If you are new to the Interactive Novel or just want to freshen your memory on what has previously happened you can find the complete story so far here.
Welcome to The Interactive Novel, the novel that allows you the reader to decide what happens during the novel.
At the end of each weekly instalment will be at least one poll where you will decide either:
• What happens next
• A setting
• A character to be introduced
Whatever option receives the most votes decides what happens.
Wednesday, 19th September 1860
With heavy gables and small windows, Church House looked more like a prison than a domestic property. A blanket of ivy covered the front wall, its tendrils growing over the sills and eaves as is it smothered the building. Two brick chimneys rose from each side of the building like horns sprouting from the roof. A pair of jackdaws were perched on the left chimney throwing twigs down the stack.
Waiting for us beside the front gate was a nervous looking man. He held his hat in his hands, wringing it as if trying to extract water from it, while he looked in every direction except at the house behind him. Our cab stopped beside him, and he smiled with relief as we climbed down to greet him.
“Professor Ashcroft,” the man said offering his hand.
“You must be Mr Roth,” the Professor said giving his hand a curt shake.
“Yes, sir. Did you have a pleasant trip?”
“Apart from the traffic. I swear London is getting more and more congested every day. I hope this underground railway they are building works and gets half the people off the road.”
The Professor paid the driver while I unloaded our luggage; my modest kit bag, the Professor case and his small trunk full of books. Then the driver snapped on the reigns and the cab trundled off leaving us in front of our house for the night. The Professor turned back to Mr Roth.
“Now are we all prepared?”
“Yes, sir. Me and my lad, have put some chairs and a table in the front room like you asked. We put some lanterns and candles on the table. We didn’t light the fire not knowing what time you would get here. But…”
Mr Roth wringed his cap tightly in his hands. “We don’t think it’s a good idea you stay the night. Nobody has spent the night in that house for years and the last person that did was found dead the next morning.”
The Professor laughed. “I assure you there is nothing to worry about. It is just an old building. I am sure Nigel and I can cope with one night of roughing it.”
“It’s not that, sir,” Mr Roth said tightening the grip on his hat. “There is something in that house. It gave us the creeps moving the furniture in for you this morning. It’s bad enough going in there during the day but I wouldn’t go in at night.” He pointed to the churchyard over the road from us. “I would sleep amongst the graves, but after dark I would not enter that house for the crown jewels.”
“Then Queen Victoria does not have to fear you claiming them,” the Professor said. “Now in all seriousness my good fellow, we have nothing to worry about. I have been investigating the supernatural for several years and I am yet to see or experience anything that cannot be scientifically explained. You can rest easy knowing that in that house tonight it will only be myself, Nigel, possibly some rats or mice, and our two feathered friends up there blocking the chimney. Now I believe you are going to bring us an evening meal?”
Mr Roth bit his bottom lip and dropped his gaze. “Well we are going to bring you some food but… I can’t go back into the house… so I was just going to knock on the door and pass it to you.”
“I have just told you there is nothing to be afraid of.”
“Maybe your right, but I ain’t going in there after dark.”
The Professor let out an exasperated sigh. “Very well. Knock on the door and Nigel will come and get it. Bring the food about half seven. Until then I would like to settle myself in. Come along Nigel, let us see our room for the night.”
The Professor marched off towards the house leaving me to struggle with the bags. I staggered along the garden path towards the front door. The gardens were just as dilapidated as the house. In the last days of summer, the once green growth of spring had turned into a brown jungle of weeds that grew over the path.
The Professor stood before the heavy wooden door. He had his left hand resting on the flaked paint as if having second thoughts about entering. Entirely understandable as Church House was rumoured to be haunted. Nobody had lived in the house for years. It had been recently sold at auction and the new buyer was intending on demolishing the property and building a row of terrace houses in its place. But then his surveyor had experienced something terrifying within the property. The new buyer being a friend of the Professor had told him the tale. The Professor insisting there was no such thing as ghosts had agreed to a wager to spend the night in the property. Of course, that meant I would also be enduring a night in the haunted house.
I drew closer and saw the Professor was not having second thoughts. He was struggling to turn the key in the rusty lock. Rattling the door, he turned the key and the door swung open to reveal the dark uninviting interior. There was something unpleasant in the stale damp air that wafted from within the house. It smelt of decay and something foul and rotten.
“Just the smell of mould,” the Professor said cheerfully. “Once we get a fire burning it will soon improve the odour.”
I followed him into a house. The hall was devoid of all furnishings, having been stripped from the house long ago. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling and a film of dust and dirt covered the floorboards. Footprints from the men bringing our supplies disappeared into a door on the right and a rickety set of stairs were against the left wall.
I shuddered. The house felt cold. The air was heavy almost oppressive. I felt as if I was intruding, as if I was trespassing. The Professor disappeared into the room on our right, leaving me alone in the hall. I hurried after him having no intention of letting him out of my sight.
The last of the afternoon sunlight shorn through the large bay window at the front of the room. The ivy had been cleared from the window leaving brown streaks and small stems on the thin glass. The large room was dominated by a granite fireplace. The hearth was a colossal monolith that looked as if had been dragged from some Neolithic stone circle.
Accompanying a clock, vases of dried lavender had been put on the mantel piece in a feeble attempt to soften the damp stale smell. There also had been a hasty attempt to clean the room. The cobwebs had been brushed aside and the dust swept up, but this did little to brighten the flaking grubby white paint or the huge damp patch on the interior wall. In the centre of the room a stained green rug had been laid out beneath two loungers. They had even hung an old pair of faded mustard yellow curtains in front of the bay window. Against the wall furthest from the window was a small table and two chairs.
