Welcome to The Interactive Novel, the novel that allows you the reader to decide what happens during the novel. The Interactive Novel follows fifteen-year-old Nigel Briggs, apprentice to Professor Ashcroft, as they investigate supernatural occurrences in Victorian Britain.
At the end of each weekly instalment there will be at least one poll where you will decide what happens next. 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 Third Instalment on Monday the 13th April 9am GMT
Catch up with the story so far
The Third Instalment
The Professor hesitated. For a moment he looked lost for words, an occurrence that Nigel had not believed possible.
“What is the matter, sir?” Nigel prompted.
The Professor exhaled deeply. “There has been a mysterious death. The deceased is Mr Philip Neville, the head gardener for Moonhurst Hall. I am not sure on the exact details, but his death is unexplained. Naturally the uneducated paupers of the local village are blaming his death on witchcraft. However, I am certain that we will be able to explain the exact nature of his death without resorting to the supernatural. What I am more concerned about is that a young girl working in the house has been accused of being a witch, therefore responsible for the strange occurrences at the hall.”
“And the gardener’s death?”
“Thomas is vague on the details, but I think it is safe for us to surmise that as long as the death remains unexplained then it is only matter of time until somebody accuses the poor girl. Ideally, I would have hoped to disprove the notion of witches before somebody was accused of witchcraft. Unfortunately, Thomas has only come to me now that it is too late, and this poor girl has been tarnished with false accusations.”
“Sir, it is 1860. We don’t have witch trials anymore. She is not going to be drowned in a river or burnt alive.”
“True, but this poor girl’s life is still in jeopardy. She may be falsely convicted of the gardener’s death and sent to the gallows. She may end up in an asylum. At the very least a reputation for witchcraft may haunt her for the rest of her life. That is why we are going to Yorkshire. I will not see superstitious nonsense condemn an innocent soul.”
“Yes, sir. When do we leave?”
“It is Phillip Neville’s funeral tomorrow afternoon. Thomas is booking tickets for a sleeper train this evening. With a bit of luck, we will catch the service. We are to meet him at five. You have all afternoon to pack.”
Dismissed Nigel climbed to his feet. He hadn’t unpacked from his previous journey, and as the Professor didn’t know that, he would have the time for himself. He considered stretching his legs in Regents Park, especially as he would be spending a night stuck on a train.
“Nigel one last thing,” the Professor called out as he reached the door.
“Tell Miss Stubbs that she had better pack a bag.”
“Gertie is coming too?”
“I think it may be prudent that she accompanies us. You do not approve?”
“No, sir it’s just that…”
“Nigel, I have been led to believe that Miss Stubbs is a very capable young lady. True she has a lot to learn, but yourself and Mrs Cooper have both spoken highly of her. You did say that without her help you never would have contributed to my investigation in the Potteries.”
“That’s true, sir. But…”
The Professor held up his hand to silence him. “Accusations of witchcraft haunt women. The accused is a young girl who is a maid in the household. We will need somebody that she can speak to and confide in. She might feel more comfortable speaking in confidence to Miss Stubbs than either myself or you. If you disagree, we could always borrow one of Miss Stubbs’s dresses, and have you wear it as you work as a maid at Moonhurst Hall. What do you think?”
Nigel shook his head.
The Professor smiled. “I thought that might be the case. Tell Miss Stubbs to pack. We leave in a few hours.”
Monday 10th of September 1860
Yawning Nigel stepped down on to the platform. He turned to offer Gertie his hand. She battered it to one side and jumped down from the carriage. She smiled at him her eyes twinkling with excitement. Nigel frowned. She was treating this as one big adventure. He wished she would start taking it seriously.
“Do you want me to carry your bag?” Nigel asked.
“I can manage,” she said flinging her bag over her shoulders. Sometimes there was nothing lady like about Gertie. “Where we will find the Professor?”
“He will be waiting for us by the first-class compartments.”
On the sleeper train the first-class carriages were separated into compartments acting as small rooms. Professor Ashcroft and Mr Berwick had a compartment each for the overnight journey. In taking the Professor’s hand luggage aboard Nigel had enviously looked at the Professor’s compartment, complete with a bed. It was luxury compared to the steerage carriage that he and Gertie had been given tickets for. They had spent the night confined to their seats and although Gertie had slept easy enough, her soft snores evident of this, Nigel had struggled to get comfortable. At one point seeing the carriage was not even a quarter full he had crossed the aisle to spread out on some spare seats, only to be told by a cantankerous conductor to get back into his own seat or buy another ticket. Grudgingly he had sat back down next to Gertie. What followed had been a night of disturbed sleep, full of unpleasant dreams that he couldn’t quite remember on waking.
As suspected, they found Professor Ashcroft and Mr Berwick waiting on the platform beside the carriage door. Both men were puffing on their pipes and showed complete ignorance to the men and women trying to get past them.
“Ahh there you are Nigel,” the Professor said making a show of checking his pocket watch. “I was beginning to wonder what was taking you so long. I even went to the trouble of carrying my own bag for you.”
