in which there is a dragon in the garden
If Marcus O’Connell could have two wishes, it would be these: to live forever and to look good doing it. Of course, neither living forever nor looking good does anybody any good unless there’s someone else around to notice. He tipped his hat to a pretty lady walking her poof of a dog out on the lawn of Sydenham Hill. She picked up her dog and walked in the opposite direction.
“Her loss,” he said. Marcus sprawled over the top of an iron bench that was on the front lawn of the Crystal Palace in London. As usual, the lawn was infested with tourists walking their dogs, picnicking in the grass, riding their horses, admiring the enormous glass and iron structure of the most prestigious exhibition in the world. The smell of vegetation, stale buns, and manure filled Marcus’s nostrils.
“Nothing like it.” Marcus said as he hopped off the top of the bench. A thick-shouldered policeman standing by its other end eyed him.
That one’s subtle as a Scotsman in a.... well, a Scotsman anywhere.
Marcus tipped his hat to the policeman. The policeman frowned.
“You haven’t got the time, have you?” said Marcus.
The policeman wiggled his mouth, then produced a pocket watch. “Half past eleven.”
“Reckoned as much.” Marcus pulled out his own pocket watch and cleaned a smudge from it with his thumb. The policeman narrowed his eyes and looked toward the front walk.
“They’re a bit late, wouldn’t you say?” said Marcus.
“I am not at liberty to discuss such matters.”
“Don’t blame them, myself. Young newlyweds, you know. I bet he’s giving her the royal treatment, if you know what I mean, eh?”
“That is inappropriate.”
“No, see, it’s okay. I’m a personal friend of theirs.”
“And I take tea with Queen Victoria.”
“Do you really now?”
The policeman lifted his eyebrows so high that they almost disappeared underneath his bobby helmet. Marcus could as well as hear the sound of his jaw locking in place.
This gave Marcus plenty of time to think about what to expect when they did show up. They were a couple now. He hated couples. Couples could be so involved with each other that they often forgot who was really the most interesting person in the room. He hated couples almost as much as he hated monarchists, bluebloods, and mainland Europeans. So naturally, he could not resist taking a great liking to the prince and princess of a monarchist, mainland European country.
“Make a path! Make a path!” someone shouted. Down the way, a burly constable with a Scottish brogue motioned tourists out of his way. Not far behind the constable followed a small cluster of gentlemen, a young couple in plain clothes, and another policeman, who was doing a bad job of pretending to be detached from the group.
“There’s my beauties!” Marcus shouted, leaping toward them. He barely made it two steps before the policeman by the bench hauled him back by his elbows. The cluster of gentlemen formed a hurried rank around the young couple.
“They know me! They know me! Bastion!” Marcus yelled as a second officer appeared and pinned him to the ground. “Get off! I haven’t got any weapons, see!” Marcus squirmed.
Bastion, half hidden by the rank of secret police, broke out laughing. Rhema stood on her tiptoes to see what was happening.
“Good morning, Mr. Blake!” Rhema shouted to him.
“O’Connell? What the h—“ started Bastion. Rhema nudged him. “What are you doing here?”
“Being unlawfully apprehended. What does it look like?” Marcus shouted.
“Oh, do let him up,” said Rhema to the men holding Marcus.
“Told you, didn’t I?” said Marcus.
The policeman from the bench grunted and stepped aside, keeping a suspicious eye on him.
As Marcus wiped the stink of the law from his now grass-stained suit and favorite hat, Rhema turned to Bastion and said, “I didn’t know he would be here.”
“Neither did I,” Bastion muttered.
“Surprise,” said Marcus as he bowed, a wry smile forming at the corners of his mouth.
Bastion had told her, but Rhema had not been prepared for the wonders of the Crystal Palace. An arched, glass ceiling capped the main hall. Floors of gray tile enclosed the fountain that extended down its length. Daylight poured in from every angle, illuminating flower galleries, exhibitions, ballrooms, restaurants, fountains, and the pantheon of statue casts from all over the world.
What was most startling was the noise. Wonderful noise! People talked. Children laughed. Tiny mechanical toys whizzed and spun wherever one turned. The drone of a mechanical piano competed with animal shrieks from the monkey house and cries of tropical birds in the north transept. Occasionally, the swell of a concerto flooded into the main hall, produced by a symphony in one of the closed concert rooms.
“What do you say, Muskrat?” said Marcus. “The whole of Iderburg’s got nothing on this, eh?”
Rhema nodded and slipped her hand into Bastion’s. They spent the day in exhibits, courts, and shows. One section was made to look like the ill-fated city of Pompeii, complete with the ashen ghosts of those souls that had perished there. Rhema could not look in their empty, gray faces because she couldn’t help imagining that they looked at her as well, and that gave her an eerie shiver. Another section was devoted to machinery in motion – basket-carriages and washing machines, locomotives and a printing-press. Marvels of human ingenuity. Rhema took pamphlets to show to Roger and Charlie the next time she saw either of them, whenever that would be.
Outside on the upper terrace, they made their way down a well-trodden path lined by trees, water, and beds of flowers. Rhema and Bastion went ahead with Marcus behind, keeping time with the secret service men.
“Why do you suppose he is here?” said Rhema quietly to Bastion.
“Does he bother you?” said Bastion. “My word of honor, I did not tell him we would be here. Frankly, I thought he would have gone back to Ireland by now.”