“This does not look too bad,” the Professor said. “Once you have got a fire going I expect it will almost be homely.”
Mr Roth had left some kindling already stacked in the fireplace. It was only a question of lighting the fire and then once it had taken hold adding a couple of the logs he had stacked beside the hearth. He had also filled the coal scuttle and provide a kettle to hang out over the flames. Leaving the fire to warm the room I lit the candles and lanterns.
Now bathed in light the room felt more comforting. I still had a feeling of unease, but it had been buried beneath the warmth of the fire.
The Professor had a book out and having settled into one of the loungers had made himself at home. Following his example, I sat at the table to read and write notes on the work of the philosopher Thomas Hobbs. Even though I found the subject dull it managed to drag me away from the house and the hour’s ticked by without incident.
At approximately seven thirty there was a knock at the front door.
“That will be our supper,” the Professor said glancing up at the clock on the mantle. He lowered his head back to his book making it clear he expected me to collect it.
Through the bay window the sky was darkening, and it would not be long before night had settled. In the grey twilight the hall would be dark. I picked up a lantern and headed out into the hall.
Stepping out of the warm front room was like plunging into a river. The cold oppressive atmosphere felt like a physical barrier reminding me of the house’s reputation. I left the door open behind me, leaving a warm welcoming refuge to flee back to. Then keeping my eyes fixed on the front door, not daring to look anywhere else in case I saw something I wished I hadn’t, I rushed across the hall.
A pale boy, a year or so younger than myself, stood by the front gate with a wicker basket in his hand. He had knocked and frightened of what might open the door retreated to the edge of the property. He didn’t relax upon seeing me.
“Is that our supper?” I said from the door. He nodded but remained at the gate. “Do you want to bring it over?”
“I would rather not, sir,” he said. “Could you come and get it from me.”
Standing with my back in the hall and fearing what could be lurking behind me I was in no mood to argue. I just wanted to grab the basket and get back to the front room. I hurried up the path towards him. Not in the mood for conversation. I muttered a curt thankyou and took the basket from him. I then made my way back along the path towards the dark opening. The entrance was like a mouth threatening to swallow me.
You’re just being silly, I told myself. There is nothing in that house but a few rats and your imagination. With my lantern thrust out in front of me I walked into the hall.
A figure rose out of the shadows in front of me.
My heart leapt into my throat. I nearly dropped the basket, the lantern and ran from the house, but the light illuminated a familiar face.
“Relax, Nigel. There is no need to be so jumpy,” the Professor said.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you there,” I gasped.
“You left the door open. There was an awful draft blowing into the room. I thought I would close it before the room got cold.” He sniffed the air. “Something smells good. I am ravishing. Let us eat before it gets cold.”
I followed him back into the front room. My heart was still pounding. If it had been anybody else, I would have thought they had been deliberately hiding in the dark to frighten me. I placed the basket down on the table and moved my books. The Professor rummaged through the basket and took out a bottle of whisky.
“This will make the perfect nightcap,” he said unscrewing the lid and taking a sniff. He put the whisky to one side and pulled out a large pie and a pot full of boiled carrots, swede and potatoes. He took two plates from the basket and then sat down leaving me to dish the food out.
We ate our meal in silence. I didn’t want to invite conversation. The Professor would have no qualms in telling me tales of the spirits the foolish locals believed haunted this house. He was convinced they didn’t exist and had nothing to fear. I on the other hand didn’t want to feed my imagination.
A flicker of movement outside the bay window caught my eye. Whatever it was it had been too big to be a bird or a bat. I spun round.
There was nothing there. Just the darkness of the night.
“Is there something the matter?” the Professor asked his folk pausing before his mouth.
“I thought I saw something outside.”
I returned to the game pie with a diminished appetite. I prodded an overcooked carrot with my fork. Something flickered past the window again. I kept prodding at the carrot pretending I had not noticed. I spotted it again out of the corner of my eye. It was the briefest flicker of movement as if someone or something was rushing past the window.
“Would you cut me another slice of pie, please?”
I looked up. The Professor had his plate thrust out towards me. He certainly didn’t have any problems eating and with his back to the window had not noticed the flickering movement outside. I dished out another helping of pie and passed it back to him. The movement flickered past the window again.
“May I be excused to close the curtains?” I asked.
The Professor looked at the window. “Still think you are seeing things?”
He would only ridicule me and insist that I keep the curtains open if I told the truth.
“No, sir, it’s just that I think I feel a draft coming through the window sill.”
“Then you had better close them.”
Looking at my feet I crossed the room. Without looking up I grabbed the curtains and snatched them shut.
I instantly felt reassured. I no longer had to worry what was lurking outside. The warmth of the fire and the glow of the candles had turned the front room in to a sanctuary. I felt confident that as long as I remained in this room I was safe. The ghost or whatever malicious presence haunted this house would not enter and as far as I was concerned it could do whatever it wanted in the rest of the house.
I returned to the table. My appetite had not returned and I passed on the fruit cake that the Professor greedily ate.
“Would you like me to pour you a whisky, sir?” I asked.
“Make sure you put plenty of water in it. I want to keep my wits about me.”
I poured a short measure of whisky, then double the amount of water, and passed it to him. Finishing his slice of cake, he returned to his chair by the fire leaving me to clean away our supper. I tidied away the plates while I waited for the kettle to boil. Once the ketal had boiled I made two cups of tea before returning to my books.
Until eleven I worked away only stopping to add more fuel to the fire. I was just thinking about make another cup of tea when something creaked from the floor above.
I turned to the Professor. “Did you hear that, sir?”
