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The Baudelaire orphans stared at the scrap of paper, and then at Hector, and then at the scrap of paper again. Then they stared at Hector again, and then at the scrap of paper once more and then at Hector once more and then at the scrap of paper once again, and then at Hector once again and then at the scrap of paper one more time. Their mouths were open as if they were about to speak, but the three children could not find the words they wanted to say.
The expression “a bolt from the blue” describes something so surprising that it makes your head spin, your legs wobble, and your body buzz with astonishment—as if a bolt of lightning suddenly came down from a clear blue sky and struck you at full force. Unless you are a lightbulb, an electrical appliance, or a tree that is tired of standing upright, encountering a bolt from the blue is not a pleasant experience, and for a few minutes the Baudelaires stood on the steps of Hector’s house and felt the unpleasant sensations of spinning heads, wobbly legs, and buzzing bodies.
“My goodness, Baudelaires,” Hector said. “I’ve never seen anyone look so surprised. Here, come in the house and sit down. You look like a bolt of lightning just hit you at full force.”
The Baudelaires followed Hector into his house and down a hallway to the parlor, where they sat down on a couch without a word. “Why don’t you sit here for a few minutes,” he said. “I’m going to fix you some hot tea. Maybe by the time it’s ready you’ll be able to talk.” He leaned down and handed the scrap of paper to Violet, and gave Sunny a little pat on the head before walking out of the parlor and leaving the children alone. Without speaking, Violet unrolled the paper so the siblings could read the couplet again.
For sapphires we are held in here. Only you can end our fear.
“It’s her,” Klaus said, speaking quietly so Hector wouldn’t hear him. “I’m sure of it. Isadora Quagmire wrote this poem.”
“I think so, too,” Violet said. “I’m positive it’s her handwriting.”
“Blake!” Sunny said, which meant “And the poem is written in Isadora’s distinct literary style!”
“The poem talks about sapphires,” Violet said, “and the triplets’ parents left behind the famous Quagmire sapphires when they died.”
“Olaf kidnapped them to get ahold of those sapphires,” Klaus said. “That must be what it means when it says ‘For sapphires we are held in here.’”
“Peng?” Sunny asked.
“I don’t know how Hector got ahold of this,” Violet replied. “Let’s ask him.”
“Not so fast,” Klaus said. He took the poem from Violet and looked at it again. “Maybe Hector’s involved with the kidnapping in some way.”
“I hadn’t thought of that,” Violet said. “Do you really think so?”
“I don’t know,” Klaus said. “He doesn’t seem like one of Count Olaf’s associates, but sometimes we haven’t been able to recognize them.”
“Wryb,” Sunny said thoughtfully, which meant “That’s true.”
“He seems like someone we can trust,” Violet said. “He was excited to show us the migration of the crows, and he wanted to hear all about everything that has happened to us. That doesn’t sound like a kidnapper, but I suppose there’s no way of knowing for sure.”
“Exactly,” Klaus said. “There’s no way of knowing for sure.”
“The tea’s all ready,” Hector called from the next room. “If you’re up to it, why don’t you join me in the kitchen? You can sit at the table while I make the enchiladas.”
The Baudelaires looked at one another, and nodded. “Kay!” Sunny called, and led her siblings into a large and cozy kitchen. The children took seats at a round wooden table, where Hector had placed three steaming mugs of tea, and sat quietly while Hector began to prepare dinner. It is true, of course, that there is no way of knowing for sure whether or not you can trust someone, for the simple reason that circumstances change all of the time. You might know someone for several years, for instance, and trust him completely as your friend, but circumstances change all of the time. You might know someone for several years, for instance, and trust him completely as your friend, but circumstances could change and he could become very hungry, and before you knew it you could be boiling in a soup pot, because there is no way of knowing for sure. I myself fell in love with a wonderful woman who was so charming and intelligent that I trusted that she would be my bride, but there was no way of knowing for sure, and all too soon circumstances changed and she ended up marrying someone else, all because of something she read in The Daily Punctilio. And no one had to tell the Baudelaire orphans that there was no way of knowing for sure, because before they became orphans, they lived for many years in the care their parents, and trusted their parents to keep on caring for them, but circumstances changed, and now their parents were dead and the children were living with a handyman in a town full of crows. But even though there is no way of knowing for sure, there are often ways to know for pretty sure, and as the three siblings watched Hector work in the kitchen they spotted some of those ways. The tune he hummed as he chopped the ingredients, for instance, was a comforting one, and the Baudelaires could not imagine that a person could hum like that if he were a kidnapper. When he saw that the Baudelaires’ tea was still too hot to sip, he walked over to the kitchen and blew on each of their mugs to cool it, and it was hard to believe that someone could be hiding two triplets and cooling three children’s tea at the same time. And most comforting of all, Hector didn’t pester them with a lot of questions about why they were so surprised and silent. He simply kept quiet and let the Baudelaires wait until they were ready to speak about the scrap of paper he had given them, and the children could not imagine that such a considerate person was involved with Count Olaf in any way whatsoever. There was no way of knowing for sure, of course, but as the Baudelaires watched the handyman place the enchiladas in the oven to bake, they felt as if they knew for pretty sure, and by the time he sat down and joined them at the table they were ready to tell him about the couplet they had read.
“This poem was written by Isadora Quagmire,” Klaus said without preamble, a phrase which here means “almost as soon as Hector sat down.”
“Wow,” Hector said. “No wonder you were so surprised. But how can you be sure? Lots of poets write couplets. Ogden Nash, for instance.”
“Ogden Nash doesn’t write about sapphires,” said Klaus, who had received a biography of Ogden Nash for his seventh birthday. “Isadora does. When the Quagmire parents died, they left behind a fortune in sapphires. That’s what she means by ‘For sapphires we are held in here.’”
“Besides,” Violet said, “it’s Isadora’s handwriting and distinct literary style.”
“Well,” Hector said, “if you say this poem is by Isadora Quagmire, I believe you.”
