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A man of my acquaintance once wrote a poem called “The Road Less Traveled,” describing a journey he took through the woods along a path most travelers never used. The poet found that the road less traveled was peaceful but quite lonely, and he was probably a bit nervous as he went along, because if anything happened on the road less traveled, the other travelers would be on the road more frequently traveled and so couldn’t hear him as he cried for help. Sure enough, that poet is now dead.
Like a dead poet, this book can be said to be on the road less traveled, because it begins with the three Baudelaire children on a path leading through the Mortmain Mountains, which is not a popular destination for travelers, and it ends in the churning waters of the Stricken Stream, which few travelers even go near. But this book is also on the road less traveled, because unlike books most people prefer, which provide comforting and entertaining tales about charming people and talking animals, the tale you are reading now is nothing but distressing and unnerving, and the people unfortunate enough to be in the story are far more desperate and frantic than charming, and I would prefer to not speak about the animals at all. For that reason, I can no more suggest the reading of this woeful book than I can recommend wandering around the woods by yourself, because like the road less traveled, this book is likely to make you feel lonely, miserable, and in need of help.
The Baudelaire orphans, however, had no choice but to be on the road less traveled. Violet and Klaus, the two elder Baudelaires, were in a caravan, traveling very quickly along the high mountain path. Neither Violet, who was fourteen, nor Klaus, who had recently turned thirteen, had ever thought they would find themselves on this road, except perhaps with their parents on a family vacation. But the Baudelaire parents were nowhere to be found after a terrible fire destroyed their home—although the children had reason to believe that one parent may not have died in the blaze after all—and the caravan was not heading up the Mortmain Mountains, toward a secret headquarters the siblings had heard about and were hoping to find. The caravan was heading down the Mortmain Mountains, very quickly, with no way to control or stop its journey, so Violet and Klaus felt more like fish in a stormy sea than travelers on a vacation.
But Sunny Baudelaire was in a situation that could be said to be even more desperate. Sunny was the youngest Baudelaire, still learning to speak in a way that everyone could understand, so she scarcely had words for how frightened she was. Sunny was traveling uphill, toward the headquarters in the Mortmain Mountains, in an automobile that was working perfectly, but the driver of the automobile was a man who was reason enough for being terrified. Some people called this man wicked. Some called him facinorous, which is a fancy word for “wicked.” But everyone called him Count Olaf, unless he was wearing one of his ridiculous disguises and making people call him a false name. Count Olaf was an actor, but he had largely abandoned his theatrical career to try to steal the enormous fortune the Baudelaire parents had left behind. Olaf’s schemes to get the fortune had been mean-spirited and particularly complicated, but nevertheless he had managed to attract a girlfriend, a villainous and stylish woman named Esmé Squalor, who was sitting next to Count Olaf in the car, cackling nastily and clutching Sunny on her lap. Also in the car were several employees of Olaf’s, including a man with hooks instead of hands, two women who liked to wear white powder all over their faces, and three new comrades Olaf had recently recruited at Caligari Carnival. The Baudelaire children had been at the carnival, too, wearing disguises of their own, and had pretended to join Count Olaf in his treachery, but the villain had seen through their ruse, a phrase which here means “realized who they really were, and cut the knot attaching the caravan to the car, leaving Sunny in Olaf’s clutches and her siblings tumbling toward their doom.” Sunny sat in the car and felt Esmé’s long fingernails scratch her shoulders, and worried about what would happen to her and what was happening to her older siblings, as she heard their screams getting fainter and fainter as the car drove farther and farther away.
“We have to stop this caravan!” Klaus screamed. Hurriedly, he put on his glasses, as if by improving his vision he might improve the situation. But even in perfect focus, he could see their predicament was dire. The caravan had served as a home for several performers at the carnival’s House of Freaks before they defected—a word which here means “joined Count Olaf’s band of revolting comrades”—and now the contents of this tiny home were rattling and crashing with each bump in the road. Klaus ducked to avoid a roasting pan, which Hugo the hunchback had used to prepare meals and which had toppled off a shelf in the commotion. He lifted his feet from the floor as a set of dominoes skittered by—a set that Colette the contortionist had liked to play with. And he squinted above him as a hammock swung violently overhead. An ambidextrous person named Kevin used to sleep in that hammock until he had joined Olaf’s troupe, along with Hugo and Colette, and now it seemed like it might fall at any moment and trap the Baudelaires beneath it.
The only comforting thing that Klaus could see was his sister, who was looking around the caravan with a fierce and thoughtful expression and unbuttoning the shirt the two siblings were sharing as part of their disguise. “Help me get us out of these freakish pants we’re both in,” Violet said. “There’s no use pretending we’re a two-headed person anymore, and we both need to be as able-bodied as possible.”
In moments, the two Baudelaires wriggled out of the oversized clothing they had taken from Count Olaf’s disguise kit and were standing in regular clothes, trying to balance in the shaky caravan. Klaus quickly stepped out of the path of a falling potted plant, but he couldn’t help smiling as he looked at his sister. Violet was tying her hair up in a ribbon to keep it out of her eyes, a sure sign that she was thinking up an invention. Violet’s impressive mechanical skills had saved the Baudelaires’ lives more times than they could count, and Klaus was certain that his sister could concoct something that could stop the caravan’s perilous journey.
“Are you going to make a brake?” Klaus asked.
“Not yet,” Violet said. “A brake interferes with the wheels of a vehicle, and this caravan’s wheels are spinning too quickly for interference. I’m going to unhook these hammocks and use them as a drag chute.”
“Drag chute?” Klaus said.
“Drag chutes are a little like parachutes attached to the back of a car,” Violet explained hurriedly, as a coatrack clattered around her. She reached up to the hammock where she and Klaus had slept and quickly detached it from the wall. “Race drivers use them to help stop their cars when a race is over. If I dangle these hammocks out the caravan door, we should slow down considerably.”
“What can I do?” Klaus said.
“Look in Hugo’s pantry,” Violet said, “and see if you can find anything sticky.”