He looked up from his book. “Hear what?”
“The floor above us creaked.”
“It is an old house. They often make creaking noises. Nothing to be alarmed about.” The floor creaked again, and he looked up at the ceiling. “Only the floorboards. I expect the heat from our fire has warmed them and they are creaking as they dry out. Now how about we have another cup of tea.”
The Professor returned to his book and was ignoring the creaks. He had formed his explanation and had no intention of questioning the noise further. I on the other hand glanced nervously upward with every creak. It sounded as if somebody was walking about above our heads.
The creaks ceased as suddenly as they had begun. The house returned to its eerie stillness. All was quiet apart from the cracking of logs on the fire and the ticking of the clock.
I made a pot of tea and poured the Professor and myself a cup before returning to my books. I did another half an hour of working at the table and then finding the chair uncomfortable decided to move to the lounger. I settled in the chair beside the Professor with the new Dickens serial Great Expectations.
There were several thuds out in the hallway. It sounded like somebody was running up the stairs.
“Rats,” the Professor said without looking up.
“Rats?” I said incredulously.
“Yes rats,” the Professor said turning his page. “They can make a lot of noise for such small animals.”
“They would have to be the size of a dog to make that much noise.”
“You are exaggerating, Nigel. It sounded louder because of how quiet the rest of the house is. I suspect the rodents are not used to sharing this property with anybody else.”
I didn’t care what he said. The floorboards creaking above us had nothing to do with the heat from our fire, and whatever had just run up the stairs was not a rat. There was defiantly something else in this house and it seemed determined to not to let us forget it was there. I glanced at the clock on the mantle. It had only just gone midnight. We had at least another six hours until dawn.
The house remained silent until nearly one. Then there was more running on the stairs followed by what sounded like a door slamming shut. I looked at the Professor.
“Just rats,” he said.
“Rats don’t go around slamming doors.”
The Professor lowered his book. “If you do not believe me, go have a look for yourself.”
“You want me to go out there? On my own?” I asked mortified at the suggestion.
The Professor sighed with frustration.
“Very well, it seems I will have to come along and hold your hand.” He placed his book on the arm of his chair, picked up the lantern and crossed the room to the door. He turned back to where I was still sat in my chair. “Come along, Nigel. Let us go and find your imaginary ghost.”
Reluctantly I climbed to my feet wishing I had kept my mouth shut.
Back in the hallway the oppressive atmosphere felt like a physical weight pressing down upon us. I shivered in the cool air.
“Sir, you’re right. It was just rats,” I said. “Let’s go back in the front room where it is warmer.”
The Professor shook his head. “We are going upstairs. Only once you have seen the house is empty will you stop believing in all this ghost nonsense.”
The stairs creaked and groaned as we climbed them. I kept a step behind the Professor not wanting to step out of the light cast by the lantern in his hand. The stairs opened on to a long thin corridor. To our left was a gaping hole in the floorboards blocking access to the rooms at the far end of the house.
“Best not go that way,” the Professor said. He went into the room above where we were staying. Not wanting to be alone I hurried after him.
The room was empty. Like the rest of the house all the furnishings had been long stripped from the room. Broken glass lay in front of the window and the blanket of ivy had curled up into the room, creeping along the walls in stunted vines ending in brown dead leaves.
“See nothing is…”
A door slammed in the corridor.
The Professor frowned and waved for me to follow him. We went out into the corridor and the Professor reached for the door to the room opposite us. I tensed ready for what was lurking on the other side. The Professor swung open the door.
The room was empty.
“Just the wind,” the Professor said. “Now are you happy that we are alone in this house?”
At that moment I would have agreed to anything if it meant getting back into the front room.
The Professor led the way back to the stairs. As I reached the stairs I glanced back at the room we had just left. The door was rattling in its frame. I let out a sharp gasp.
“Now what is it?” the Professor said stopping halfway down the stairs.
The door suddenly swung open.
“Nothing, sir,” I said hurrying after him before something emerged from the room.
We returned to the front room. The Professor sat back down and resumed reading his book. Rattled I picked up my book. I tried to ignore the occasional thud on the stairs, the creaking of the floorboards, and the banging of doors. But I couldn’t relax. I sat in my chair rigid and tense. Then shortly before two the house fell silent again. I hoped that was the end of it, that the ghost had admitted failure in its attempts to frighten us and would leave us in peace for the rest of the night.
I had been staring at the same page for ten minutes with blurry eyes when the Professor rose to his feet. He gulped down the rest of his whisky, put the empty glass on the table, and then picked up the lantern.
“Are you going somewhere, sir?”
“I am going to relieve myself. It is all that tea we have been drinking.”
My bladder felt on the verge of bursting. I was ignoring the discomfort. To empty it meant leaving the room and I would rather wet myself than confront whatever was lurking in the rest of the house.
“You’re leaving the room,” I said.
“I cannot jolly well go in here. I am only popping out into the garden. I will be a matter of minutes.”
With that he disappeared out the door. Seconds later I heard the front door close and I was alone in the house. I swallowed nervously. I just had to stay calm. There was nothing to be frightened of. Besides the house was silent. Eerily silent.
The front door closed again, followed by the light pad of footsteps across the hall. I tensed as the door slowly opened into the room. To my relief in walked the Professor. He had returned quicker than I had expected, but without the lantern.
“Sir, what happened to your lantern?”
“I dropped the blasted thing and broke it,” he muttered.
He poured himself a generous measure of whisky and then returned to his seat. I noticed he had not added water to the glass. Had he witnessed something that had frightened him and wanted a strong drink to settle his nerves? Except the rest of his demeanour was calm and composed. He certainly didn’t look like a man that had just seen a ghost.