“We should call Mr. Poe, and tell him,” Klaus said.
“We can’t call him,” Hector said. “There are no telephones in V.F.D., because telephones are mechanical devices. The Council of Elders can send a message to him. I’m too skittish to ask them, but you can do so if you wish.”
“Well, before we talk to the Council, we should know a bit more about the couplet,” Violet said. “Where did you get ahold of this scrap of paper?”
“I found it today,” Hector said, “beneath the branches of Nevermore Tree. I woke up this morning, and I was just leaving to walk downtown to do the morning chores when I noticed something white among all the black feathers the crows had left behind. It was this scrap of paper, all rolled up in a little scroll. I didn’t understand what was written on it, and I needed to get the chores done, so I put it in the pocket of my overalls, and I didn’t think of it again until just now, when we were talking about couplets. It’s certainly very mysterious. How in the world did one of Isadora’s poems end up in my backyard?”
“Well, poems don’t get up and walk by themselves,” Violet said. “Isadora must have put it here. She must be someplace nearby.”
Hector shook his head. “I don’t think so,” he said. “You saw for yourself how flat it is around here. You can see everything for miles around, and the only things here on the outskirts of town are the house, the barn, and Nevermore Tree. You’re welcome to search the house, but you’re not going to find Isadora Quagmire or anyone else, and I always keep the barn locked because I don’t want the Council of Elders to find out I’m breaking the rules.”
“Maybe she’s in the tree,” Klaus said. “It’s certainly big enough that Olaf could hide her in the branches.”
“That’s true,” Violet said. “Last time Olaf was keeping them far below us. Maybe this time they’re far above us.” She shuddered, thinking of how unpleasant it would be to find yourself trapped in Nevermore Tree’s enormous branches, and she pushed her chair back from the table and stood up. “There’s only one thing to do,” she said. “We’ll have to go up and look for them.”
“You’re right,” Klaus said, and stood up beside her. “Let’s go.”
“Gerhit!” Sunny agreed.
“Hold on a minute,” Hector said. “We can’t just go climbing up Nevermore Tree.”
“Why not?” Violet said. “We’ve climbed up a tower and down an elevator shaft. Climbing a tree should be no problem.”
“I’m sure you three are fine climbers,” Hector said, “but that’s not what I mean.” He stood up and walked over to the kitchen window. “Take a look outside,” he said. “The sun has completely set. It’s not light enough to see a friend of yours up in Nevermore Tree. Besides, the tree is covered in roosting birds. You’ll never be able to climb through all of those crows—it’ll be a wild-goose chase.”
The Baudelaires looked out the window and saw that Hector was right. The tree was merely an enormous shadow, blurry around the edges where the birds were roosting. The children knew that a climb in such darkness would indeed be a wild-goose chase, a phrase which here means “unlikely to reveal the Quagmires triplets’ location.” Klaus and Sunny looked at their sister, hoping that she could invent a solution, and were relieved to hear she had thought of something before she could even tie her hair back in a ribbon. “We could climb with flashlights,” Violet said. “If you have some tinfoil, an old broom handle, and three rubber bands, I can make a flashlight myself in ten minutes.”
Hector shook his head. “Flashlights would only disturb the crows,” he said. “If someone woke you up in the middle of the night and shone a light in your face, you would be very annoyed, and you don’t want to be surrounded by thousands of annoyed crows. It’s better to wait until morning, when the crows have migrated uptown.”
“We can’t wait until morning,” Klaus said. “We can’t wait another second. The last time we found them, we left them alone for a few minutes, and then they were gone again.”
“Ollawmove!” Sunny shrieked, which meant “Olaf could move them at any time!”
“Well, he can’t move them now,” Hector pointed out. “It would be just as difficult for him to climb the tree.”
“We have to do something,” Violet insisted. “This poem isn’t just a couplet—it’s a cry for help. Isadora herself says ‘Only you can end our fear.’ Our friends are frightened, and it’s up to us to rescue them.”
Hector took some oven mitts out of the pocket of his overalls, and used them to take the enchiladas out of the oven. “I’ll tell you what,” he said. “It’s a nice evening, and our chicken enchiladas are done. We can sit out on the porch, and eat our dinner, and keep an eye on Nevermore Tree. This area is so flat that even at night you can see for quite a distance, and if Count Olaf approaches—or anybody else, for that matter—we’ll see him coming.”
“But Count Olaf might perform his treachery after dinner,” Klaus said. “The only way to make sure that nobody approaches the tree is to watch the tree all night.”
“We can take turns sleeping,” Violet said, “so that one of us is always awake to keep watch.”
Hector started to shake his head, but then stopped and looked at the children. “Normally I don’t approve of children staying up late,” he said finally, “unless they are reading a very good book, seeing a wonderful movie, or attending a dinner party with fascinating guests. But this time I suppose we can make an exception. I’ll probably fall asleep, but you three can keep watch all night if you wish. Just please don’t try to climb Nevermore Tree in the dark. I understand how frustrated you are, and I know that the only thing we can do is wait until morning.”
The Baudelaires looked at one another and sighed. They were so anxious about the Quagmires that they wanted to run right out and climb Nevermore Tree, but they knew in their hearts that Hector was right.
“I guess you’re right, Hector,” Violet said. “We can wait until morning.”
“It’s the only thing we can do,” Klaus agreed.
“Contraire!” Sunny said, and held up her arms so that Klaus could pick her up. She meant something along the lines of “I can think of something else we can do—hold me up to the window latch!” and her brother did so. Sunny’s tiny fingers undid the latch of the window and pushed it open, letting in the cool evening air and the muttering sound of the crows. Then she leaned forward as far as she could and stuck her head out into the night. “Bark!” she cried out as loudly as she could. “Bark!”
There are many expressions to describe someone who is going about something in the wrong way. “Making a mistake” is one way to describe this situation. “Screwing up” is another, although it is a bit rude, and “Attempting to rescue Lemony Snicket by writing letters to a congressman, instead of digging an escape tunnel” is a third way, although it is a bit too specific. But Sunny calling out “Bark!” brings to mind an expression that, sadly enough, describes the situation perfectly.
