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The Austere Academy, Page 2

Lemony Snicket

  "In our case," Klaus said, not pointing out that he already knew what the word "adversity" meant, "'adversity' means Count Olaf. He was the cause of all the trouble with our guardians."

  "He was the cause of all the trouble with our guardians," Nero said in his nasty, mimicking way. "I'm not interested in your problems, quite frankly. I am a genius and have no time for anything other than playing the violin. It's depressing enough that I had to take this job as vice principal because not a single orchestra appreciates my genius. I'm not going to depress myself further by listening to the problems of three bratty children. Anyway, here at Prufrock Prep there'll be no blaming your own weaknesses on this Count Olaf person. Look at this."

  Vice Principal Nero walked over to the computer and pressed two buttons over and over again. The screen lit up with a light green glow, as if it were seasick. "This is an advanced computer," Nero said. "Mr. Poe gave me all the necessary information about the man you call Count Olaf, and I programmed it into the computer. See?" Nero pressed another button, and a small picture of Count Olaf appeared on the computer screen. "Now that the advanced computer knows about him, you don't have to worry."

  "But how can a computer keep Count Olaf away?" Klaus asked. "He could still show up and cause trouble, no matter what appears on a computer screen."

  "I shouldn't have bothered trying to explain this to you," Vice Principal Nero said. "There's no way uneducated people like yourself can understand a genius like me. Well, Prufrock Prep will take care of that. You'll get an education here if we have to break both your arms to do it. Speaking of which, I'd better show you around. Come here to the window."

  The Baudelaire orphans walked to the window and looked down at the brown lawn. From the ninth floor, all the children running around looked like tiny ants, and the sidewalk looked like a ribbon somebody had thrown away. Nero stood behind the siblings and pointed at things with his violin.

  "Now, this building you're in is the administrative building. It is completely off-limits to students. Today is your first day, so I'll forgive you, but if I see you here again, you will not be allowed to use silverware at any of your meals. That gray building over there contains the classrooms. Violet, you will be studying with Mr. Remora in Room One, and Klaus, you will be studying with Mrs. Bass in Room Two. Can you remember that, Room One and Room Two? If you don't think you can remember, I have a felt-tipped marker, and I will write 'Room One' and 'Room Two' on your hands in permanent ink."

  "We can remember," Violet said quickly. "But which classroom is Sunny's?"

  Vice Principal Nero drew himself up to his full height, which in his case was five feet, ten inches. "Prufrock Preparatory School is a serious academy, not a nursery school. I told Mr. Poe that we would have room for the baby here, but we do not have a classroom for her. Sunny will be employed as my secretary."

  "Aregg?" Sunny asked incredulously. "Incredulously" is a word which here means "not being able to believe it," and "Aregg" is a word which here means "What? I can't believe it."

  "But Sunny's a baby" Klaus said. "Babies aren't supposed to have jobs."

  "Babies aren't supposed to have jobs " Nero mimicked again, and then continued. "Well, babies aren't supposed to be at boarding schools, either," Nero pointed out. "Nobody can teach a baby anything, so she'll work for me. All she has to do is answer the phone and take care of paperwork. It's not very difficult, and it's an honor to work for a genius, of course. Now, if either of you are late for class, or Sunny is late for work, your hands will be tied behind your back during meals. You'll have to lean down and eat your food like a dog. Of course, Sunny will always have her silverware taken away, because she will work in the administrative building, where she's not allowed."

  "That's not fair!" Violet cried.

  "That's not fair!" the vice principal squealed back at her. "The stone building over there contains the cafeteria. Meals are served promptly at breakfast time, lunchtime, and dinnertime. If you're late we take away your cups and glasses, and your beverages will be served to you in large puddles. That rectangular building over there, with the rounded top, is the auditorium. Every night I give a violin recital for six hours, and attendance is mandatory. The word 'mandatory' means that if you don't show up, you have to buy me a large bag of candy and watch me eat it. The lawn serves as our sports facility. Our regular gym teacher, Miss Tench, accidentally tell out of a third-story window a few days ago, but we have a replacement, who should arrive shortly. In the meantime, I've instructed the children just to run around as fast as they can during gym time. I think that just about covers everything. Are there any questions?"