I shivered. I had goose bumps on my arm. The Professor must have left the door open long enough for a draft to chill the room. It would also explain the rotting damp smell that overpowered the smoke from the candles and fire.
The front door rattled. At first it was a gentle shake, but then it grew more and more violent until it sounded like something was trying to break it open.
“The wind?” I cynically suggested.
The Professor shrugged. “Sounds like somebody trying to break the door down to me.”
I forced myself to laugh at his poor attempt at humour. The Professor stared at me stony faced as if he hadn’t meant it to be a joke. I cut my fake laugh short. His comment had to have been made in mirth. He certainly did not believe that there was anybody trying to force their way into the property.
The door rattling in its frame stopped and the house fell silent. The Professor craned his head towards the front door as if expecting something.
There was a loud thud.
The Professor nodded to himself then turned to stare at the flames as the door thudded again. It sounded as if somebody or something was trying to force it open.
“Something is defiantly banging against the door, sir.”
“It’s nothing you need to concern yourself with,” the Professor said as the door thudded again.
“But sir, what if it’s the…” I fell silent knowing he would only scorn me if I suggested it was a ghost. “What if it’s one of the villagers trying to contact us about an emergency.”
He turned to me with a cold stare and with an equally hostile tone said, “I know what it is and it’s nothing to concern you.”
I shrank back. I had never seen the Professor in this frame of mind. Perhaps being confronted with the possibility that there was a ghost had made him confrontational. Not wanting to become the outlet to vent his anger and frustration upon I fell silent. The door continued to thud several more times and then it fell silent as if whoever was trying to break in had given up.
“Why are you here?” the Professor suddenly asked.
“Sorry, sir?” I said wondering if I had misheard him.
There was a tap at the window. The curtains glowed as if there was a light behind them.
“Sir, the window.”
There was a rapid tapping at the window. I turned to the Professor. He could not deny the tapping and the glow of the curtains.
His gaze was fixed on me seemingly oblivious to what was happening on the other side of the curtains. “Why are you here?”
“Sir, what about the window? I think there is somebody out there.”
“Answer the question,” he snarled through gritted teeth. “Why are you here?”
“I am not sure what you mean. Do you mean as in like a philosophical way? Like the meaning of life?”
My response angered him further. In frustration he squeezed so hard on the glass it shattered in his hands, splashing him in whisky and embedding a shard of glass into his palm. He plucked the shard from his pale flesh and flung into the fire. “I will ask one more time. Why are you here? Why are you in my house?”
“But, sir you know the answer to that,” I said confused and frightened. For some strange reason I was more afraid of the man in the chair opposite me than the strange light and constant tapping on the glass behind the curtains. “You made a wager with the owner that we would stay the night in the house and prove…”
I caught sight of his palm and fell silent. There was a gaping hole where the shard of glass had slashed through the skin. But the wound was dry. There was no blood, just torn flesh as if the glass had cut the palm of a rag doll. I stepped away from the man in the chair and then I heard a voice from the window.
The voice was muffled but there was no mistaking that of belonging to the Professor.
“Nigel, I have locked myself out,” the Professor called from the other side of the widow. “Can you hear me? I need you to open the door.”
But if the Professor was out there then who was in the room with me…
I spun back to the man in the chair. Except what was in the chair was not a living man and it looked nothing like the Professor. The spectre had the appearance of a man in his sixties, with thinning hair and a shadow of stubble. Its dark eyes were overshadowed by the bags around them. Its sallow skin was pulled tight and taunt over its skull. It radiated an intimidating aura of hate as if it despised me for living.
“This is my house and you are not invited,” the spectre said rising to its feet.
I backed away to the window as the spectre floated towards me.
“You have trespassed in my property and trespassers must be dealt with.”
Wailing the spectre shot across the room at me. It moved far faster than I could move. It ploughed into me, lifting me from my feet and throwing me against the wall. I slumped to the ground. The spectre loomed over me. Its thin lips pulled back in a snarl of rage. Cowering I waited for its cold grasp…
There was a smash of glass and the spectre vanished. The curtains were flung open and an annoyed looking Professor clambered in through the broken window.
“Did you not hear me calling for you to open the…” He paused seeing me on the floor. “What are you doing lying on the floor?”
“I was err…” My mind was numb. I couldn’t think of any reason apart from the truth which the Professor would not believe.
The Professor frowned. “Why are your trousers wet?”
It was then that I became aware of the dampness in my trousers. At that moment I wanted the spectre to return, or perhaps even the devil itself, anything but deal with the shame of sitting slumped against the wall in a puddle of urine.
“You have wet yourself!” the Professor said shaking his head. “I thought you were house trained. I am sure you go to new lengths to test my patience. You had better go and get yourself sorted.”
“And Nigel, next time do not try to hold it in.”
Mortified I retreated into a corner of the room to change out of my wet clothes. My fear had been replaced with embarrassment, although I should have been happy. Losing my dignity was better than losing my life even if it didn’t feel that way.
The Professor pulled the curtains closed. They flapped in the wind from the open window and a cool draft chilled the room. The Professor sat in his seat uncomfortably.
“My chair is damp,” he murmured. Then he looked at me with realisation. “Did you wet yourself in my chair?”
“No sir… I err… spilt my drink accidently on the seat.”
He looked at me suspiciously, but he didn’t question me any further. Picking up his book he moved over to my chair. I sat down in the chair damp with whisky. My hands were trembling. My embarrassment was waning as the fear returned. All my instincts demanded I ran from the house, but somehow, I managed to pick up my book and pretend nothing had happened.