By “Bark!” Sunny meant “If you’re up there, Quagmires, just hang on, and we’ll get you out first thing in the morning,” and I’m sorry to say that the expression which best describes her circumstances is “barking up the wrong tree.” It was a kind gesture of Sunny’s, to try to reassure Isadora and Duncan that the Baudelaires would help them escape from Count Olaf’s clutches, but the youngest Baudelaire was going about it the wrong way. “Bark!” she cried one more time, as Hector began to dish up the chicken enchiladas, and led the Baudelaires to the front porch so they could eat at the picnic table and keep an eye on Nevermore Tree, but Sunny was making a mistake. The Baudelaires did not realize the mistake as they finished their dinner and kept their eye on the immense, muttering tree. They did not realize the mistake as they sat on the porch for the rest of the night, taking turns at squinting at the flat horizon for any sign of someone approaching and dozing beside Hector using the picnic table as a pillow. But when the sun began to rise, and one V.F.D. crow left Nevermore Tree and began to fly in a circle, and three more crows followed, and then seven more, and then twelve more, and soon the morning sky was filled with the sound of fluttering wings as the thousands of crows circled and circled above the children’s heads as they rose from the wooden chairs and walked quickly toward the tree to look for any sign of the Quagmires, the Baudelaires saw at once how deeply mistaken they had been.
Without the murder of crows roosting in its branches, Nevermore Tree looked as bare as a skeleton. There was not a single leaf among the hundreds and hundreds of the tree’s branches. Standing on its scraggly roots and looking up into the empty branches, the Baudelaires could see every last detail of Nevermore Tree, and they could see at once that they would not find Duncan and Isadora Quagmire no matter how far they climbed. It was an enormous tree, and it was a sturdy tree, and it was apparently very comfortable to roost in, but it was the wrong tree. Klaus had been barking up the wrong tree when he’d said that their kidnapped friends were probably up there, and Violet had been barking up the wrong tree when she’d said that they should climb up and look for them, and Sunny had been barking up the wrong tree when she’d said “Bark!” The Baudelaire orphans had been barking up the wrong tree all evening, because the only thing the children found that morning was another scrap of paper, rolled into a scroll, among all the black feathers that the crows had left behind.
Until dawn comes we cannot speak. No words can come from this sad beak.
“My head is spinning again,” Violet said, holding the scrap of paper so Klaus and Sunny could see what was written on it. “And my legs are all wobbly and my body is buzzing, like I’ve been struck by lightning. How in the world did Isadora get another poem here? We made sure that one of us was watching the tree at every moment.”
“Maybe it was here yesterday, but Hector didn’t see it,” Klaus said.
Violet shook her head. “A white scrap of paper is very easy to see next to all these black feathers. It must have arrived here sometime in the night. But how?”
“How it got here is the least of our questions,” Klaus said. “Where are the Quagmires? That’s the question I want answered.”
“But why doesn’t Isadora just tell us,” Violet said, rereading the couplet and frowning, “instead of leaving us mysterious poems on the ground where anyone could find them?”
“Maybe that’s why,” Klaus said slowly. “Anyone could find them here on the ground. If Isadora simply wrote out where they were, and Count Olaf found the scrap of paper, he’d move them—or worse. I’m not that experienced with reading poetry, but I bet Isadora is telling us where she and her brother are. It must be hidden somewhere in the poem.”
“It’ll be difficult to find,” Violet said, rereading the couplet. “There are so many confusing things about this poem. Why does she say ‘beak’? Isadora has a nose and mouth, not a beak.”
“Cra!” Sunny said, which meant “She probably means the beak of a V.F.D. crow.”
“You might be right,” Violet agreed. “But why does she say that no words can come from it? Of course no words can come from a beak. Birds can’t talk.”
“Actually, some birds can talk,” Klaus said. “I read an ornithological encyclopedia that discussed the parrot and the myna bird, which both can imitate human speech.”
“But there aren’t any parrots or myna birds around here,” Violet said. “There are only crows, and crows certainly can’t speak.”
“And speaking of speaking,” Klaus said, “why does the poem say ‘Until dawn comes we cannot speak’?”
“Well, both these poems arrived in the morning,” Violet said. “Maybe Isadora means that she can only send us poems in the morning.”
“None of this makes any sense,” Klaus said. “Maybe Hector can help us figure out what’s going wrong.”
“Laper!” Sunny said in agreement, and the children went to wake up the handyman, who was still asleep on the front porch. Violet touched his shoulder, and as he yawned and sat up the children could see that his face had lines on it from sleeping on the picnic table.
“Good morning, Baudelaires,” he said, stretching his arms and giving them a sleepy smile. “At least, I hope it’s a good morning. Did you find any sign of the Quagmires?”
“It’s more like a strange morning,” Violet replied. “We found a sign of them, all right. Take a look.”
Violet handed Hector the second poem, and he read it and frowned. “‘Curiouser and curiouser,’” he said, quoting one of the Baudelaires’ favorite books. “This is really turning into a puzzle.”
“But a puzzle is just something you do for amusement,” Klaus said. “Duncan and Isadora are in grave danger. If we don’t figure out what these poems are trying to tell us, Count Olaf will—”
“Don’t even say it,” Violet said with a shiver. “We absolutely must solve this puzzle, and that is that.”
Hector stood up to stretch, and looked out on the flat and empty horizon surrounding his home. “Judging by the angle of the sun,” he said, “it’s just about time to leave. We don’t even have time for breakfast.”
“Leave?” Violet asked.
“Of course,” Hector said. “Are you forgetting how many chores we have ahead of us today?” He reached into the pocket of his overalls and pulled out a list. “We begin downtown, of course, so the crows don’t get in our way. We have to trim Mrs. Morrow’s hedges, wash Mr. Lesko’s windows, and polish all the doorknobs at the Verhoogen family’s mansion. Plus we have to sweep all the feathers out of the street, and take out everyone’s garbage and recyclables.”