  "Could anything be worse than this?" was the question Sunny had, but she was too well mannered to ask this. "Are you kidding about all these incredibly cruel punishments and rules?" was the question Klaus thought of, but he already knew that the answer was no. Only Violet thought of a question that seemed useful to ask.

  "I have a question, Vice Principal Nero," she said. "Where do we live?"

  Nero's response was so predictable that the Baudelaire orphans could have said it along with this miserable administrator. "Where do we live?" he said in his high, mocking tone, but when he was done making fun of the children he decided to answer it. "We have a magnificent dormitory here at Prufrock Prep," he said. "You can't miss it. It's a gray building, entirely made of stone and shaped like a big toe. Inside is a huge living room with a brick fireplace, a game room, and a large lending library. Every student has his or her own room, with a bowl of fresh fruit placed there every Wednesday. Doesn't that sound nice?"

  "Yes, it does," Klaus admitted.

  "Keeb!" Sunny shrieked, which meant something along the lines of "I like fruit!"

  "I'm glad you think so," Nero said, "although you won't get to see much of the place. In order to live in the dormitory, you must have a permission slip with the signature of a parent or guardian. Your parents are dead, and Mr. Poe tells me that your guardians have either been killed or have fired you."

  "But surely Mr. Poe can sign our permission slip," Violet said.

  "He surely can not" Nero replied. "He is neither your parent nor your guardian. He is a hanker who is in charge of your affairs."

  "But that's more or less the same thing," Klaus protested.

  "That's more or less the same thing," Nero mimicked. "Perhaps after a few semesters at Prufrock Prep, you'll learn the difference between a parent and a banker. No, I'm afraid you'll have to live in a small shack, made entirely of tin. Inside there is no living room, no game room, and no lending library whatsoever. You three will each have your own bale of hay to sleep on, but no fruit. It's a dismal place, but Mr. Poe tells me that you've had a number of uncomfortable experiences, so I figured you'd be used to such things."

  "Couldn't you please make an exception?" Violet asked.

  "I'm a violinist!" Nero cried. "I have no time to make exceptions! I'm too busy practicing the violin. So if you will kindly leave my office, I can get back to work."

  Klaus opened his mouth to say something more, but when he looked at Nero, he knew that there was no use saying another word to such a stubborn man, and he glumly followed his sisters out of the vice principal's office. When the office door shut behind them, however, Vice Principal Nero said another word, and he said it three times. The three children listened to these three words that he said and knew for certain that he had not been sorry at all. For as soon as the Baudelaires left the office and Nero thought he was alone, he said to him-self, Hee hee hee."

  Now, the vice principal of Prufrock Preparatory School did not actually say the syllables hee hee hee," of course. Whenever you see the words "hee hee hee" in a book, or "ha ha ha," or "har har har," or "heh heh heh," or even "ho ho ho," those words mean somebody was laughing. In this case, however, the words "hee hee hee" cannot really describe what Vice Principal Nero's laugh sounded like. The laugh was squeaky, and it was wheezy, and it had a rough, crackly edge to it, as if Nero were eating tin cans as he laughed at
the children. But most of all, the laugh sounded cruel. It is always cruel to laugh at people, of course, although sometimes if they are wearing an ugly hat it is hard to control yourself. But the Baudelaires were not wearing ugly hats. They were young children receiving bad news, and if Vice Principal Nero really had to laugh at them, he should have been able to control himself until the siblings were out of earshot. But Nero didn't care about controlling himself, and as the Baudelaire orphans listened to the laugh, they realized that what their father had said to them that night when he'd come home from the symphony was wrong.