When someone tells you to do something unusual without an explanation, it is very difficult not to ask why, but Klaus had learned long ago to have faith in his sister’s ideas, and quickly crossed to a large cupboard Hugo had used to store ingredients for the meals he prepared. The door of the cupboard was swinging back and forth as if a ghost were fighting with it, but most of the items were still rattling around inside. Klaus looked at the cupboard and thought of his baby sister, who was getting farther and farther away from him. Even though Sunny was still quite young, she had recently shown an interest in cooking, and Klaus remembered how she had made up her own hot chocolate recipe, and helped prepare a delicious soup the entire caravan had enjoyed. Klaus held the cupboard door open and peered inside, and hoped that his sister would survive to develop her culinary skills.
“Klaus,” Violet said firmly, taking down another hammock and tying it to the first one. “I don’t mean to rush you, but we need to stop this caravan as soon as possible. Have you found anything sticky?”
Klaus blinked and returned to the task at hand. A ceramic pitcher rolled around his feet as he pushed through the bottles and jars of cooking materials. “There’s lots of sticky things here,” he said. “I see blackstrap molasses, wild clover honey, corn syrup, aged balsamic vinegar, apple butter, strawberry jam, caramel sauce, maple syrup, butterscotch topping, maraschino liqueur, virgin and extra-virgin olive oil, lemon curd, dried apricots, mango chutney, crema di noci, tamarind paste, hot mustard, marshmallows, creamed corn, peanut butter, grape preserves, salt water taffy, condensed milk, pumpkin pie filling, and glue. I don’t know why Hugo kept glue in the pantry, but never mind. Which items do you want?”
“All of them,” Violet said firmly. “Find some way of mixing them, while I tie these hammocks together.”
Klaus grabbed the pitcher from the floor and began to pour the ingredients into it, while Violet, sitting on the floor to make it easier to balance, gathered the cords of the hammocks in her lap and began twisting them into a knot. The caravan’s journey grew rougher and rougher, and with each jolt, the Baudelaires felt a bit seasick, as if they were back on Lake Lachrymose, crossing its stormy waters to try and rescue one of their many unfortunate guardians. But despite the tumult around them, in moments Violet stood up with the hammocks gathered in her arms, all tied together in a mass of fabric, and Klaus looked at his sister and held up the pitcher, which was filled to the brim with a thick and colorful slime.
“When I say the word,” Violet said, “I’m going to open the door and cast these hammocks out. I want you at the other end of the caravan, Klaus. Open that little window and pour that mixture all over the wheels. If the hammocks work as a drag chute and the sticky substance interferes with the wheels, the caravan should slow down enough to save us. I just need to tie the hammocks to the doorknob.”
“Are you using the Devil’s Tongue knot?” Klaus asked.
“The Devil’s Tongue hasn’t brought us the best luck,” Violet said, referring to several previous rope-related escapades. “I’m using the Sumac, a knot I invented myself. I named it after a singer I admire. There—it feels secure. Are you ready to pour that mixture onto the wheels?”
Klaus crossed to the window and opened it. The wild clattering sound of the caravan’s wheels grew louder, and the Baudelaires stared for a moment at the countryside racing by. The land was jagged and twisty, and it seemed that the caravan could tumble at any moment into a hole, or off the edge of one of the mountain’s square peaks. “I guess I’m ready,” Klaus said hesitantly. “Violet, before we try your invention, I want to tell you something.”
“If we don’t try it now,” Violet said grimly, “you won’t have the chance to tell me anything.” She gave her knot one more tug and then turned back to Klaus. “Now!” she said, and threw open the caravan door.
It is often said that if you have a room with a view, you will feel peaceful and relaxed, but if the room is a caravan hurtling down a steep and twisted road, and the view is an eerie mountain range racing backward away from you, while chilly mountain winds sting your face and toss dust into your eyes, then you will not feel one bit of peace or relaxation. Instead you will feel the horror and panic that the Baudelaires felt when Violet opened the door. For a moment they could do nothing but stand still, feeling the wild tilting of the caravan, and looking up at the odd, square peaks of the Mortmain Mountains, and hearing the grinding of the caravan’s wheels as they rolled over rocks and tree stumps. But then Violet shouted “Now!” once more, and both siblings snapped into action. Klaus leaned out the window and began to pour the mixture of blackstrap molasses, wild clover honey, corn syrup, aged balsamic vinegar, apple butter, strawberry jam, caramel sauce, maple syrup, butterscotch topping, maraschino liqueur, virgin and extra-virgin olive oil, lemon curd, dried apricots, mango chutney, crema di noci, tamarind paste, hot mustard, marshmallows, creamed corn, peanut butter, grape preserves, salt water taffy, condensed milk, pumpkin pie filling, and glue onto the closest wheels, while his sister tossed the hammocks out of the door, and if you have read anything of the Baudelaire orphans’ lives—which I hope you have not—then you will not be surprised to read that Violet’s invention worked perfectly. The hammocks immediately caught the rushing air and swelled out behind the caravan like enormous cloth balloons, which slowed the caravan down quite a bit, the way you would run much slower if you were dragging something behind you, like a knapsack or a sheriff. The sticky mixture fell on the spinning wheels, which immediately began to move with less ferocity, the way you would run with less ferocity if you suddenly found yourself running in quicksand or through lasagne. The caravan slowed down, and the wheels spun less wildly, and within moments the two Baudelaires were traveling at a much more comfortable pace.
“It’s working!” Klaus cried.
“We’re not done yet,” Violet said, and walked over to a small table that had overturned in the confusion. When the Baudelaires were living at Caligari Carnival, the table had come in handy as a place to sit and make plans, but now in the Mortmain Mountains, it would come in handy for a different reason. Violet dragged the table over to the open door. “Now that the wheels are slowing down,” she said, “we can use this as a brake.”
Klaus dumped the last of the mixture out of the pitcher, and turned to his sister. “How?” he said, but Violet was already showing him how. Quickly she lay on the floor, and holding the table by its legs, dangled it out of the caravan so it dragged on the ground. Immediately there was a loud scraping sound, and the table began to shake roughly in Violet’s hands. But she held fast, forcing the table to scrape against the rocky ground and slow the caravan down even more. The swaying of the caravan became gentler and gentler, and the fallen items owned by the carnival employees stopped crashing, and then with one last whine, the wheels stopped altogether, and everything was still. Violet leaned out of the door and stuck the table in front of one of the wheels so it couldn’t start rolling again, and then stood up and looked at her brother.