“But the Quagmire kidnapping is much more important than any of those things,” Violet said.
Hector sighed. “I agree with you,” he said, “but I’m not going to argue with the Council of Elders. They make me too skittish.”
“I’ll be happy to explain the situation to them,” Klaus said.
“No,” Hector decided. “It will be best to do our chores as usual. Go wash your faces, Baudelaires, and then we’ll go.”
The Baudelaires looked at one another in dismay, wishing that the handyman wasn’t quite so afraid of a group of old people wearing crow-shaped hats, but without further discussion they walked back into the house, washed their faces, and followed Hector across the flat landscape until they reached the outskirts of town and then through the uptown district, where the V.F.D. crows were roosting, until they reached the downtown house of Mrs. Morrow, who was waiting in her pink robe on her front porch. Without a word she handed Hector a pair of hedge clippers, which are nothing more than large scissors designed to cut branches and leaves rather than paper, and gave each Baudelaire a large plastic bag to gather up the leaves and branches Hector would snip off. Hedge clippers and a plastic bag are not appropriate methods of greeting someone, of course, particularly first thing in the morning, but the three siblings were so busy thinking about what the poems could mean that they scarcely noticed. As they gathered up the hedge trimmings they floated several theories—the phrase “floated several theories” here means “talked quietly about the two couplets by Isadora Quagmire”—until the hedge looked nice and neat and it was time to walk down the block to where Mr. Lesko lived. Mr. Lesko—whom the Baudelaires recognized as the man in plaid pants who was worried that the children might have to live with him—was even ruder than Mrs. Morrow. He merely pointed at a pile of window-cleaning supplies and stomped back into his house, but once again the Baudelaires were concentrating on solving the mystery of the two messages they had been left, and scarcely noticed Mr. Lesko’s rudeness. Violet and Klaus each began scrubbing dirt off a window with a damp rag, while Sunny stood by with a bucket of soapy water and Hector climbed up to clean the windows on the second floor, but all the children thought of was each line of Isadora’s confusing poem, until they were finished with the windows and were ready to go to work on the rest of the chores for the day, which I will not describe for you, not only because they were so boring that I would fall asleep while writing them down on paper, but because the Baudelaire orphans scarcely noticed them. The children thought about the couplets while they polished the Verhoogen doorknobs, and they thought about them when they swept the feathers from the street into a dustpan that Sunny held while crawling in front of her siblings, but they still could not imagine how Isadora managed to leave a poem underneath Nevermore Tree. They thought about the couplets as they carried the garbage and recyclables from all of V.F.D.’s downtown residents, and they thought about them as they ate a lunch of cabbage sandwiches that one of V.F.D.’s restaurant owners had agreed to provide as his part in the village’s attempt to raise the children, but they still could not figure out what Isadora was trying to tell them. They thought of the couplets when Hector read out the list of afternoon chores, which included such tedious duties as making citizens’ beds, washing townspeople’s dishes, preparing enough hot fudge sundaes for the entire Council of Elders to enjoy as an afternoon snack, and polishing Fowl Fountain, but no matter how hard they thought, the Baudelaires got no closer to solving the couplets’ mysteries.
“I’m very impressed with how hard you three children are working,” Hector said, as he and the children began their last afternoon chore. Fowl Fountain was made in the shape of an enormous crow, and stood in the middle of the uptown district, in a courtyard with many different streets leading out of it. The children were scrubbing at the crow’s metal body, which was covered in carvings of feather shapes to make it look more realistic. Hector was standing on a ladder scrubbing at the crow’s metal head, which was facing straight up and spitting a steady stream of water out of a hole fashioned to look like its mouth, as if the enormous bird were gargling and spitting water all over its own body. The effect was hideous, but the V.F.D. crows must have thought differently, because the fountain was covered in feathers that they had left behind during their uptown morning roost. “When the Council of Elders told me that the village was serving as your guardian,” Hector continued, “I was afraid that three small children wouldn’t be able to do all these chores without complaining.”
“We’re used to strenuous exercise,” Violet replied. “When we lived in Paltryville, we debarked trees and sawed them into boards, and at Prufrock Preparatory School we had to run hundreds of laps every night.”
“Besides,” Klaus said, “we’re so busy thinking about the couplets that we’ve scarcely noticed our work.”
“I thought that’s why you were so quiet,” Hector said. “How do the poems go again?”
The Baudelaires had looked at the two scraps of paper so many times over the course of the day that they could recite both poems from memory.
“For sapphires we are held in here. Only you can end our fear.”
“Until dawn comes we cannot speak. No words can come from this sad beak.”
“Dulch!” Sunny added, which meant something like, “And we still haven’t figured out what they really mean.”
“They’re tricky, all right,” Hector said. “In fact, I…”
Here his voice trailed off, and the children were startled to see the handyman turn around so he was no longer facing them and begin to scrub the left eye of the metal crow, as if someone had flicked a switch that stopped him from talking.
“Fowl Fountain still doesn’t look completely clean,” said a stern voice from behind the children, and the Baudelaires turned around to see three women from the Council of Elders who had entered the courtyard and now stood frowning at them. Hector was so skittish that he didn’t even look up to answer, but the children were not nearly as intimidated, a word which here means “made skittish by three older women wearing crow-shaped hats.”
“We’re not completely finished cleaning it,” Violet explained politely. “I do hope you enjoyed your hot fudge sundaes that we prepared for you earlier.”
“They were O.K.,” one of them said, with a shrug that bobbed her crow hat slightly.
“Mine had too many nuts,” another one of them said. “Rule #961 clearly states that the Council of Elders’ hot fudge sundaes cannot have more than fifteen pieces of nuts each, and mine might have had more than that.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Klaus said, not adding that anyone who is so picky about a hot fudge sundae should make it themselves.
