Sarah shivered as the fog swirled around her; its tendrils reaching out like fingers to caress her face.
‘What a dim-witted idea having the garage so far from the house.’ She trudged across the lawn; her shoes soaked from the rainwater lying inches deep on the grass did nothing to improve her mood. ‘First thing I’m going to do is put a decent bloody path in.’
She screamed and flapped her arms as an owl screeched and swooped low, brushing the top of her head. The house loomed out of the darkness and Sarah stumbled gratefully through the huge double doors, slamming them shut behind her. The whispering started immediately, ‘She’s late.’ ‘Sir Rushton will be cross.’ ‘I like her; she’s funny.’
Sarah stamped her foot, ‘Shut up – all of you! Or I’ll turn you into fire starters.
The whispering ceased except for an occasional giggle as Sarah leant against the entry doors and tried to slow the pounding of her heart.
‘Great, still no electricity!’ she flicked the switch up and down. ‘What on earth possessed me to move in before the rewiring was completed?’
‘Oh do stop complaining,’ an elderly voice wheezed.
Sarah couldn’t stop her involuntary scream and found herself berated once more. ‘Must you do that? You know high-pitched noises set my pages on edge.’
Within the safety of the house, Sarah’s fear evaporated and moving to the three-hundred-year-old-desk, lit only by a single candle, she lifted the book an inch or two before letting it drop. She was rewarded with a yelp of pain and a rustle of pages.
‘Don’t do that,’ moaned Sir Rushton, ‘I shall have a headache now.’
Sarah sniggered, ‘you can’t get a headache; you don’t have a head. You’re a book – just an eighth grade reader.’
‘Humph! That’s how much you know, Miss Clever Clogs.’ Rushty snapped his pages shut.
‘Oh come on Rushty, please don’t sulk.’
‘That’s Sir Rushton, to you,’ a muffled voice came through the cover.
Sarah sighed, her friendship with Sir Rushton Mortimer Fitzwilliam was fraught with temper tantrums – sometimes his; sometimes hers. Rarely did she marvel now at owning a library of talking books; it all seemed so perfectly natural. Though in reality, Rushty was the only one brave enough to speak to her. The others barely opened their covers in her presence – except for the children’s picture books who giggled as she turned their pages.
When she first heard the whispers, she feared the house was haunted; but Sarah didn’t believe in ghosts so there had to be another explanation. The loudest whispering came from the library, but the minute she entered, it was silent.
The mystery was solved when Sarah accidentally dropped an old book on the floor, a torrent of abuse assailed her, and that’s how she and Rushty met It took a few days for Sarah to regain her courage and return to the house, but when she did, she knew things would never be the same again.
Sometimes she lay awake at night in the enormous four-poster bed and doubted her sanity; books did not talk – at least not in the rational world. And yet, here she was; the owner of a three-hundred year old house and a library of talking books.
She never knew what to expect when she opened Rushty’s pages. Sometimes she found herself transported to Wales or Cornwall – her two most favourite places in the world. Sometimes he’d dump her on a clipper ship in the middle of a storm and even had this ability to change the story as Sarah read. That’s usually when one of her temper tantrums kicked in. The last time this happened, he’d deposited her on the edge of a volcano – on Mars – and despite the fact that it was extinct, she told him if he ever did it again, she’d rip his covers off. He, in turn said she had no sense of adventure, and that anyone else would jump at the chance to visit Mars.
After that incident, she’d thrown Rushty across the floor and called him a cheap paperback novel. The insults flew back and forth between them, and the readers – one of them fragile from time, the other fragile in spirit – ignored each other for a week.
Sarah had inherited the manor house from her great-uncle. She fell in love with the old place immediately, and despite advice to sell it, decided to move in. The location of the house suited her solitary nature and she looked forward to the long winter evenings to come, and imagined herself curled up in the huge old armchair reading by the open fire.
But tonight, she had hurt Rushty’s feelings.
He’s just a book, she reasoned. No, he was more than that, over the last six months he had become more than just a book; more than just an eighth grade reader; he had become her friend.
Descending the wide staircase, Sarah paused at the library door.
‘When will you introduce us Sir Rushton?’ The voice was strong and had a richness that warmed her.
‘Soon, Luc, soon.’
Sarah pushed the door open. The room was empty, ‘Rushty, who were you talking to?’
‘Where is he?’
Rushty hesitated a moment, before saying, ‘The West wall.’
Sarah frowned, but looked in the direction he had indicated. Her eyes widened as the knight in the portrait smiled at her. She moved closer, and found herself looking into the bluest eyes she had ever seen, and when he held his hand out to her, she took it without hesitation.
* * *
‘The sale of the house comes with a caveat.’ The estate agent said, turning to the newlyweds behind him. ‘The portrait of Lady Sarah and Sir Luc Guarinot stays in place, the library remains intact, and the book on the desk is never removed.’
The young woman gasped, then laughed nervously, ‘Just for a moment, I thought they smiled.’
The estate agent nodded, ‘Yes, it’s easy to imagine things here — it’s the atmosphere. But it’s just an old house; just a very old house.’