Until dawn I remained in a tense state of alertness. I was constantly aware of the spectre making its presence known in the rest of the house. Doors would bang, floorboards would groan and there would be feet on the stairs. At first the Professor dismissed the noises as the wind and rats. Then he fell asleep and was completely oblivious to the spectre’s rage. While he slept I gripped the arms of my chair tightly bracing myself for the door to open and for the spectre to return. It didn’t and as the dawn light began to filter into the room the house fell silent.
The Professor awoke a little after seven. Yawning and stretching the stiffness from his limbs he rose from his chair. He glanced around the room and then smiled satisfied with himself.
“See there is no such thing as ghosts. You should have made a wager too. That was the easiest twenty pounds I have ever made.”
Thursday, 20th September 1860
On our return journey to London the Professor was in a jubilant mood. He leant back in his seat smiling happily. He had won the wager and even better had not experienced any evidence that the house was haunted.
I stared gloomily out of the window. I had not slept all night, been terrified by a ghost, and endured the humiliation of wetting myself. Not for the first time I was questioning why I remained the Professor’s assistant. In the eight months since I had started my position I had been stalked by a wraith, attacked by a lake monster, chased by a horde of the dead, hunted by a pack of werewolves and now been terrorised by a ghost. It was amazing I wasn’t a traumatised wreck locked in an asylum.
Watching the streets of London pass by I contemplated whether it was time to resign. I suspected I wasn’t cut out for risking my life and living in a state of fear investigating the supernatural. Perhaps it was time to find a safer career like training to be an accountant. It would be less glamorous, certainly a lot more tedious, but at least I wasn’t going to end up being killed by some paranormal entity.
On reaching the Professor’s house, I was excused for the rest of the day. I headed up to my room on the top floor. On the verge of collapsing with exhaustion I took out a pen and paper.
I had to do it now. If I waited until later, I would lose all my resolve. I sat on the edge of the bed and wrote my letter of resignation.
With heavy regrets, I have come to the conclusion that…”
I woke up with my letter stuck to the side of my face. I pulled the sheet of paper from my skin. The ink had smeared and left smudged marks all over the page.
There was knock at my bedroom door. Before I could call out the door opened, and Gertie stepped inside.
“You look awful,” she said. “What have you been doing? Sleeping in your clothes?”
I looked down at my creased clothes and nodded.
“Well you better get yourself cleaned up. The Professor wants you in his study. He’s got a guest.”
“Who is it?”
“I don’t know. I was just told to come and get you.” She turned to leave. “And Nigel…”
“You had better wipe the ink off your face while you’re at it.”
I closed the door and quickly changed into clean clothes and wiped a dry cloth over my face. Hopefully that had removed the worse of the ink or at the very least it meant that I now looked presentable. I looked down at my smudged resignation letter. Once I had seen what the Professor wanted I would rewrite it and hand it in.
I headed to the Professor’s study unknowing that the Professor’s guest had news that would make me question my future like never before…
Thursday, 20th September 1860
Out of courtesy I tapped my knuckles against the study door before opening it. As usual the warmth of the room hit me. It was no surprise that on a damp cold evening the Professor’s study was the warmest room in the house. Unless the Professor was in his laboratory he resided in his study. On days sat reading and writing he demanded that the fire was kept blazing. The walls lined with bookcases full of texts, in four different languages all bound in the same brown leather, acted as insulation turning the room into a furnace.
The Professor sat at his desk, his book and pen in front of him forgotten about. He was warily watching the teenage girl in the chair beside the fire. Mrs Cooper, the housekeeper, was busy fussing over the girl. Despite the heat the girl was shivering. She had been wrapped in a green blanket. Her long lank hair dangled in dark wet strands down over her shoulders. The elongation of her face was more pronounced by her prominent cheekbones. My eyes were drawn to her feet. She wore no shoes. Her filthy feet were covered in mud and dried blood. Whoever she was and wherever she had come from, she had walked here barefoot.
The girl’s gaze flickered over to me. There was a strength in her glare that contrasted with her frail appearance. She tried to rise to her feet, but Mrs Cooper pushed her back into the chair.
“Please, I need to…” the girl said in a weak voice.
“Shush,” Mrs Cooper interrupted. “Don’t speak. You need to rest and get your strength back.”
“Mrs Cooper could you possibly take the girl downstairs to the front room or perhaps the kitchen,” the Professor suggested.
“Certainly not, sir, it would take too long to warm the front room and the kitchen is not comfortable enough. The poor girl is suffering. She is frozen. We have to get her warm before she perishes.”
The Professor looked as if he was about to argue. Mrs Cooper glared at him and he fell silent. At that moment their roles were reversed and the Professor unsure what to make of their change in fortunes just sat at his desk watching the girl as if she was the source of his misfortune. Mrs Cooper returned to fussing over the girl seemingly oblivious to the uncomfortable atmosphere.
Unsure on what was going on, or why I had been summoned, I turned to the Professor. “You wanted me, sir?”
It was Mrs Cooper that answered. “Don’t just stand there gawping, Nigel, do something useful,” she snapped. “Like go and find out where that girl has got to. I sent her to get some fresh towels and something warm for our visitor to eat.”
Feeling awkward I headed for the study door. “I had better go find Gertie.”
“Be quick about it,” Mrs Cooper barked. “The poor mite is starving. There, there my dear, you have got to rest.”
I found Gertie in the kitchen heating a saucepan of beef broth on the stove.
“Who is the girl and where is she from?” I asked.