“We did it,” Violet said.
“You did it,” Klaus said. “The entire plan was your idea.” He put down the pitcher on the floor and wiped his hands on a fallen towel.
“Don’t put down that pitcher,” Violet said, looking around the wreckage of the caravan. “We should gather up as many useful things as possible. We’ll need to get this caravan moving uphill if we want to rescue Sunny.”
“And reach the headquarters,” Klaus added. “Count Olaf has the map we found, but I remember that the headquarters are in the Valley of Four Drafts, near the source of the Stricken Stream. It’ll be very cold there.”
“Well, there is plenty of clothing,” Violet said, looking around. “Let’s grab everything we can and organize it outside.”
Klaus nodded in agreement, and picked up the pitcher again, along with several items of clothing that had fallen in a heap on top of a small hand mirror that belonged to Colette. Staggering from carrying so many things, he walked out of the caravan behind his sister, who was carrying a large bread knife, three heavy coats, and a ukulele that Hugo used to play sometimes on lazy afternoons. The floors of the caravan creaked as the Baudelaires stepped outside, into the misty and empty landscape, and realized how fortunate they had been.
The caravan had stopped right at the edge of one of the odd, square peaks of the mountain range. The Mortmain Mountains looked like a staircase, heading up into the clouds or down into a veil of thick, gray mist, and if the caravan had kept going in the same direction, the two Baudelaires would have toppled over the peak and fallen down through the mist to the next stair, far, far below. But to one side of the caravan, the children could see the waters of the Stricken Stream, which were an odd grayish black color, and moved slowly and lazily downhill like a river of spilled oil. Had the caravan swerved to one side, the children would have been dumped into the dark and filthy waters.
“It looks like the brake worked just in time,” Violet said quietly. “No matter where the caravan would have gone, we would have been finished.”
Klaus nodded in agreement and looked around at the wilderness. “It will be difficult to navigate the caravan out of here,” Klaus said. “You’ll have to invent a steering device.”
“And some sort of engine,” Violet said. “That will take some time.”
“We don’t have any time,” Klaus said. “If we don’t hurry, Count Olaf will be too far away and we’ll never find Sunny.”
“We’ll find her,” Violet said firmly, and put down the items she was carrying. “Let’s go back into the caravan, and look for—”
But before Violet could say what to look for, she was interrupted by an unpleasant crackling noise. The caravan seemed to moan, and then slowly began to roll toward the edge of the peak. The Baudelaires looked down and saw that the wheels had smashed the small table, so there was nothing to stop the caravan from moving again. Slowly and awkwardly it pitched forward, dragging the hammocks behind it as it neared the very edge of the peak. Klaus leaned down to grab hold of a hammock, but Violet stopped him. “It’s too heavy,” she said. “We can’t stop it.”
“We can’t let it fall off the peak!” Klaus cried.
“We’d be dragged down, too,” Violet said.
Klaus knew his sister was right, but still he wanted to grab the drag chute Violet had constructed. It is difficult, when faced with a situation you cannot control, to admit that you can do nothing, and it was difficult for the Baudelaires to stand and watch the caravan roll over the edge of the peak. There was one last creak as the back wheels bumped against a mound of dirt, and then the caravan disappeared in absolute silence. The Baudelaires stepped forward and peered over the edge of the peak, but it was so misty that the caravan was only a ghostly rectangle, getting smaller and smaller as it faded away.
“Why isn’t there a crash?” Klaus asked.
“The drag chute is slowing it down,” Violet said. “Just wait.”
The siblings waited, and after a moment there was a muffled boom! from below as the caravan met its fate. In the mist, the children could not see a thing, but they knew that the caravan and everything inside it were gone forever, and indeed I have never been able to find its remains, even after months of searching the area with only a lantern and a rhyming dictionary for company. It seems that even after countless nights of battling snow gnats and praying the batteries would not run out, it is my fate that some of my questions will never be answered.
Fate is like a strange, unpopular restaurant, filled with odd waiters who bring you things you never asked for and don’t always like. When the Baudelaires were very young, they would have guessed that their fate was to grow up in happiness and contentment with their parents in the Baudelaire mansion, but now both the mansion and their parents were gone. When they were attending Prufrock Preparatory School, they had thought that their fate was to graduate alongside their friends the Quagmires, but they hadn’t seen the academy or the two triplets in a very long time. And just moments ago, it had looked like Violet and Klaus’s fate had been to fall off a peak or into a stream, but now they were alive and well, but far away from their sister and without a vehicle to help them find her again.
Violet and Klaus moved closer to one another, and felt the icy winds of the Mortmain Mountains blow down the road less traveled and give them goosebumps. They looked at the dark and swirling waters of the Stricken Stream, and they looked down from the edge of the peak into the mist, and then looked at one another and shivered, not only at the fates they had avoided, but at all the mysterious fates that lay ahead.
Violet took one last look over the misty peak, and then reached down to put on one of the heavy coats she had taken from the caravan. “Take one of these coats,” she said to her brother. “It’s cold out here, and it’s likely to get even colder. The headquarters are supposed to be very high up in the mountains. By the time we get there, we’ll probably be wearing every stitch of this clothing.”
“But how are we going to get there?” Klaus said. “We’re nowhere near the Valley of Four Drafts, and the caravan is destroyed.”
“Let’s take a moment to see what we have,” Violet said. “I might be able to construct something from the items we managed to take.”
“I hope so,” Klaus said. “Sunny is getting farther and farther away. We’ll never catch up with her without some sort of vehicle.”
Klaus spread out the items from the caravan, and put on one of the coats while Violet picked through her pile, but instantly the two Baudelaires saw that a vehicle was not in the realm of possibility, a phrase which here means “could not be made from a few small objects and some articles of clothing previously belonging to carnival employees.” Violet tied her hair up in a ribbon again and frowned down on the few items they had managed to save. In Klaus’s pile there was the pitcher, still sticky from the substance he had used to slow down the caravan wheels, as well as Colette’s hand mirror, a wool poncho, and a sweatshirt that read CALIGARI CARNIVAL. In Violet’s pile was the large bread knife, the ukulele, and one more coat. Even Klaus, who was not as mechanically minded as his sister, knew that the materials gathered on the ground were not enough to make something that could take the two children through the Mortmain Mountains.
