Poe will follow us.”

“We’re not getting back in that car with you,” Klaus said firmly.

“Please, Klaus,” Mr. Poe said. “Try to understand. There’s been a serious accident. All other discussions will have to be put aside. The only trouble is, I’m not sure my car will start. It’s very smashed up.”

“Try the ignition,” Stephano said. Mr. Poe nodded, and walked back to his car. He sat in the driver’s seat and turned the key. The engine made a rough, wet noise—it sounded quite a bit like Mr. Poe’s coughs—but it did not start.

“I’m afraid the engine is quite dead,” Mr. Poe called out.

“And before long,” Stephano muttered to the children, “you will be too.”

“I’m sorry,” Mr. Poe said. “I couldn’t hear you.”

Stephano smiled. “I said, that’s too bad. Well, why don’t I take the orphans back to the house, and you walk behind us? There isn’t room for everyone.”

Mr. Poe frowned. “But the children’s suitcases are here. I don’t want to leave them unattended. Why don’t we put the luggage into your car, and the children and I will walk back to the house?”

Stephano frowned. “Well, one of the children should ride with me, so I won’t get lost.”

Mr. Poe smiled. “But you can see the house from here. You won’t get lost.”

“Stephano doesn’t want us to be alone with you,” Violet said, finally speaking up. She had been waiting for the proper moment to make her case. “He’s afraid that we’ll tell you who he really is, and what he’s really up to.”

“What’s she talking about?” Mr. Poe asked Stephano.

“I have no idea, Mr. Toe,” Stephano replied, shaking his head and looking at Violet fiercely.

Violet took a deep breath. “This man is not Stephano,” she said, pointing at him. “He’s Count Olaf, and he’s here to take us away.”

“Who am I?” Stephano asked. “What am I doing?”

Mr. Poe looked Stephano up and down, and then shook his head. “Forgive the children,” he said. “They are very upset. Count Olaf is a terrible man who tried to steal their money, and the youngsters are very frightened of him.”

“Do I look like this Count Olaf?” Stephano asked, his eyes shining.

“No, you don’t,” Mr. Poe said. “Count Olaf had one long eyebrow, and a clean-shaven face. You have a beard, and if you don’t mind my saying so, no eyebrows at all.”

“He shaved his eyebrow,” Violet said, “and grew a beard. Anyone can see that.”

“And he has the tattoo!” Klaus cried. “The eye tattoo, on his ankle! Look at the tattoo!”

Mr. Poe looked at Stephano, and shrugged apologetically. “I’m sorry to ask you this,” he said, “but the children seem so upset, and before we discuss anything further I’d like to set their minds at ease. Would you mind showing me your ankle?”

“I’d be happy to,” Stephano said, giving the children a toothy smile. “Right or left?”

Klaus closed his eyes and thought for a second. “Left,” he said.

Stephano placed his left foot on the bumper of Uncle Monty’s jeep. Looking at the Baudelaire orphans with his shiny, shiny eyes, he began to raise the leg of his stained striped pants. Violet, Klaus, Sunny, and Mr. Poe all kept their eyes on Stephano’s ankle.

The pant leg went up, like a curtain rising to begin a play. But there was no tattoo of an eye to be seen. The Baudelaire orphans stared at a patch of smooth skin, as blank and pale as poor Uncle Monty’s face.

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