“Your guess is as good as mine. Mrs Cooper found her on the doorstep,” Gertie said reaching for a bowl. “Thinks she has been sleeping rough and needs our help before she dies from exposure.”
“Well the Professor is not impressed with her good Samaritan work. He doesn’t know what to do about it. Why didn’t you say about her when you came up to my room?”
“I didn’t know about her at that point. All I had been told was to tell you to report to the study. Can you cut some bread?” she said ladling the brown broth into a bowl.
“Where is Pilcher?” I asked wondering where the footman was lurking.
“He has accompanied her ladyship back to her father’s house for the weekend. It means I get some peace and quiet,” Gertie said. She loaded the bowl of broth and the plate of bread on to a tray. She pointed to a pile of cream towels stacked on the table. “Can you carry those.”
Carrying the towels, I followed Gertie back upstairs to the Professor’s study. As we entered Mrs Cooper rushed over to us.
“What took you so long? She is wasting away before my eyes,” Mrs Cooper snapped taking the bowl off the tray. She held the spoon in front of the girl’s mouth coaxing her to eat. “Now, dear, this is something to help warm you.”
The girl opened her mouth and Mrs Cooper shoved the spoon between her lips. After several spoonful’s had been consumed Mrs Cooper looked over her shoulder at us. “Well don’t just stand there, Gertie. Make yourself useful. Tend to the girl’s poor feet.”
Rolling her eyes Gertie crouched down to clean and bandage the girl’s feet in the towels. I stood by the Professor’s desk feeling like a spare part. Reaching a similar conclusion, the Professor rose to his feet.
“Looks as if I am not needed here. I am going out. Do what you must with the girl, Mrs Cooper, but please have her out of my study when I get back. This is my office not a hospital ward for the strays of London.”
“Don’t go Arthur,” the girl said.
“Hush, you have to eat up,” Mrs Cooper said cooing over the girl. “Regain your strength first.”
The Professor frowned. “How do you know my name?”
“Please, sir let the girl rest,” Mrs Cooper said. “She has been through quite an ordeal.”
“Mrs Cooper let the girl speak,” the Professor said sternly. Mrs Cooper looked at him hurt. The Professor ignored her. “How did you know my name?”
The girl looked at me. “Nigel will tell me.”
Frowning the Professor glanced at me. I shook my head. I had never seen her before in my life.
“Will tell you? You speak in the wrong tense. I think you mean he has told you?”
“No, he will tell me. Nigel and I are yet to have a conversation, but we will. I have come here because he will tell me to.”
“I doubt that somehow. I do not have time for this, or the inclination to listen to such rubbish. Please feel free to have your conversation with Nigel, without me,” the Professor said heading for the door. “It looks as if everything is under control. I will be at the Noscere Society if you need me.”
“Wait,” the girl called out. “I know why you want to go out. You want to collect your wager for staying the night in a haunted house.”
The Professor paused by the door. He stared at the girl. He clearly did not know what to make of her. He looked at her warily as if she was a dangerous creature that might strike if he got too close. He glanced at me. I shook my head.
“How do you know about my wager?”
“I know things.”
The Professor turned to Mrs Cooper and spoke as if she wasn’t in the room. “Where exactly did you find the girl?”
“She was on the front step. I heard the door knock and she was there when I answered. She asked for you and Nigel by name. She was only dressed in that thin dress, certainly not the sort of clothing to be wearing on a night like this. I brought her in to get warm before she caught her death. Poor little thing.”
The Professor rubbed the thin strip of hair on the bottom of his chin. “I will tell you what I think, Miss?”
“Anne Farmer, sir.”
“Well Miss Farmer, I think you have been put up to this by a friend of mine as a jolly good jest. Unfortunately for you and whoever has put you up to this, I am not gullible enough to fool for it.”
“It is no jest, sir. Last night you got locked out of the house and had to break a window to get back in. Nigel also we…”
“I think we have better listen to her, sir,” I interrupted before she revealed my accident to Gertie and Mrs Cooper.
The Professor glanced at me. I gave him a pleading nod. “Very well Miss Farmer. My assistant thinks we should listen to you. A brandy, Nigel.”
The Professor kept a few bottles of spirit and some glasses in a chest of draws beside the door. I rummaged through the bottles of gin, whisky and rum until I found the brandy. I poured a stiff measure and carried it over to the girl.
“No, Nigel, that is for me,” the Professor said.
“Sorry sir.” I passed him the drink.
He sipped it slowly studying the girl as she was a specimen in his lab. “You have ten minutes of my time.”
She shook her head. “I only have five minutes before they come for me. Please Professor Ashcroft you must understand I need your help. You won’t believe me, nobody does.”
“If I will not believe you, then you are wasting my time and yours.”
“Maybe, sir, but not Nigel’s and Gertie’s time. I know they will help me. I have foreseen it.”
Scowling the Professor looked at us. I smiled meekly, and Gertie shrugged her shoulders.
“I cannot see what help they will be. Miss Stubbs is the housemaid. If you are claiming to possess prophetic ability, then Nigel is naïve enough to believe you. Gullibility is one of my assistants many flaws. However, you are right about me. I will not consider such nonsense, but I do love a good charlatan. So, humour us Miss Farmer and tell me what is it that they will believe, and I will not.”
“Sir, we must let the girl rest and get her strength back,” protested Mrs Cooper.
Anne Farmer rose from the chair. The blanket wrapped around her dropped to her feet. All she wore was a thin black dress. Her exposed arms and legs were covered in bruises.
“I don’t have time to rest. They are nearly here. There is an evil at Elmwich.”
“What is Elmwich?” the Professor asked. “Is it a village?”