“I suppose I could make a spark by rubbing two rocks together,” Violet said, looking around the misty countryside for additional inventing materials, “or we could play the ukulele and bang on the pitcher. A loud noise might attract some help.”
“But who would hear it?” Klaus said, gazing at the gloomy mist. “We didn’t see a sign of anyone else when we were in the caravan. The way through the Mortmain Mountains is like a poem I read once, about the road less traveled.”
“Did the poem have a happy ending?” Violet asked.
“It was neither happy nor unhappy,” Klaus said. “It was ambiguous. Well, let’s gather up these materials and take them with us.”
“Take them with us?” Violet said. “We don’t know where to go, and we don’t know how to get there.”
“Sure we do,” Klaus said. “The Stricken Stream starts at a source high in the mountains, and winds its way down through the Valley of Four Drafts, where the headquarters are. It’s probably not the quickest or easiest way to get there, but if we follow the stream up the mountains, it’ll take us where we want to go.”
“But that could take days,” Violet said. “We don’t have a map, or any food or water for the journey, or tents or sleeping bags or any other camping equipment.”
“We can use all this clothing as blankets,” Klaus said, “and we can sleep in any shelter we find. There were quite a few caves on the map that animals use for hibernation.”
The two Baudelaires looked at one another and shivered in the chilly breeze. The idea of hiking for hours in the mountains, only to sleep wrapped in someone else’s clothing in a cave that might contain hibernating animals, was not a pleasant one, and the siblings wished they did not have to take the road less traveled, but instead could travel in a swift, well-heated vehicle and reach their sister in mere moments. But wishing, like sipping a glass of punch, or pulling aside a bearskin rug in order to access a hidden trapdoor in the floor, is merely a quiet way to spend one’s time before the candles are extinguished on one’s birthday cake, and the Baudelaires knew that it would be best to stop wishing and start their journey. Klaus put the hand mirror and the ukulele in his coat pockets and picked up the poncho and the pitcher, while Violet put the bread knife in her pocket and picked up the sweatshirt and the last coat, and then, with one last look at the tracks the caravan left behind as it toppled over the peak, the two children began to follow the Stricken Stream.
If you have ever traveled a long distance with a family member, then you know that there are times when you feel like talking and times when you feel like being quiet. This was one of the quiet times. Violet and Klaus walked up the slopes of the mountain toward the headquarters they hoped to reach, and they heard the sound of the mountain winds, a low, tuneless moan like someone blowing across the top of an empty bottle, and the odd, rough sound of the stream’s fish as they stuck their heads out of the dark, thick waters of the stream, but both travelers were in a quiet mood and did not say a word to one another, each lost in their own thoughts.
Violet let her mind wander to the time she had spent with her siblings in the Village of Fowl Devotees, when a mysterious man named Jacques Snicket was murdered, and the children were blamed for the crime. They had managed to escape from prison and rescue their friends Duncan and Isadora Quagmire from Count Olaf’s clutches, but then had been separated at the last moment from the two triplets, who sailed away in a self-sustaining hot air mobile home built by a man named Hector. None of the Baudelaires had seen Hector or the two Quagmires since, and Violet wondered if they were safe and if they had managed to contact a secret organization they’d discovered. The organization was called V.F.D., and the Baudelaires had not yet learned exactly what the organization did, or even what all the letters stood for. The children thought that the headquarters at the Valley of Four Drafts might prove to be helpful, but now, as the eldest Baudelaire trudged alongside the Stricken Stream, she wondered if she would ever find the answers she was looking for.
Klaus was also thinking about the Quagmires, although he was thinking about when the Baudelaires first met them, at Prufrock Preparatory School. Many of the students at the school had been quite mean to the three siblings—particularly a very nasty girl named Carmelita Spats—but Isadora and Duncan had been very kind, and soon the Baudelaires and the Quagmires had become inseparable, a word which here means “close friends.” One reason for their friendship had been that both sets of children had lost people who were close to them. The Baudelaires had lost their parents, of course, and the Quagmires had lost not only their parents but their brother, the third Quagmire triplet, whose name was Quigley. Klaus thought about the Quagmires’ tragedy, and felt a little guilty that one of his own parents might be alive after all. A document the Baudelaires had found contained a picture of their parents standing with Jacques Snicket and another man, with a caption reading “Because of the evidence discussed on page nine, experts now suspect that there may in fact be one survivor of the fire, but the survivor’s whereabouts are unknown.” Klaus had this document in his pocket right now, along with a few scraps of the Quagmires’ notebooks that they had managed to give him. Klaus walked beside his older sister, thinking of the puzzle of V.F.D. and how kindly the Quagmires had tried to help them solve the mystery that surrounded them all. He was thinking so hard about these things that when Violet finally broke the silence, it was as if he were waking up from a long, confusing dream.
“Klaus,” she said, “when we were in the caravan, you said you wanted to tell me something before we tried the invention, but I didn’t let you. What was it?”
“I don’t know,” Klaus admitted. “I just wanted to say something, in case—well, in case the invention didn’t work.” He sighed, and looked up at the darkening sky. “I don’t remember the last thing I said to Sunny,” he said quietly. “It must have been when we were in Madame Lulu’s tent, or maybe outside, just before we stepped into the caravan. Had I known that Count Olaf was going to take her away, I would have tried to say something special. I could have complimented her on the hot chocolate she made, or told her how skillful she was at staying in disguise.”
“You can tell her those things,” Violet said, “when we see her again.”
“I hope so,” Klaus said glumly, “but we’re so far behind Olaf and his troupe.”
“But we know where they’re going,” Violet said, “and we know that he won’t harm a hair on her head. Count Olaf thinks we perished in the caravan, so he needs Sunny to get his hands on the fortune.”
“She’s probably unharmed,” Klaus agreed, “but I’m sure she’s very frightened. I just hope she knows we’re coming after her.”
“Me, too,” Violet said, and walked in a silence for a while, interrupted only by the wind and the odd, gurgling noise of the fish.
“I think those fish are having trouble breathing,” Klaus said, pointing into the stream. “Something in the water is making them cough.”