  There was a worse sound in the world than somebody who cannot play the violin insisting on doing so anyway. The sound of an administrator laughing a squeaky, wheezy, rough, crackly, cruel laugh at children who have to live in a shack was much, much worse. So as I hide out here in this mountain cabin and write the words "hee hee hee," and you, wherever you are hiding out, read the words "hee hee hee," you should know that "hee hee hee" stands for the worst sound the Baudelaires had ever heard.


  The expression "Making a mountain out of a molehill" simply means making a big deal out of something that is actually a small deal, and it is easy to see how this expression came about. Molehills are simply mounds of earth serving as condominiums for moles, and they have never caused anyone any harm except for maybe a stubbed toe if you were walking through the wilderness without any shoes on. Mountains, however, are very large mounds of earth and are constantly causing problems. They are very tall, and when people try to climb them they often fall off, or get lost and die of starvation. Sometimes two countries fight over who really owns a mountain, and thousands of people have to go to war and come home grumpy or wounded. And, of course, mountains serve as homes to mountain goats and mountain lions, who enjoy attacking helpless picnickers and eating sandwiches or children. So when someone is making a mountain out of a molehill, they are pretending that something is as horrible as a war or a ruined picnic when it is really only as horrible as a stubbed toe.

  When the Baudelaire orphans reached the shack where they were going to live, however, they realized that Vice Principal Nero hadn't been making a mountain out of a molehill at all when he had said that the shack was a dismal place. If anything, he had been making a molehill out of a mountain. It was true that the shack was tiny, as Nero had said, and made of tin, and if was true that there was no living room, no game room, and no lending library. It was true that there were three bales of hay instead of beds, and that there was absolutely no fresh fruit in sight. But Vice Principal Nero had left out a few details in his description, and it was these details that made the shack even worse. The first detail the Baudelaires noticed was that the shack was infested with small crabs, each one about the size of a matchbox, scurrying around the wooden floor with their tiny claws snapping in the air. As the children walked across the shack to sit glumly on one of the bales of hay, they were disappointed to learn that the crabs were territorial, a word which here means "unhappy to see small children in their living quarters." The crabs gathered around the children and began snapping their claws at them. Luckily, the crabs did not have very good aim, and luckily, their claws were so small that they probably wouldn't hurt any more than a good strong pinch, but even if they were more or less harmless they did not make for a good shack.

  When the children reached the bale of hay and sat down, tucking their legs up under them to avoid the snapping crabs, they looked up at the ceiling and saw another detail Nero had neglected to mention. Some sort of fungus was growing on the ceiling, a fungus that was light tan and quite damp. Every few seconds, small drops of moisture would fall from the fungus with a plop! and the children had to duck to avoid getting light tan fungus juice on them. Like the small crabs, the plop!ing fungus did not appear to be very harmful, but also like the small crabs, the fungus made the shack even more uncomfortable than the vice principal had described it.

  And lastly, as the children sat on the bale of hay with their legs tucked beneath them and ducked to avoid fungus juice, they saw one more harmless but unpleasant detail of the shack that was worse than Nero had led them to believe, and that was the color of the walls.

  Each tin wall was bright green, with tiny pink hearts painted here and there as if the shack were an enormous, tacky Valentine's Day card instead of a place to live, and the Baudelaires found that they would rather look at the bales of hay, or the small crabs on the floor, or even the light tan fungus on the ceiling than the ugly walls.Overall, the shack was too miserable to serve as a storage space for old banana peels, let alone as a home for three young people, and I confess that if I had been told that it was my home I probably would have lain on the bales of hay and thrown a temper tantrum. But the Baudelaires had learned long ago that temper tantrums, however fun they may be to throw, rarely solve whatever problem is causing them. So after a long, miserable silence, the orphans tried to look at their situation in a more positive light. "

  "This isn't such a nice room," Violet said finally, "but if I put my mind to it, I bet I can invent something that can keep these crabs away from us."

  "And I'm going to read up on this light tan fungus," Klaus said. "Maybe the dormitory library has information on how to stop it from dripping."

  "Ivoser," Sunny said, which meant something like "I bet I can use my four sharp teeth to scrape this paint away and make the walls a bit less ugly."