“Then how did he find out?”
“My darling, it is a sad truth that for people like us, the most guarded secrets will always be the least kept.”
People like us.
Rhema glanced back. Marcus, eating from a bag of peanuts, offered one up to share. She shook her head no. He shared them with one of the service men.
“I think he is lonely,” said Rhema to Bastion.
“You are probably right,” said Bastion. “But that is how he is. We’ll have him again to Iderburg after we are settled.”
“I suppose I will— Oh!” said Rhema. She found herself face to face with a life-size model of a terrible, gigantic creature from the ancient world. It was like a lizard, but twice her height, with claws like a lion and teeth like a crocodile.
“Why is there a dragon in the garden?” said Rhema.
“What? Him?” Bastion said, patting the thing on the snout. “He’s not a dragon.”
“What is he?”
“I call him Bob.”
Marcus caught up with them. “Hey, she found them! I had a feeling she would.”
There were more statues of the sort hiding in the bushes, grazing by the path, and sitting in the lake, frozen in a constant state of rising from the depths to spy on their untimely visitors.
“You’re backwards though, Bast,” said Marcus. “That one’s Sir George. Lord Robert is over there.” He pointed at spy in the lake, who had a long neck and a small head.
“But what are they?” said Rhema.
“These lovelies are what ruled the planet before men came about. Haven’t you read your Darwin?” Marcus said. He threw a peanut at the lake monster’s mouth.
“I have heard of him, but admittedly I have read none of his papers.”
“The summation is that he believes we are all descendants of monkeys,” said Bastion.
“Monkeys?” Rhema scrunched her forehead, the notion rubbing uncomfortably against her common sensibilities. “That is not what you believe, is it?”
Bastion shrugged. “Mostly not. Though I am willing to make an exception for O’Connell here.”
“I’ll go to no trouble to deny it,” said Marcus. He hung his arms by his sides like an ape. “But to be honest, I more like to think I’m descended from my pal George here. Do you see the resemblance?” He stood next to the lizard statue.
“Scales. Fangs. Yes, I can see it,” said Bastion.
“That’s near word-for-word what Mariana said,” said Marcus.
Bastion blinked, as if Mariana was a character out of an old story, a story that no longer concerned him.
“There’s a Mariana?” said Rhema, her curiosity peaked. Marcus had never mentioned a woman to her before.
Bastion pressed on Marcus a halting gaze. “She is O’Connell’s cousin.”
“Oh my! A female O’Connell! That’s just what we need!” declared Rhema. Marcus smirked only for a moment.
“She’s not been herself recently,” Marcus said to Bastion. “Been meaning to talk to you about it actually.”
“Now?” said Bastion, all signs of amusement gone.
“It’s not as if you’re in the area that often,” said Marcus. His eyes darted at Rhema.
“We do not keep any secrets from her,” said Bastion.
“I agree,” said Rhema, setting her mouth to the point.
Marcus looked her over, shrugged, and directed the bulk of his conversation to Bastion.
“She sleeps most of the day. Hardly eats. Sometimes she seems to have lost all her fight. Other days, she’s as ornery as a valkrie.”
“Is she ill?” said Rhema. “Is there anything to be done for her?”
“She will come around in time, I expect,” said Bastion. “Mariana’s no wilting flower.”
“That’s what troubles me. She’s more like a falling comet.”
A sudden coldness trickled over Rhema when she looked in her husband’s eyes. She half-expected a crazed Irish woman to come around the bend or emerge out the shadow of the lake monster, singing a haunted chanty.
“I’m taking care of her now,” Marcus said quietly.
“Just you?” said Rhema.
“Why not? Pretty girl like her shouldn’t be on her own. Why? Does it shock you?” Marcus winked at her playfully.
“Not entirely,” said Rhema. “It is simply something that I am not accustomed to hearing.”
“Just because you are not accustomed to it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.” Marcus leaned into the shadow of an ancient monster. “It’s all decent anyway. Though sometimes I have half a mind to marry her just to raise her spirits.”
“You would marry your own cousin?” said Rhema.
“And why not? Honestly, I expected to get some understanding from the two of you. All you royals do is marry your cousins.”
“You would be well-suited, I think,” said Bastion.
“Yeah, well, we’ll see.” Marcus lowered his face slowly, as if it were gradually getting heavier.
Rhema suddenly wanted to be somewhere else, somewhere not in the shadow of beasts and Irish cousins. She wanted to be somewhere warm and alone with her prince. She let her hand crawl up Bastion’s back to indicate this.
Bastion kissed her forehead. “It is getting late,” he said. “We will have to have you to Iderburg again soon, Marcus.”
“With a new bride perhaps?” said Rhema. Both Marcus and Bastion looked at her as if there were a melon growing out of her ear.
“I’ll let you know,” said Marcus.
They meant to part then, but Marcus was never one to depart on a sullen note, so the conversation lingered through cheerful nothings on past sunset. In the end, he gave his entire bag of peanuts to the hungry secret service man, followed his friends back out to Sydenham Hill, and watched the honeymooners vanish into their carriage on their way to certain bliss. He lingered, but not for long. Somewhere, the lovely, melancholy Mariana waited for him. Perhaps she would be up for a dance. Perhaps not. The sky grew dark overhead. It might be better not to linger long.