“Maybe the Stricken Stream isn’t always that ugly color,” Violet said. “What would turn normal water into grayish black slime?”
“Iron ore,” Klaus said thoughtfully, trying to remember a book on high-altitude environmentalism he had read when he was ten. “Or perhaps a clay deposit, loosened by an earthquake or another geological event, or some sort of pollution. There might be an ink or licorice factory nearby.”
“Maybe V.F.D. will tell us,” Violet said, “when we reach the headquarters.”
“Maybe one of our parents will tell us,” Klaus said quietly.
“We shouldn’t get our hopes up,” Violet said. “Even if one of our parents really did survive the fire, and the V.F.D. headquarters really are at the Valley of Four Drafts, we still don’t know that we will see them when we arrive.”
“I don’t see the harm in getting our hopes up,” Klaus said. “We’re walking along a damaged stream, toward a vicious villain, in an attempt to rescue our sister and find the headquarters of a secret organization. I could use a little bit of hope right now.”
Violet stopped in her path. “I could use another layer of clothing,” she said. “It’s getting colder.”
Klaus nodded in agreement, and held up the garment he was carrying. “Do you want the poncho,” he asked, “or the sweatshirt?”
“The poncho, if you don’t mind,” Violet said. “After my experience in the House of Freaks, I don’t wish to advertise the Caligari Carnival.”
“Me neither,” Klaus said, taking the lettered sweatshirt from his sister. “I think I’ll wear it inside out.”
Rather than take off their coats and expose themselves to the icy winds of the Mortmain Mountains, Klaus put on the inside-out sweatshirt over his coat, and Violet wore the poncho outside hers, where it hung awkwardly around her. The two elder Baudelaires looked at one another and had to smile at their ridiculous appearance.
“These are worse than the pinstripe suits Esmé Squalor gave us,” Violet said.
“Or those itchy sweaters we wore when we stayed with Mr. Poe,” Klaus said, referring to a banker who was in charge of the Baudelaire fortune, with whom they had lost touch. “But at least we’ll keep warm. If it gets even colder, we can take turns wearing the extra coat.”
“If one of our parents is at the headquarters,” Violet said, “he or she might not recognize us underneath all this clothing. We’ll look like two large lumps.”
The two Baudelaires looked up at the snow-covered peaks above them and felt a bit dizzy, not only from the height of the Mortmain Mountains but from all the questions buzzing around their heads. Could they really reach the Valley of Four Drafts all by themselves? What would the headquarters look like? Would V.F.D. be expecting the Baudelaires? Would Count Olaf have reached the headquarters ahead of them? Would they find Sunny? Would they find one of their parents? Violet and Klaus looked at one another in silence and shivered in their strange clothes, until finally Klaus broke the silence with one more question, which seemed the dizziest one of all.
“Which parent,” he said, “do you think is the survivor?”
Violet opened her mouth to answer, but at that moment another question immediately occupied the minds of the elder Baudelaires. It is a dreadful question, and nearly everyone who has found themselves asking it has ended up wishing that they’d never brought up the subject. My brother asked the question once, and had nightmares about it for weeks. An associate of mine asked the question, and found himself falling through the air before he could hear the answer. It is a question I asked once, a very long time ago and in a very timid voice, and a woman replied by quickly putting a motorcycle helmet on her head and wrapping her body in a red silk cape. The question is, “What in the world is that ominous-looking cloud of tiny, white buzzing objects coming toward us?” and I’m sorry to tell you that the answer is “A swarm of well-organized, ill-tempered insects known as snow gnats, who live in cold mountain areas and enjoy stinging people for no reason whatsoever.”
“What in the world,” Violet said, “is that ominous-looking cloud of tiny, white buzzing objects coming toward us?”
Klaus looked in the direction his sister was pointing and frowned. “I remember reading something in a book on mountainous insect life,” he said, “but I can’t quite recall the details.”
“Try to remember,” Violet said, looking nervously at the approaching swarm. The ominous-looking cloud of tiny, white buzzing objects had appeared from around a rocky corner, and from a distance it looked a bit like the beginnings of a snowfall. But now the snowfall was organizing itself into the shape of an arrow, and moving toward the two children, buzzing louder and louder as if it were annoyed. “I think they might be snow gnats,” Klaus said. “Snow gnats live in cold mountain areas and have been known to group themselves into well-defined shapes.”
Violet looked from the approaching arrow to the waters of the stream and the steep edge of the mountain peak. “I’m glad gnats are harmless,” she said. “It doesn’t look like there’s any way to avoid them.”
“There’s something else about snow gnats,” Klaus said, “that I’m not quite remembering.”
The swarm drew quite close, with the tip of the fluttering white arrow just a few inches from the Baudelaires’ noses, and then stopped in its path, buzzing angrily. The two siblings stood face-to-face with the snow gnats for a long, tense second, and the gnat at the very, very tip of the arrow flew daintily forward and stung Violet on the nose.
“Ow!” Violet said. The snow gnat flew back to its place, and the eldest Baudelaire was left rubbing a tiny red mark on her nose. “That hurt,” she said. “It feels like a pin stuck me.”
“I remember now,” Klaus said. “Snow gnats are ill-tempered and enjoy stinging people for no reason whatso—”
But Klaus did not get to finish his sentence, because the snow gnats interrupted and gave a ghastly demonstration of just what he was talking about. Curling lazily in the mountain winds, the arrow twisted and became a large buzzing circle, and the gnats began to spin around and around the two Baudelaires like a well-organized and ill-tempered hula hoop. Each gnat was so tiny that the children could not see any of its features, but they felt as if the insects were smiling nastily.
“Are the stings poisonous?” Violet asked.
“Mildly,” Klaus said. “We’ll be all right if we get stung a few times, but many stings could make us very ill. Ow!”
One of the gnats had flown up and stung Klaus on the cheek, as if it were seeing if the middle Baudelaire was fun to hurt. “People always say that if you don’t bother stinging insects, they won’t bother you,” Violet said nervously. “Ow!”
“That’s scarcely ever true,” Klaus said, “and it’s certainly not true with snow gnats. Ow! Ow! Ow!”
“What should we—Ow!” Violet half asked.