“We’ve stacked up the dirty ice cream dishes in the Snack Hut,” the third one said. “Tomorrow afternoon you’ll wash them as part of your uptown chores. But we came to tell Hector something.”
The children looked up to the top of the ladder, thinking that Hector would have to turn around and speak to them now, no matter how skittish he was. But he merely gave a little cough, and continued to scrub at Fowl Fountain. Violet remembered what her father had taught her to say when he was unable to come to the phone, and she spoke up.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Hector is occupied at the moment. May I give him a message?”
The Elders looked at one another and nodded, which made it look like their hats were pecking at one another. “I suppose so,” one of them said. “If we can trust a little girl like you to deliver it.”
“The message is very important,” the second one said, and once again I find it necessary to use the expression “bolt from the blue.” You would think, after the mysterious appearance of not one but two poems by Isadora Quagmire at the base of Nevermore Tree, that no more bolts from the blue would appear in the village of V.F.D. A bolt of lightning, after all, rarely comes down from a clear blue sky and strikes the exact same place more than once. But for the Baudelaire orphans, life seemed to be little else than bolt after unfortunate bolt from the blue, ever since Mr. Poe had delivered the first bolt from the blue in telling them that their parents had been killed, and no matter how many bolts from the blue they experienced, their heads never spun any less, and their legs never got less wobbly, and their bodies never buzzed any less with astonishment when another bolt arrived from the blue. So when the Baudelaires heard the Elders’ message, they almost had to sit down in Fowl Fountain, because the message was such an utter surprise. It was a message that they thought they might never hear, and it is a message that only reaches me in my most pleasant dreams, which are few and far between.
“The message is this,” said the third member of the Council of Elders, and she leaned her head in close so that the children could see every felt feather of her crow hat. “Count Olaf has been captured,” she said, and the Baudelaires felt as if a bolt of lightning had struck them once more.
Although “jumping to conclusions” is an expression, rather than an activity, it is as dangerous as jumping off a cliff, jumping in front of a moving train, and jumping for joy. If you jump off a cliff, you have a very good chance of experiencing a painful landing unless there is something below you to cushion your fall, such as a body of water or an immense pile of tissue paper. If you jump in front of a moving train, you have a very good chance of experiencing a painful voyage unless you are wearing some sort of train-proof suit. And if you jump for joy, you have a very good chance of experiencing a painful bump on the head, unless you make sure you are standing someplace with very high ceilings, which joyous people rarely do. Clearly, the solution to anything involving jumping is either to make sure you are jumping to a safe place, or not to jump at all.
But it is hard not to jump at all when you are jumping to conclusions, and it is impossible to make sure that you are jumping to a safe place, because all “jumping to conclusions” means is that you are believing something is true even though you don’t actually know whether it is or not. When the Baudelaire orphans heard from the three members of V.F.D.’s Council of Elders that Count Olaf had been captured, they were so excited that they immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was true.
“It’s true,” said one of the Elders, which didn’t help things any. “A man arrived in town this morning, with one eyebrow and a tattoo of an eye on his ankle.”
“It must be Olaf,” Violet said, jumping to conclusions.
“Of course it is,” the second Council member said. “He matched the description that Mr. Poe gave us, so we arrested him immediately.”
“So it’s true,” Klaus said, joining his sister in the jump. “You’ve really captured Count Olaf.”
“Of course it’s true,” the third woman said impatiently. “We’ve even contacted The Daily Punctilio, and they’ll write a story about it. Soon the whole world will know that Count Olaf has been captured at last.”
“Hooray!” cried Sunny, the last Baudelaire to jump to conclusions.
“The Council of Elders has called a special meeting,” said the woman who appeared to be the eldest Elder. Her crow hat bobbed in excitement as she spoke. “All citizens are required to go to Town Hall immediately, to discuss what is to be done with him. After all, Rule #19,833 clearly states that no villains are allowed within the city limits. The usual punishment for breaking a rule is burning at the stake.”
“Burning at the stake?” Violet said.
“Of course,” an Elder said. “Whenever we capture rulebreakers, we tie them to a wooden pole and light a fire underneath their feet. That’s why I warned you about the number of nuts on my hot fudge sundae. It would be a shame to light you on fire.”
“You mean the punishment is the same, no matter what rule you break?” Klaus asked.
“Of course,” another Elder replied. “Rule #2 clearly states that anyone who breaks a rule is burned at the stake. If we didn’t burn a rule-breaker at the stake, we would be rulebreakers ourselves, and someone else would have to burn us at the stake. Understand?”
“Sort of,” Violet said, although in truth she didn’t understand it at all. None of the Baudelaires did. Although they despised Count Olaf, the children didn’t like the idea of lighting him on fire. Burning a villain at the stake felt like something a villain would do rather than something done by fowl devotees.
“But Count Olaf isn’t just a rulebreaker,” Klaus said, choosing his words very carefully. “He has committed all sorts of terrible crimes. It would seem best to turn him over to the authorities, rather than burning him at the stake.”
“Well, that’s something we can talk about at the meeting,” a Councilwoman said, “and we’d better hurry or we’ll be late. Hector, get down from that ladder.”
Hector didn’t answer, but he got down from the ladder and followed the three members of the Council of Elders away from Fowl Fountain, keeping his eyes on the ground at all times. The Baudelaires followed Hector, their stomachs fluttering as they walked through the uptown district to the downtown one, where the crows were roosting as they had been yesterday, when the children had first arrived in V.F.D. Their stomachs were fluttering with relief and excitement, because they believed that Count Olaf had been captured, but also with nervousness and fear, because they hated the idea that he might be burned at the stake. The punishment for V.F.D. rulebreakers made the Baudelaires remember their parents’ deaths, and they didn’t like the idea of anyone being lit on fire, no matter how vile a person they were. It was unpleasant to feel relief, excitement, nervousness, and fear all at once, and by the time they arrived at Town Hall, the stomachs of the Baudelaire orphans were as fluttery as the crows, which were muttering and scuffling as far as the eye could see.