  Klaus gave his baby sister a little kiss on the top of her head. "At least we get to go to school," he pointed out. "I've missed being in a real classroom."

  "Me too," Violet agreed. "And at least we'll meet some people our own age. We've only had the company of adults for quite some time."

  "Wonic," Sunny said, which probably meant "And learning secretarial skills is an exciting opportunity for me, although I should really be in nursery school instead."

  "That's true," Klaus said. "And who knows? Maybe the advanced computer really can keep Count Olaf away, and that's the most important thing of all."

  "You're right," Violet said. "Any room that doesn't have Count Olaf in it is good enough for me."

  "Olo," Sunny said, which meant "Even if it's ugly, damp, and filled with crabs."

  The children sighed and then sat quietly for a few moments. The shack was quiet, except for the snapping of tiny crab claws, the plop! of fungus, and the sighs of the Baudelaires as they looked at the ugly walls. Try as they might, the youngsters just couldn't make the shack into a molehill. No matter how much they thought of real classrooms, people their own age, or the exciting opportunity of secretarial skills, their new home seemed much, much worse than even the sorest of stubbed toes.

  "Well," Klaus said after a while, "it feels like it's about lunchtime. Remember, if we're late they take away our cups and glasses's so we should probably get a move on."

  "Those rules are ridiculous," Violet said, ducking to avoid a plop! "Lunchtime isn't a specific time, so you can't be late for it. It's just a word that means 'around lunch.'"

  "I know," Klaus said, "and the part about Sunny being punished for going to the administrative building, when she has to go there to be Nero's secretary, is completely absurd."

  "Kalc!" Sunny said, putting her little hand on her brother's knee. She meant something like "Don't worry about it. I'm a baby, so I hardly ever use silverware. It doesn't matter that it'll be taken away from me."

  Ridiculous rules or not, the orphans did not want to be punished, so the three of them walked gingerly-the word "gingerly" here means "avoiding territorial crabs"-across the shack and out onto the brown lawn. Gym class must have been over, because all the running children were gone, and this only made the Baudelaires walk even more quickly to the cafeteria.

  Several years before this story took place, when Violet was ten and Klaus was eight and Sunny was not even a fetus, the Baudelaire family went to a county fair in order to see a pig that their Uncle Elwyn had entered in a contest. The pig contest turned out to be a bit dull, but in the neig
hboring tent there was another contest that the family found quite interesting: the Biggest Lasagna Contest. The lasagna that won the blue ribbon had been baked by eleven nuns, and was as big and soft as a large mattress. Perhaps because they were at such an impressionable age-the phrase "impressionable age" here means "ten and eight years old, respectively"- Violet and Klaus always remembered this lasagna, and they were sure they would never see another one anywhere near as big.

  Violet and Klaus were wrong. When the Baudelaires entered the cafeteria, they found a lasagna waiting for them that was the size of a dance floor. It was sitting on top of an enormous trivet to keep it from burning the floor, and the person serving it was wearing a thick metal mask as protection, so that the children could only see their eyes peeking out from tiny eyeholes. The stunned Baudelaires got into a long line of children and waited their turn for the metal-masked person to scoop lasagna onto ugly plastic trays and hand it wordlessly to the children. After receiving their lasagna, the orphans walked further down the line and helped themselves to green salad, which was waiting for them in a bowl the size of a pickup truck. Next to the salad was a mountain of garlic bread, and at the end of the line was another metal-masked person, handing out silverware to the students who had not been inside the administrative building.

  The Baudelaires said "thank you" to the person, who gave them a slow metallic nod in return. They took a long look around the crowded cafeteria. Hundreds of children had already received their lasagna and were sitting at long rectangular tables. The Baudelaires saw several other children who had undoubtedly been in the administrative building, because they had no silverware. They saw several more students who had their hands tied behind their backs as punishment for being late to class. And they saw several students who had a sad look on their faces, as if they had been forced to buy somebody a bag of candy and watch them eat it, and the orphans guessed that these students had failed to show up to one of Nero's six-hour concerts.