“I don’t—Ow!” Klaus half answered, but in moments the Baudelaires did not have time for even half a conversation. The circle of snow gnats began spinning faster and faster, and the insects spread themselves out so it looked as if the two siblings were in the middle of a tiny, white tornado. Then, in a series of manuevers that must have taken a great deal of rehearsal, the gnats began stinging the Baudelaires, first on one side and then on the other. Violet shrieked as several gnats stung her chin. Klaus shouted as a handful of gnats stung his left ear. And both Baudelaires cried out as they tried to wave the gnats away only to feel the stingers all over their waving hands. The snow gnats stung to the left, and stung to the right. They approached the Baudelaires from above, making the children duck, and then from below, making the children stand on tiptoe in an effort to avoid them. And all the while, the swarm buzzed louder and louder, as if wishing to remind the Baudelaires how much fun the insects were having. Violet and Klaus closed their eyes and stood together, too scared to walk blindly and find themselves falling off a mountain peak or sinking into the waters of the Stricken Stream.
“Coat!” Klaus managed to shout, then spit out a gnat that had flown into his open mouth in the hopes of stinging his tongue. Violet understood at once, and grabbed the extra coat in her hands and draped it over Klaus and herself like a large, limp umbrella of cloth. The snow gnats buzzed furiously, trying to get inside to continue stinging them, but had to settle for stinging the Baudelaires’ hands as they held the coat in place. Violet and Klaus looked at one another dimly underneath the coat, wincing as their fingers were stung, and tried to keep walking.
“We’ll never reach the Valley of Four Drafts like this,” Violet said, speaking louder than usual over the buzzing of the gnats. “How can we stop them, Klaus?”
“Fire drives them away,” Klaus said. “In the book I read, the author said that even the smell of smoke can keep a whole swarm at bay. But we can’t start a fire underneath a coat.”
“Ow!” A snow gnat stung Violet’s thumb on a spot that had already been stung, just as the Baudelaires rounded the rocky corner where the swarm had first appeared. Through a worn spot in the fabric, the Baudelaires could just make out a dark, circular hole in the side of the mountain.
“That must be an entrance to one of the caves,” Klaus said. “Could we start a fire in there?”
“Maybe,” Violet said. “And maybe we’d annoy a hibernating animal.”
“We’ve already managed to annoy thousands of animals,” Klaus said, almost dropping the pitcher as a gnat stung his wrist. “I don’t think we have much choice. I think we have to head into the cave and take our chances.”
Violet nodded in agreement, but looked nervously at the entrance to the cave. Taking one’s chances is like taking a bath, because sometimes you end up feeling comfortable and warm, and sometimes there is something terrible lurking around that you cannot see until it is too late and you can do nothing else but scream and cling to a plastic duck. The two Baudelaires walked carefully toward the dark, circular hole, making sure to stay clear of the nearby edge of the peak and pulling the coat tightly around them so the snow gnats could not find a way inside, but what worried them most was not the height of the peak or the stingers of the gnats but the chances they were taking as they ducked inside the gloomy entrance of the cave.
The two Baudelaires had never been in this cave before, of course, and as far as I have been able to ascertain, they were never in it again, even on their way back down the mountain, after they had been reunited with their baby sister and learned the secret of Verbal Fridge Dialogue. And yet, as Violet and Klaus took their chances and walked inside, they found two things with which they were familiar. The first was fire. As they stood inside the entrance to the cave, the siblings realized at once that there was no need to worry about the snow gnats any longer, because they could smell nearby smoke, and even see, at a great distance, small orange flames toward the back of the cave. Fire, of course, was very familiar to the children, from the ashen smell of the remains of the Baudelaire mansion to the scent of the flames that destroyed Caligari Carnival. But as the snow gnats formed an arrow and darted away from the cave and the Baudelaires took another step inside, Violet and Klaus found another familiar thing—a familiar person, to be exact, who they had thought they would never see again.
“Hey you cakesniffers!” said a voice from the back of the cave, and the sound was almost enough to make the two Baudelaires wish they had taken their chances someplace else.
You may well wonder why there has been no account of Sunny Baudelaire in the first two chapters of this book, but there are several reasons why this is so. For one thing, Sunny’s journey in Count Olaf’s car was much more difficult to research. The tracks made by the tires of the car have vanished long ago, and so many blizzards and avalanches have occurred in the Mortmain Mountains that even the road itself has largely disappeared. The few witnesses to Olaf’s journey have mostly died under mysterious circumstances, or were too frightened to answer the letters, telegrams, and greeting cards I sent them requesting an interview. And even the litter that was thrown out the window of Olaf’s car—the clearest sign that evil people have driven by—was picked up off the road long before my work began. The missing litter is a good sign, as it indicates that certain animals of the Mortmain Mountains have returned to their posts and are rebuilding their nests, but it has made it very hard for me to write a complete account of Sunny’s travels.
But if you are interested in knowing how Sunny Baudelaire spent her time while her siblings stopped the caravan, followed the path of the Stricken Stream, and struggled against the snow gnats, there is another story you might read that describes more or less the same situation. The story concerns a person named Cinderella. Cinderella was a young person who was placed in the care of various wicked people who teased her and forced her to do all the chores. Eventually Cinderella was rescued by her fairy godmother, who magically created a special outfit for Cinderella to wear to a ball where she met a handsome prince, married him soon afterward, and lived happily ever after in a castle. If you substitute the name “Cinderella” with the name “Sunny Baudelaire,” and eliminate the fairy godmother, the special outfit, the ball, the handsome prince, the marriage, and living happily ever after in a castle, you will have a clear idea of Sunny’s predicament.
“I wish the baby orphan would stop that irritating crying,” Count Olaf said, wrinkling his one eyebrow as the car made another violent turn. “Nothing spoils a nice car trip like a whiny kidnapping victim.”
“I’m pinching her as often as I can,” Esmé Squalor said, and gave Sunny another pinch with her stylish fingernails, “but she still won’t shut up.”
“Listen, toothy,” Olaf said, taking his eyes off the road to glare at Sunny. “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you something to cry about.”