When one’s stomach is as fluttery as all that, it is nice to take a short break to lie down and perhaps sip a fizzy beverage, but there was no time for such things. The three members of the Council led the way to the large room in Town Hall decorated with portraits of crows. The room was in pandemonium, a phrase which here means “filled with Elders and townspeople standing around arguing.” The Baudelaires scanned the room for a sign of Olaf, but it was impossible to see anyone over the bobbing crow heads.
“We need to begin the meeting!” called one of the Council. “Elders, find your places on the bench. Townspeople, find your places on folding chairs.” The townspeople stopped talking at once and hurried into their seats, perhaps afraid that they would be burned at the stake if they didn’t sit down quickly enough. Violet and Klaus sat down next to Hector, who was still staring at the floor in silence, and picked up Sunny so she could see.
“Hector, place Officer Luciana and Count Olaf on the platform for discussion,” an Elder ordered, as the last few townspeople sat down.
“There’s no need,” called out a grand voice from the back of the room, and the children turned around to see Officer Luciana, with a big red grin beneath the visor of her helmet. “I can get to the platform myself. After all, I’m the Chief of Police.”
“That’s true,” another Elder said, and several other people on the bench nodded their crow hats in agreement as Luciana strolled to the platform, each of her black boots making a loud clunk! on the shiny floor.
“I’m proud to say,” Officer Luciana said proudly, “that I’ve already made the first arrest of my career as Chief of Police. Isn’t that smashing?”
“Hear, hear!” cried several townspeople.
“And now,” Luciana continued, “let’s meet the man we’re all dying to burn at the stake—Count Olaf!”
With a grand gesture, Officer Luciana stepped off the platform, clunked to the back of the room, and dragged a frightened-looking man out of a folding chair. He was dressed in a rumpled suit with a large rip across the shoulder, and a pair of shiny silver handcuffs. He wasn’t wearing any shoes or socks, and as Officer Luciana marched him to the platform the children could see that he had a tattoo of an eye on his left ankle, just like Count Olaf had. And when he turned his head and gazed around the room, the children could see that he had only one eyebrow, instead of two, just like Count Olaf had. But the children could also see that he wasn’t Count Olaf. He wasn’t as tall as Count Olaf, and he wasn’t quite as thin, and there wasn’t dirt under his fingernails, or a nasty and greedy look in his eyes. But most of all the Baudelaires could see that he wasn’t Count Olaf the way you could tell that a stranger wasn’t your uncle, even if he were wearing the same polka-dot coat and curly wig that your uncle always wore. The three siblings looked at one another, and then at the man being dragged onto the platform, and they realized with a sinking feeling that they had been jumping to conclusions about Olaf’s capture.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Officer Luciana said, “and orphans, I give you Count Olaf!”
“But I’m not Count Olaf!” the man cried. “My name is Jacques, and—”
“Silence!” commanded one of the meanest-looking members of the Council of Elders. “Rule #920 clearly states that no one may talk while on the platform.”
“Let’s burn him at the stake!” cried a voice, and the children turned to see Mr. Lesko standing up and pointing at the trembling man on the platform. “We haven’t burned anyone at the stake for a long time!”
Several members of the Council nodded their heads. “That’s a good point,” one of them said.
“He’s Olaf, all right,” Mrs. Morrow called from the far side of the room. “He has one eyebrow instead of two, and there’s a tattoo of an eye on his ankle.”
“But lots of people have only one eyebrow,” Jacques cried, “and I have this tattoo as part of my job.”
“And your job is villain!” Mr. Lesko called out triumphantly. “Rule #19,833 clearly states that no villains are allowed within the city limits, so we get to burn you at the stake!”
“Hear, hear!” called several voices in agreement.
“I’m not a villain!” Jacques said frantically. “I work for the volunteer—”
“Enough is enough!” said one of the youngest Elders. “Olaf, you have already been warned about Rule #920. You are not allowed to speak when you are on the platform. Do any more citizens wish to speak before we schedule the burning of Olaf at the stake?”
Violet stood up, which is not an easy thing to do if your head is still spinning, your legs are still wobbly, and your body is still buzzing with astonishment. “I wish to speak,” she said. “The town of V.F.D. is my guardian, and so I am a citizen.”
Klaus, who had Sunny in his arms, stood up and took his place beside his sister. “This man,” he said, pointing at Jacques, “is not Count Olaf. Officer Luciana has made a mistake in arresting him, and we don’t want to make things worse by burning an innocent man at the stake.”
Jacques gave the children a grateful smile, but Officer Luciana turned around and clunked over to where the Baudelaires were standing. The children could not see her eyes, because the visor on her helmet was still down, but her bright red lips curled into a tight smile. “It is you who are making things worse,” she said, and then turned to the Council of Elders. “Obviously, the shock of seeing Count Olaf has confused these children,” she said to them.
“Of course it has!” agreed an Elder. “Speaking as a member of the town serving as their legal guardian, I say that these children clearly need to be put to bed. Now, are there any adults who wish to speak?”
The Baudelaires looked over at Hector, in the hopes that he would overcome his nervousness and stand up to speak. Surely he didn’t believe that the three siblings were so confused that they didn’t know who Count Olaf was. But Hector did not rise to the occasion, a phrase which here means “continued to sit in his folding chair with his eyes cast downward,” and after a moment the Council of Elders closed the matter.
“I hereby close the matter,” an Elder said. “Hector, please take the Baudelaires home.”
“Yes!” called out a member of the Verhoogen family. “Put the orphans to bed and burn Olaf at the stake!”
“Hear, hear!” several voices cried.
One of the Council of Elders shook his head. “It’s too late to burn anyone at the stake today,” he said, and there was a mutter of disappointment from the townspeople. “We will burn Count Olaf at the stake right after breakfast,” he continued. “All uptown residents should bring flaming torches, and all downtown residents should bring wood for kindling and some sort of healthy snack. See you tomorrow.”
