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. To take part, read the instalment below and then make your vote.
Voting closes for the Second Instalment on Sunday the 4th November 8pm GMT
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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.
“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.”
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…
What happens next is up to You!
The choices with the most votes will decide what happens next, so choose wisely from the options below.