Sunny gave a little whimper of annoyance, and wiped her eyes with her tiny hands. It was true that she had been crying for most of the day, throughout a long drive that even the most dedicated of researchers would be unable to trace, and now as the sun set, she still had not been able to stop herself. But at Count Olaf’s words, she was almost more irritated than frightened. It is always tedious when someone says that if you don’t stop crying, they will give you something to cry about, because if you are crying than you already have something to cry about, and so there is no reason for them to give you anything additional to cry about, thank you very much. Sunny Baudelaire certainly felt she had sufficient reason to weep. She was worried about her siblings, and wondered how they were going to stop the runaway caravan from hurtling them to their doom. She was frightened for herself, now that Count Olaf had discovered her disguise, torn off her beard, and trapped her on Esmé’s lap. And she was in pain, from the constant pinching of the villain’s girlfriend. “No pinch,” she said to Esmé, but the wicked and stylish woman just frowned as if Sunny had spoken nonsense.
“When she’s not crying,” Esmé said, “the baby talks in some foreign language. I can’t understand a thing she’s saying.”
“Kidnapped children are never any fun,” said the hook-handed man, who was perhaps Sunny’s least favorite of Olaf’s troupe. “Remember when we had the Quagmires in our clutches, boss? They did nothing but complain. They complained when we put them in a cage. They complained when we trapped them inside a fountain. Complain, complain, complain—I was so sick of them I was almost glad when they escaped from our clutches.”
“Glad?” Count Olaf said with a snarl. “We worked hard to steal the Quagmire fortune, and we didn’t get a single sapphire. That was a real waste of time.”
“Don’t blame yourself, Olaf,” said one of the white-faced women from the back seat. “Everybody makes mistakes.”
“Not this time,” Olaf said. “With the two orphans squashed someplace underneath a crashed caravan and the baby orphan on your lap, the Baudelaire fortune is mine. And once we reach the Valley of Four Drafts and find the headquarters, all our worries will be over.”
“Why?” asked Hugo, the hunchbacked man who had previously been employed at the carnival.
“Yes, please explain,” said Kevin, another former carnival worker. At Caligari Carnival, Kevin had been embarrassed to be ambidextrous, but Esmé had lured him into joining Olaf’s troupe by tying Kevin’s right hand behind his back, so no one would know it was as strong as his left. “Remember, boss, we’re new to the troupe, so we don’t always know what’s going on.”
“I remember when I first joined Olaf’s troupe,” the other white-faced woman said. “I’d never even heard of the Snicket file.”
“Working for me is a hands-on learning experience,” Olaf said. “You can’t rely on me to explain everything to you. I’m a very busy man.”
“I’ll explain it, boss,” said the hook-handed man. “Count Olaf, like any good businessman, has committed a wide variety of crimes.”
“But these stupid volunteers have gathered all sorts of evidence and filed it away,” Esmé said. “I tried to explain that crime is very in right now, but apparently they weren’t interested.”
Sunny wiped another tear from her eye and sighed. The youngest Baudelaire thought she’d almost rather be pinched again than hear any more of Esmé Squalor’s nonsense about what was in—the word that Esmé used for “fashionable”—and what was out.
“We need to destroy those files, or Count Olaf could be arrested,” the hook-handed man said. “We have reason to believe that some of the files are at V.F.D. headquarters.”
“What does V.F.D. stand for?” The voice of Colette came from the floor of the automobile. Count Olaf had ordered her to use her skills as a carnival contortionist to curl up at the feet of the other members of the troupe.
“That’s top-secret information!” Olaf growled, to Sunny’s disappointment. “I used to be a member of the organization myself, but I found it was more fun to be an individual practitioner.”
“What does that mean?” asked the hook-handed man.
“It means a life of crime,” Esmé replied. “It’s very in right now.”
“Wrong def.” Sunny could not help speaking through her tears. By “wrong def” she meant something along the lines of, “An individual practitioner means someone who works alone, instead of with a group, and it has nothing to do with a life of crime,” and it made her sad that there was no one around who could understand her.
“There you go, babbling away,” Esmé said. “This is why I never want to have children. Except as servants, of course.”
“This journey is easier than I thought,” Olaf said. “The map says we just have to pass a few more caves.”
“Is there an in hotel near the headquarters?” Esmé asked.
“I’m afraid not, sweetheart,” the villain replied, “but I have two tents in the trunk of the car. We’ll be camping on Mount Fraught, the summit of the Mortmain Mountains.”
“The summit?” Esmé said. “It’ll be cold at the highest peak.”
“It’s true,” Olaf admitted, “but False Spring is on its way, so before long it’ll be a bit warmer.”
“But what about tonight?” Esmé Squalor said. “It is definitely not in for me to set up tents in the freezing cold.”
Count Olaf looked at his girlfriend and began to laugh, and Sunny could smell the foul breath of his nasty giggles. “Don’t be silly,” the villain said finally. “You’re not going to set up the tents, Esmé. You’re going to stay nice and toasty in the car. The bucktoothed baby will set up the tents for us.”
Now Olaf’s entire troupe laughed, and the car filled with the stench of so many villains’ bad breath. Sunny felt a few more tears roll down her face, and turned to the window so no one would see. The car’s windows were very dirty, but the youngest Baudelaire could see the strange, square peaks of the Mortmain Mountains and the dark waters of the Stricken Stream. By now the car had driven so high up in the mountains that the stream was mostly ice, and Sunny looked at the wide stripe of frozen blackness and wondered where her siblings were, and if they were coming to rescue her. She remembered the other time she had been in Count Olaf’s clutches, when the villain had tied her up, locked her in a cage and dangled her outside his tower room as part of one of his schemes. It had been an absolutely terrifying experience for the youngest Baudelaire, and she often still had nightmares about the creaking of the cage and the distant sight of her two siblings looking up at her from Count Olaf’s backyard. But Violet had built a grappling hook to rescue her, and Klaus had done some important legal research to defeat Olaf’s scheme. As the car took Sunny farther and farther away from her siblings, and she stared out at the lonesome terrain, she knew that they could save her again.
“How long will we stay on Mount Fraught?” Hugo asked.
“Until I say so, of course,” Count Olaf replied.
“You’ll soon find out that much of this job involves a lot of waiting around,” the hook-handed man said. “I usually keep something around to help pass the time, like a deck of cards or a large rock.”
“It can be dull,” admitted one of the white-faced women, “and it can be dangerous. Several of our comrades have recently suffered terrible fates.”