He pointed to the small leather case at his feet.
“Sorry, sir,” Nigel said as a matter of habit. The rest of the Professor’s luggage, three large trunks filled with books, various scientific equipment, and a wardrobe for every occasion were in the freight carriage. He did not pack lightly. “Do you want me to collect the rest of your luggage?”
“There is no need. One of Thomas’s men has brought a cart to collect my luggage. He will make sure everything will get to Moonhusrt Hall. As for the four of us we must make haste if we are to make the funeral this afternoon. We are going to hire a coach to whisk us onwards. Is that not so, Thomas?”
“Yes, Arthur. We will be able to find one out front,” Berwick said. This was the first time; Nigel had met their host. Thomas Berwick was a tall thin man with a nervous demeanour. Considering he had gone to school with the Professor, Nigel would never have guessed that he was in his mid-thirties. His white hair was peppered with the final few streaks of black, he had heavy bags around his eyes, and he looked haggard. If Nigel had been asked to age him, he would have said closer to sixty than forty.
“Excellent. Lead on then Thomas,” the Professor said clapping him on the back.
Berwick smiled, although it could be a grimace, and led the way off the platform and into the station. Nigel fell in line behind them.
“Nigel my bag,” the Professor called over his shoulder.
Nigel turned to see the Professor’s black leather case laying abandoned on the platform. Giving his head a slight shake, Nigel retrieved the Professor’s case. Gertie waited for him while the two men carried on through the station. She gave him a small smile on his return.
“Don’t you say anything,” he said.
She opened her mouth to speak when the train let out a piercing whistle and in a cloud of steam pulled out of the station. Nigel looked over his shoulder. There was a pile of cargo stacked at the far end of the platform. Spotting one of the Professor’s heavy trunks he sighed in relief. No doubt the Professor would have blamed him if his trucks had stayed on the train and ended up in York.
They made their way through the station and out on to the road. The small station was surrounded by hotels. A dozen carriages were parked on the cobblestone road outside the station. Their drivers were touting for customers looking for onward journeys. Professor Ashcroft stood beside a large carriage pulled by a team of six horses. He waved them over. Nigel had a quick glance at the busy town around the station before the Professor was bundling him into the carriage.
“Hurry up Nigel, we do not have time to dawdle if we are to make the funeral this afternoon.”
Nigel and Gertie took the seat opposite Thomas Berwick and the Professor. No sooner had Nigel slid the bags under the seat the coach lurched forward. They passed through the busy mill town and in no time were traveling through rolling countryside. In the valleys they passed men working in the fields turning cut grass to dry in the sun. Sheep grazed higher in the hills before the ground turned to heather moorland. Upon the hills it felt open and exposed with few trees and only miles of dry-stone walls breaking up the fields. The sporadic farms they passed were also built in the same abundant grey stone.
“How far is it to the Hall?” Professor Ashcroft asked.
“I would say about fourteen miles maybe a little more,” Berwick said. “It will be a lot quicker when they reopen the railway station at Ingleton next year. Until then we have to make the journey by coach.”
“Then we have plenty of time to discuss how to proceed in our investigation. First Thomas, I would like to introduce you to my assistant, Master Nigel Briggs. It is proving to be a battle at times, but I am slowly moulding him into an asset. What he lacks in rational thought, composure, analytical thinking, and common sense he certainly makes up for in effort.”
“Thank you, sir” Nigel said through gritted teeth.
“And this is Miss Gertrude Stubbs. She is a member of my household, but do not let appearances fool you. Miss Stubbs possesses a sharp mind and a heart of courage. No finer young lady have I met.”
Nigel frowned wondering why Gertie got praised while he was mildly insulted.
Oblivious to Nigel’s annoyance the Professor continued.
“I think we can all agree that there is no such thing as witchcraft. The problem with irrational beliefs is that people cling to them dearly, almost like a small child’s comforter. It is easier to blame witchcraft than admit something remains a mystery. I intend a two-pronged approach to this investigation. I will lead the investigation, talking to witnesses and examining the evidence. I am certain that I will soon disprove the existence of witchcraft by demonstrating that the unexplained occurrences have mundane explanations. The second prong will be led by Miss Stubbs. She will take a place in your household, befriend the poor maid that had been accused of witchcraft, and help me to clear her name.”
“What about me, sir?” Nigel asked.
The Professor looked at him puzzled. “Well, you will be working at my side. I am sure I will find the odd job for you to do. Now back to Miss Stubbs. She will be my eyes and ears on the ground. Working in the household your other staff will treat her as one of their own and are less likely to hide their true selves from her. Not to forget, she is more likely to experience some of these supposedly strange occurrences working in the hall.”
“Are you sure it is a good idea to send the girl into such a,” Berwick swallowed, “dangerous environment. My head gardener was murdered.”
“There is no need to worry, sir,” Gertie said. “I perfectly understand the risks and as the Professor has said, there is no such thing as witchcraft. I’m sure it is all just a big trick that somebody is playing.”