“And in the meantime,” Officer Luciana announced, “I will keep him in the uptown jail, across from Fowl Fountain.”
“But I’m innocent!” the man on the platform cried. “Please listen to me, I beg of you! I’m not Count Olaf! My name is Jacques!” He turned to the three siblings, who could see he had tears in his eyes. “Oh, Baudelaires,” he said, “I am so relieved to see that you are alive. Your parents—”
“That’s enough out of you,” Officer Luciana said, clasping her white-gloved hand over Jacques’s mouth.
“Pipit!” Sunny shrieked, which meant “Wait!” but Officer Luciana either didn’t listen or didn’t care, and she quickly dragged Jacques out the door before he could say another word. The townspeople rose up in their folding chairs to watch him go, and then began talking among themselves as the Council of Elders left the bench. The Baudelaires saw Mr. Lesko share a joke with the Verhoogen family, as if the entire evening had been a jolly party instead of a meeting sentencing an innocent man to death. “Pipit!” Sunny shrieked again, but nobody listened. His eyes still on the floor, Hector took Violet and Klaus by the hand and led them out of Town Hall. The handyman did not say a word, and the Baudelaires didn’t, either. Their stomachs felt too fluttery and their hearts too heavy to even open their mouths. As they left the council meeting without another glimpse of Jacques or Officer Luciana, they felt a pain even worse than that of jumping to conclusions. The children felt as if they had jumped off a cliff, or jumped in front of a moving train. As they stepped out of Town Hall into the still night air, the Baudelaire orphans felt as if they would never jump for joy again.
CHAPTER Seven In this large and fierce world of ours, there are many, many unpleasant places to be. You can be in a river swarming with angry electric eels, or in a supermarket filled with vicious long-distance runners. You can be in a hotel that has no room service, or you can be lost in a forest that is slowly filling up with water. You can be in a hornet’s nest or in an abandoned airport or in the office of a pediatric surgeon, but one of the most unpleasant things that can happen is to find yourself in a quandary, which is where the Baudelaire orphans found themselves that night. Finding yourself in a quandary means that everything seems confusing and dangerous and you don’t know what in the world to do about it, and it is one of the worst unpleasantries you can encounter. The three Baudelaires sat in Hector’s kitchen as the handyman prepared another Mexican dinner, and compared with the quandary they were in, all their other problems felt like the small potatoes he was chopping into thirds.
“Everything seems confusing,” Violet said glumly. “The Quagmire triplets are somewhere nearby, but we don’t know where, and the only clues we have are two confusing poems. And now, there’s a man who isn’t Count Olaf, but he has an eye tattooed on his ankle, and he wanted to tell us something about our parents.”
“It’s more than confusing,” Klaus said. “It’s dangerous. We need to rescue the Quagmires before Count Olaf does something dreadful, and we need to convince the Council of Elders that the man they arrested is really Jacques, otherwise they’ll burn him at the stake.”
“Quandary?” Sunny said, which meant something along the lines of “What in the world can we do about it?”
“I don’t know what we can do about it, Sunny,” Violet replied. “We spent all day trying to figure out what the poems meant, and we tried our best to convince the Council of Elders that Officer Luciana made a mistake.” She and her siblings looked at Hector, who had certainly not tried his best with the Council of Elders but instead had sat in his folding chair without saying a word.
Hector sighed and looked unhappily at the children. “I know I should have said something,” he told them, “but I was far too skittish. The Council of Elders is so imposing that I can never say a word in their presence. However, I can think of something that we can do to help.”
“What is it?” Klaus asked.
“We can enjoy these huevos rancheros,” he said. “Huevos rancheros are fried eggs and beans, served with tortillas and potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce.”
The siblings looked at one another, trying to imagine how a Mexican dish would get them out of their quandary. “How will that help?” Violet asked doubtfully.
“I don’t know,” Hector admitted. “But they’re almost ready, and my recipe is a delicious one, if I do say so myself. Come on, let’s eat. Maybe a good dinner will help you think of something.”
The children sighed, but nodded their heads in agreement and got up to set the table, and curiously enough, a good dinner did in fact help the Baudelaires think of something. As Violet took her first bite of beans, she felt the gears and levers of her inventing brain spring into action. As Klaus dipped his tortilla into the spicy tomato sauce, he began to think of books he had read that might be helpful. And as Sunny smeared egg yolks all over her face, she clicked her four sharp teeth together and tried to think of a way that they might be useful. By the time the Baudelaires were finishing the meal Hector had prepared for them, their ideas had grown and developed into full-fledged plans, just as Nevermore Tree had grown a long time ago from a tiny seed and Fowl Fountain had been built recently from someone’s hideous blueprint.
It was Sunny who spoke up first. “Plan!” she said.
“What is it, Sunny?” Klaus asked.
With a tiny finger covered in tomato sauce, Sunny pointed out the window at Nevermore Tree, which was covered in the V.F.D. crows as it was every evening. “Merganser!” she said firmly.
“My sister says that tomorrow morning there will probably be another poem from Isadora in the same spot,” Klaus explained to Hector. “She wants to spend the night underneath the tree. She’s so small that whoever is delivering the poems probably won’t spot her, and she’ll be able to find out how the couplets are getting to us.”
“And that should bring us closer to finding the Quagmires,” Violet said. “That’s a good plan, Sunny.”
“My goodness, Sunny,” Hector said. “Won’t you be frightened spending all night underneath a whole murder of crows?”
“Therill,” Sunny said, which meant “It won’t be any more frightening than the time I climbed up an elevator shaft with my teeth.”
“I think I have a good plan, too,” Klaus said. “Hector, yesterday you told us about the secret library you have in the barn.”
“Ssh!” Hector said, looking around the kitchen. “Not so loud! You know it’s against the rules to have all those books, and I don’t want to be burned at the stake.”
“I don’t want anyone to be burned at the stake,” Klaus said. “Now, does the secret library contain books about the rules of V.F.D.?”