“It was worth it,” Count Olaf said nonchalantly, a word which here means “in a tone of voice that indicated he didn’t care one bit about his deceased employees.” “Sometimes a few people need to die in fires or get eaten by lions, if it’s all for the greater good.”
“What’s the greater good?” asked Colette.
“Money!” Esmé cried in greedy glee. “Money and personal satisfaction, and we’re going to get both of those things out of this whimpering baby on my lap! Once we have our hands on the Baudelaire fortune, we’ll have enough money to live a life of luxury and plan several more treacherous schemes!”
The entire troupe cheered, and Count Olaf gave Sunny a filthy grin, but did not say anything more as the car raced up a steep, bumpy hill, and at last screeched to a halt, just as the last rays of the sun faded into the evening sky. “We’re here at last,” Count Olaf said, and handed the car keys to Sunny. “Get out, baby orphan. Unload everything from the trunk and set up the tents.”
“And bring us some potato chips,” Esmé said, “so we’ll have something in to eat while we wait.”
Esmé opened the door of the car, placed Sunny on the frozen ground, and slammed the door shut again. Instantly, the chilly mountain air surrounded the youngest Baudelaire and made her shiver. It was so bitterly cold at the highest peak of the Mortmain Mountains that her tears froze in their tracks, forming a tiny mask of ice all over her face. Unsteadily, Sunny rose to her feet and walked to the back of the car. She was tempted to keep walking, and escape from Olaf while he waited in the car with his troupe. But where could she go? Sunny looked around at her surroundings and could not see a place where a baby would be safe by herself.
The summit of Mount Fraught was a small, flat square, and as Sunny walked to the trunk of the car, she gazed off each edge of the square, feeling a bit dizzy from the great height. From three of the edges, she could see the square and misty peaks of some of the other mountains, most of which were covered in snow, and twisting through the peaks were the strange, black waters of the Stricken Stream, and the rocky path that the car had driven along. But from the fourth side of the square peak, Sunny saw something so strange it took her a moment to figure out what it was.
Extending from the highest peak in the Mortmain Mountains was a glittering white strip, like an enormous piece of shiny paper folded downward, or the wing of some tremendous bird. Sunny watched the very last rays of the sunset reflect off this enormous surface and slowly realized what it was: the source of the Stricken Stream. Like many streams, the Stricken Stream originated within the rocks of the mountains, and in the warmer season, Sunny could see that it cascaded down from the highest peak in an enormous waterfall. But this was not a warm time of year, and just as Sunny’s tears had frozen on her face, the waterfall had frozen solid, into a long, slippery slope that disappeared into the darkness below. It was such an eerie sight that it took Sunny a moment to wonder why the ice was white, instead of black like the waters of the Stricken Stream.
Honk! A loud blast from Count Olaf’s horn made Sunny remember what she was supposed to be doing, and she hurriedly opened the trunk and found a bag of potato chips, which she brought back to the car. “That took a very long time, orphan,” said Olaf, rather than “Thank you.” “Now go set up the tents, one for Esmé and me and one for my troupe, so we can get some sleep.”
“Where is the baby going to stay?” asked the hook-handed man. “I don’t want her in my tent. I hear that babies can creep up and steal your breath while you’re sleeping.”
“Well, she’s certainly not sleeping with me,” Esmé said. “It’s not in to have a baby in your tent.”
“She’s not going to sleep in either tent,” Olaf decided. “There’s a large covered casserole dish in the trunk. She can sleep in there.”
“Will she be safe in a casserole dish?” Esmé said. “Remember, Olaf honey, if she dies then we can’t get our hands on the fortune.”
“There are a few holes in the top so she can breathe,” Olaf said, “and the cover will protect her from the snow gnats.”
“Snow gnats?” asked Hugo.
“Snow gnats are well-organized, ill-tempered insects,” Count Olaf explained, “who live in cold mountain areas and enjoy stinging people for no reason whatsoever. I’ve always been fond of them.”
“Nonat,” Sunny said, which meant “I didn’t notice any such insects outside,” but no one paid any attention.
“Won’t she run away if no one’s watching her?” asked Kevin.
“She wouldn’t dare,” Count Olaf said, “and even if she tried to survive in the mountains by herself, we could see where she went. That’s why we’re staying here at the summit. We’ll know if the brat escapes, or if anyone’s coming after us, because we can see everything and everyone for miles and miles.”
“Eureka,” Sunny said, before she could stop herself. She meant something along the lines of, “I’ve just realized something,” but she had not meant to say it out loud.
“Stop your babbling and get busy, you fanged brat!” Esmé Squalor said, and slammed the car door shut. Sunny could hear the laughing of the troupe and the crunching of potato chips as she walked slowly back to the trunk to find the tents.
It is often quite frustrating to arrange all of the cloth and the poles so that a tent works correctly, which is why I have always preferred to stay in hotels or rented castles, which also have the added attractions of solid walls and maid service. Sunny, of course, had the extra disadvantages of trying to do it herself, in the dark, when she was still fairly new at walking and was worried about her siblings. But the youngest Baudelaire had a history of performing Herculean tasks, a phrase which here means “managing to do incredibly difficult things.” As I’m sure you know, if you are ever forced to do something very difficult, it often helps to think of something inspiring to keep you going. When Sunny had engaged in a sword-and-tooth fight at Lucky Smells Lumbermill, for instance, she thought of how much she cared for her siblings, and it helped her defeat the evil Dr. Orwell. When Sunny climbed up an elevator shaft at 667 Dark Avenue, she had concentrated on her friends the Quagmires, and how much she wanted to rescue them, and before too long she had reached the penthouse apartment. So, as Sunny dug a hole in the frozen ground with her teeth so the tent poles would stay in place, she thought of something that inspired her, and oddly enough it was something that Count Olaf had said, about being able to see everything and everyone for miles and miles. As Sunny assembled the tents, and gazed down every so often at the slippery slope of the frozen waterfall, she decided that she would not try to sneak away from Olaf and his troupe. She would not to try to sneak anywhere. Because if you could see everything and everyone from Mount Fraught, that also meant everything and everyone, including Violet and Klaus Baudelaire, would be able to see her.
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