“It is where I am from. There is an evil at work. It is after something and when it gets hold of it there will be no stopping it. I need your help to stop it.”
“An evil?” the Professor scoffed. “Evil only lies in the hearts of men. Now if you are trying to convince me to help, you will have to do better than that.”
Anne stiffened. Her eyes darted from side to side. I was reminded of a dog hearing something inaudible to human ears.
“They are here.”
“Who is here?” the Professor asked.
On que there was a heavy knocking on the door. I followed the Professor over to the window. He pulled back the curtains, so we could look down on to the quiet road. A horse and carriage were parked in front of the house.
The door knocker thudded impatiently against the door.
“Get the door, Nigel,” the Professor instructed.
I hurried down the stairs and pulled open the door. A man with a protruding overbite looked down on me. His large front teeth give his face a rodent like quality He wore a pair of thick frame glasses on his long nose. In normal circumstances he would have looked of average build, but he was flanked by two burly men in navy uniforms that made him look scrawny in comparison.
“How, may I help you?” I asked watching the hulking men looming behind him. Just their presence was intimidating.
“Is this Nigel Brigg’s house?” the rat like man asked.
“No this is Professor Ashcroft’s house, I’m Nigel Briggs he’s assistant.”
“Then we are in the right place. My name is Doctor James Downer. I am a psychiatric doctor from Elmwich Asylum near Salisbury,” the rat like man said thrusting out his hand. I gave it a curt shake. “We are looking for a girl. We believe she is here?”
I hesitated. I looked at the two burly men and was struck by the impulse to lie to them, to tell them they were mistaken, and that there was no girl here.
“Please, Master Briggs don’t waste our time. We know she is here,” Doctor Downer said. “I must warn you not to be fooled by her appearance. She is dangerous.”
I bite my lip still in two minds whether to let them in. The decision was taken out of my hands.
“Nigel stand aside and let these gentlemen in.”
The Professor stood at the top of the stairs. He had followed me out of his study and hidden from view had been listening to everything that was said. Dutifully I stepped aside. The two burly men filled the corridor. One of them carried a stained kitbag.
“Now Doctor Downer what is your interest in the girl?” Professor Ashcroft said descending the stairs.
“Miss Anne Farmer is a patient at Elmwich Asylum. Unfortunately, due to a lapse of security she escaped three days ago. She is delusional and dangerous. It is important for her own safety and that of the public she is returned to secure accommodation.”
“I have some experience in medicine. Perhaps you would like to share a bit more of her diagnosis.”
“I am afraid I am in no position to comment on a patient’s condition,” he made a gesture of glancing at his companions, then leant forward as if confiding a secret. “Unofficially her nickname is Cassandra.”
The reference was lost to me, but fortunately not the Professor. He spotted my puzzled expression.
“King Priam’s daughter from Troy,” he explained. I shrugged and shaking his head he explained further. “From Homer’s Iliad? She was the princess cursed with the power of prophesy and foresaw the fall of Troy, yet everyone chose to ignore her. The good doctor here is suggesting that Miss Farmer upstairs also has supposed visions of a doomed future.”
“Which of course like Cassandra we do not believe,” Doctor Downer said with a smile.
“I am not surprised. The idea of foretelling the future is absurd. Now gentlemen I understand why you are keen to apprehend her. If she acts on her delusions, then she may cause harm to herself or someone else. Please gentlemen come this way.”
Feeling uneasy I followed the three men up the stairs and into the study. Seeing Anne, Doctor Downer smiled.
“There you are. We have been so worried about you,” he said. There was no sincerity in his voice, if anything there was a sinister undertone.
Instinctively Mrs Cooper stepped in front of Anne Farmer. She also sensed something wasn’t right.
“Step aside Mrs Cooper. You too Miss Stubbs,” the Professor instructed. “These men are here to take Miss Farmer away for treatment. She is very ill.”
They reluctantly stepped aside. The guard reached inside his kit bag and removed a straitjacket. Anne held her head held high almost defiantly as the guards approached her. She looked delicate enough to snap in two between them. Each guards’ arms were thick as her thighs.
“I don’t think the straitjacket is necessary,” Mrs Cooper said looking at the Professor for support.
“It is for her own safety,” Doctor Downer said. “We would not want her hurting herself.”
Anne did not fight or struggle as the guards pulled the jacket over arms. Compliantly she allowed them to buckle the straps tight pulling her arms against her chest. The guard reached into his kit bag and pulled out a leather gag. He lifted it over her head. Anne caught my eye. She did not let her gaze drop as the gag was forced over her mouth.
“Right gentlemen let’s get her back to the asylum,” Doctor Downer said.
The two guards led Anne down the stairs.
“My apologies for the intrusion,” Doctor Downer said heading for the door. “Thankyou for your cooperation and I assure you all that Miss Farmer will be receiving all the treatment she needs for her condition.”
“We are glad to be of assistance,” the Professor said sitting back down at his desk. Now that Anne had been led away he had lost all interest. He picked up his pen. “Nigel, will you show Doctor Downer to the door.”
I followed Doctor Downer to the front door. I looked past him at the carriage. One of the guards had climbed into the driver’s seat and taken the reins. The other guard was pushing Anne into the back of the carriage.
“One question Doctor,” I called out as he reached the bottom of the steps.
He looked up at me.
“How did you know to find her here?”
He smiled at me displaying his large rodent like teeth.
“She had carved your names and address into the walls of her room.” He gave a curt bow and climbed into the back of the carriage. Then with a snap of a whip the carriage pulled forward and disappeared into the night.