“Absolutely,” Hector said. “Lots of them. Because the rule books describe people breaking the rules, they break Rule #108, which clearly states that the V.F.D. library cannot contain any books that break any of the rules.”
“Well, I’m going to read as many rule books as I can,” Klaus said. “There must be a way to save Jacques from being burned at the stake, and I bet I’ll find it in the pages of those books.”
“My word, Klaus,” Hector said. “Won’t you be bored reading all those rule books?”
“It won’t be any more boring than the time I had to read all about grammar, in order to save Aunt Josephine,” he replied.
“Sunny is working to save the Quagmires,” Violet said, “and Klaus is working to save Jacques. I’ve got to work to save us.”
“What do you mean?” Klaus asked.
“Well, I think Count Olaf must be behind all this trouble,” Violet said.
“Grebe!” Sunny said, which meant “As usual!”
“If the town of V.F.D. burns Jacques at the stake,” Violet continued, “then everyone will think Count Olaf is dead. I bet The Daily Punctilio will even have a story that says so. It will be very good news for Olaf—the real one, that is. If everyone thinks he’s dead, Olaf can be as treacherous as he likes, and the authorities won’t come looking for him.”
“That’s true,” Klaus said. “Count Olaf must have found Jacques—whoever he is—and brought him into town. He knew that Officer Luciana would think he was Olaf. But what does that have to do with saving us?”
“Well, if we rescue the Quagmires and prove that Jacques is innocent,” Violet said, “Count Olaf will come after us, and we can’t rely on the Council of Elders to protect us.”
“Poe!” Sunny said.
“Or Mr. Poe,” Violet agreed. “That’s why we’ll need a way to save ourselves.” She turned to Hector. “Yesterday, you also told us about your self-sustaining hot air mobile home.”
Hector looked around the kitchen again, to make sure no one was listening. “Yes,” he said, “but I think I’m going to stop work on it. If the Council of Elders learns that I’m breaking Rule #67, I could be burned at the stake. Anyway, I can’t seem to get the engine to work.”
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to take a look at it,” Violet said. “Maybe I could help finish it. You wanted to use the self-sustaining hot air mobile home to escape from V.F.D. and the Council of Elders and everything else that makes you skittish, but it would also make an excellent escape vehicle.”
“Maybe it could be both,” Hector said shyly, and reached across the table to pat Sunny on the shoulder. “I very much enjoy the company of you three children, and it would be delightful to share a mobile home with you. There’s plenty of room in the self-sustaining hot air mobile home, and once we get it to work we could launch it and never come down. Count Olaf and his associates would never be able to bother you again. What do you think?”
The three Baudelaires listened closely to Hector’s suggestion, but when they tried to tell him what they thought, it felt like they were in a quandary all over again. On one hand, it would be exciting to live in such an unusual way, and the thought of being safe forever from Count Olaf’s evil clutches was very appealing, to say the least. Violet looked at her baby sister and thought about the promise she had made, when Sunny was born, that she would always look after her younger siblings and make sure they wouldn’t get into trouble. Klaus looked at Hector, who was the only citizen in this vile village who really seemed to care about the children, as a guardian should. And Sunny looked out the window at the evening sky, and remembered the first time she and her siblings saw the V.F.D. crows fly in superlative circles and wished that they, too, could escape from all their worries. But on the other hand, the Baudelaires felt that flying away from all their trouble, and living forever up in the sky, didn’t seem to be a proper way to live one’s life. Sunny was a baby, Klaus was only twelve, and even Violet, the eldest, was fourteen, which is not really so old. The Baudelaires had many things they hoped to accomplish on the ground, and they weren’t sure that they could simply abandon all those hopes so early in their lives. The Baudelaires sat at the table and thought about Hector’s plan, and it seemed to the children that if they spent the rest of their lives floating around the heavens, they simply wouldn’t be in their element, a phrase which here means “in the sort of home the three siblings would prefer.”
“First things first,” Violet said finally, hoping that she wasn’t hurting Hector’s feelings. “Before we make a decision about the rest of our lives, let’s get Duncan and Isadora out of Olaf’s clutches.”
“And make sure Jacques won’t be burned at the stake,” Klaus said.
“Albico!” Sunny added, which meant something like, “And let’s solve the mystery of V.F.D. that the Quagmires told us about!”
Hector sighed. “You’re right,” he said. “Those things are more important, even if they do make me skittish. Well, let’s take Sunny to the tree and then it’s off to the barn, where the library and inventing studio are. It looks like it’s going to be another long night, but hopefully this time we won’t be barking up the wrong tree.”
The Baudelaires smiled at the handyman and followed him out into the night, which was cool and breezy and filled with the sounds of the murder of crows settling down for the night. They kept on smiling as they separated, with Sunny crawling toward Nevermore Tree and the two older Baudelaires following Hector to the barn, and they continued to smile as they began to put each of their plans into action. Violet smiled because Hector’s inventing studio was very well-equipped, with plenty of pliers and glue and wire and everything her inventing brain needed, and because Hector’s self-sustaining hot air mobile home was an enormous, fascinating mechanism—just the sort of challenging invention she loved to work on. Klaus smiled because Hector’s library was very comfortable, with some good sturdy tables and cushioned chairs just perfect for reading in, and because the books on the rules of V.F.D. were very thick and full of difficult words—just the sort of challenging reading he enjoyed. And Sunny smiled because there were several dead branches of Nevermore Tree that had fallen to the ground, so she would have something to gnaw on as she hid and waited for the next couplet to arrive. The children were in their elements. Violet was in her element at the inventing studio, and Klaus was in his element at the library, and Sunny was in hers just from being low to the ground and near something she could bite. Violet tied her hair up in a ribbon to keep it out of her eyes, and Klaus polished his glasses, and Sunny stretched her mouth to get her teeth ready for the task ahead of her, and the three siblings smiled more than they had since their arrival in town. The Baudelaire orphans were in their elements, and they hoped that being in their elements would lead them out of their quandary.
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