Friday 21st September 1860
As part of my normal daily routine I was up with the dawn. After wrapping up against the damp autumn morning I set off for the morning papers. A thick smog had settled in the night, a regular occurrence on a London morning. Water beaded on the black iron fencing in front of the houses and dripped from the lampposts. The odd carriage I passed was a black shadow that clacketed by. The few people out on the street were ghostly shadows that emerged briefly from the smog before vanishing into the gloom.
During the summer I had enjoyed my morning walk to fetch the papers. It was part of the day when I had the time to let my mind wander. Now autumn was upon us and with winter weather on the way I doubted my morning duty would continue to hold the same allure.
My mind was distracted from its usual day dreams, of proving the Professor wrong about the existence of the supernatural, by the previous night’s incident. The mysterious Anne Farmer was playing on my mind. Her arrival at Professor Ashcroft’s house raised more questions than had been answered by Doctor Downer and his guards. My mind kept returning to the same conundrum. How did a patient locked away in an asylum a hundred miles away know my name and address?
After collecting the papers and a fresh loaf of bread I returned to the house. I usually left the papers on the Professor’s desk for him to read where he rose. Professor Ashcroft was partially nocturnal. Most nights he spent out at the Noscere Society discussing the big ideas and gambling late into the night. He rarely rose before midday, but to my surprise I found him sitting at his desk eating a breakfast of boiled eggs, bread and bacon.
“Ahh good morning Nigel,” he said dipping a buttered bread solider into his egg.
“Good morning, sir.”
“Those the morning papers?” he said lifting the soldier coated in golden yolk to his mouth. “Anything happening in the world today?”
“I haven’t checked the headlines, sir,” I said passing him the papers.
The Professor placed the papers down on his desk beside his breakfast tray. He spread the broadsheet out and dipping his partially eaten solider back into the egg scanned the front page.
“I have been thinking, sir.”
The Professor held up his hand for me to be silent while he finished his mouthful. Swallowing he said, “Why is it whenever you say you have been thinking I know you are about to sprout some nonsense? What is it this time Nigel? The world is all made up of tiny invisible particles or are we all just puppets controlled by fairies?”
“No, sir I was thinking about our visitor last night.”
“The poor mite. Such a pity that a young girl can suffer from delusions like that. Well you can console yourself in the knowledge that at Elmwich Asylum she will be receiving the necessary treatment she requires.”
I frowned. I doubted that somehow. By all accounts such asylums were ghastly places.
“It’s not that sir. I just find it very strange that she turned up here,” the Professor looked up from the papers and for a moment I had his full attention. Knowing it would be a fleeting moment I pushed on. “She escapes from an asylum. Then just wearing that thin dress and barefoot she travels a hundred miles in three days, navigates her way across the city and somehow out of all the houses in London finds herself at your door.”
“Quite an achievement I must admit, but there is nothing mysterious about it. Traveling the distance in three days is certain achievable. For all we know she managed to stowaway on a train. Even if she walked here, it would have been just over thirty miles a day. Not humanly impossible to walk. Even at a modest pace it would take her ten hours a day. As for finding us here, she must have known our address and asked for directions.”
“Doctor Downer said she had our address carved into the walls of her room.”
“There you have it. She had our address all along.”
He lowered his head back to his paper. I looked at him with incredulity. Didn’t the fact that she had our names and address carved into the walls of her room arouse any form of curiosity?
“Don’t you find that strange, sir? A patient locked in an asylum, that neither of us have ever met before, just happens to have our address carved into the walls of her room?”
“Not in the slightest. Miss Farmer is back where she belongs receiving the necessary treatment she requires. But if it is bothering you, Nigel, write to Doctor Downer. I am sure there is a perfectly rational explanation of how Miss Farmer had acquired our address. Now why don’t yourself get some breakfast. We have a busy day ahead of us.”
Yet again the Professor bewildered me. This was a genuine mystery, yet he showed not the slightest trace of curiosity. He had closed the matter with dismissing me. I headed for the door.
“You have an hour, Nigel,” the Professor called out without looking up. “I expect you to look presentable and have a hansom waiting to take us to Dower Street.”
I ate a bowl of porridge on my own in the kitchen, Gertie and Mrs Cooper were busy dusting the front room, then went upstairs to my attic room to get dressed. After washing my face in a bowl of cold water I dressed in my best suit. As I buttoned my shirt I looked down at the smeared letter of resignation on the floor.
I should be rewriting it rather than adjusting my collar. Professor Ashcroft’s reluctance to even consider our visitor from yesterday should have been the final straw to stiffen my resolve, yet I found myself dressing up to go out with him on some secretive errand.
Within the hour I had a hansom cab waiting outside and the Professor running up the fare as he dawdled about getting ready. The cab had been waiting for ten minutes by the time he finally emerged. I followed him up into the cab.
“What is on Dower Street?” I asked as the cab turned the corner on to Piccadilly.
“Clements’ & Willatt’s Auction House. They specialise in antiques and curiosities that the other auction houses tend to frown upon. The vast majority of their stock is fraudulent trinkets that is not worth of my time, but occasionally there is the odd marvel that has an interesting past.”
“And they are auctioning such an item today?”
The Professor smiled. “Precisely. Lot number 34 has drawn my attention. It is an artefact with a sinister history. Supposedly it is cursed. A load of nonsense of course. However, I have my winnings from the other night burning a hole in my pocket and it should make a fascinating acquisition to my collection.”
I turned my attention to watching the bustling streets pass by. Little did I know that Lot 34 would be far more than just a little trinket, it would ultimately lead me to Elmwich Asylum…
Find out what happens next in the Third Instalment followed by a new set of choices to vote on published Friday 9th November