“As I said she possesses a sharp mind. She is unlikely to be fooled by a hoaxer,” the Professor said. He glanced at Nigel. “Unlike others she will not let her imagination get the better of her.”
Nigel shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “You said the head gardener was murdered? I thought it was an unexplained death?”
“Nigel do not interrupt,” the Professor said.
“Yes, sir,” Nigel muttered under his breath.
“I suggest you proceed with caution Miss Stubbs,” the Professor continued. “I suspect that the hoaxer is somebody playing tricks and the whole situation may have spiralled out of their control. However, we must not rule out the possibility there may be a more sinister motive at work. An innocent girl has been accused of witchcraft. As the net tightens on the culprit, they will get desperate. I do not want you to take any risks such as confronting the perpetrator on your own.”
“Yes, sir,” Gertie said. “May I ask a question sir?”
“Please do, asking questions is all part of being a good investigator,” said the Professor.
“Thank you, sir. I have one question, Mr Berwick. You said your head gardener was murdered? What makes you think that?”
“Excellent questions Miss Stubbs,” the Professor smiled with pride. Nigel’s mouth fell open he had only just been reprimanded for asking the same question.
Mr Berwick tugged uncomfortably at his collar. “The details are rather gruesome. Perhaps it is best not shared in front of a young lady.”
“Please sir it is important that we know the details,” Gertie said.
Berwick looked over at the Professor.
“She has the constitution of Achilles. Although Nigel you might want to cover your ears as you can be rather squeamish.”
“I will be alright, sir,” Nigel said. Fearing his cheeks had turned red, he turned to the window. A scrawny black sheep was grazing at the side of road. It looked up and bleated as the carriage passed.
“Well, the death is still unexplained, but it has to be murder. Nothing else makes sense. Poor Philip was found in the tool shed in the gardens. It has only one door which had been locked and barricaded from the inside. We had to smash the doors to get in”
“Are there any other entrances?” the Professor asked.
“A couple of windows too small for any but a toddler to climb through. All of these but one had been barricaded.”
“Then it had to be suicide,” Nigel said eager to contribute.
The Professor raised his brows. Nigel looked away under his disproving gaze. Berwick shook his head.
“You can rule out suicide. It was a violent death. His body was found broken and beaten. But that is not the worse of it.” Berwick wiped his handkerchief across his forehead. “His tongue and his eyes had been removed. The tool shed has been searched from top to bottom and his missing parts still haven’t been found.”
Monday 10th of September Part 2
A silence fell upon the carriage as they digested the news. The Professor sat back in his seat tapping his chin in thought. Gertie didn’t look as confident. The excitement of the adventure had been replaced by a grim resolve. Nigel knew it was a mistake bringing her. She could be rash and would take risks. He was going to spend the next few days worrying about her. What he found most depressing of all was he wished he was facing some sort of monster. The thought of witchcraft scared him far more than any vampire.
Lost in thought nobody spoke until the carriage came to a halt. Nigel looked out of the window. They were at a set of open wrought iron gates flanked by a pair of stone pillars with a crescent moon carved into the top. Beyond the gates a track lined with stunted trees ran towards a limestone cliff that rose out of the hill like a spine of a fossilised leviathan.
“The hall is half a mile up the drive,” said Berwick. “Miss Stubbs will have to walk from here.”
Berwick reached into his pocket and passed Gertie an envelope. “This is a letter to my butler Mr Gates. Hand it to him when you reach the hall. He will do the rest.”
“Yes, sir. Before I go sir, is there anything you can tell me about the maid accused of being a witch?”
“I am afraid not Miss Stubbs. I split my time between here, Sheffield, and London. I have very little to do with the staff. But I’m sure Mr Gates will tell you more.”
Gertie climbed to her feet.
“I will walk her to the hall,” Nigel said.
“You will stay with me,” the Professor said. “It is important that Miss Stubbs has no link to us. We will have regular updates with her. Do not worry, you will see her again this evening.”
“At least let me help her down from the carriage.”
“Make it quick. We have a funeral to catch.”
Nigel clambered down on to the side of the road. It was a narrow track running through the grassy hills. In the valley below he could see the roofs of a small town and the spire of a church. The sky above was a clear blue and with a few wisps of clouds was a complete difference to the smog of London. The sky seemed enormous. Nigel thought it had never looked so big. The warm sun felt pleasant against his skin and in the fresh country air he found it difficult to believe they were embarking on an investigation into the dark depths of witchcraft.
He offered Gertie his hand. This time she took it, allowing him to help her down the step.
“Since when did you agree with the Professor?” he hissed under his breath.
“Since I have been allowed out of the house. I will tell him anything if it means I get to come on one of your investigations. Rumours of witches are more thrilling that folding sheets and dusting.”
“Gertie, this is not some big adventure. Somebody has been killed. This is dangerous. You have to be careful.”
She tilted her head to one side and smiled. “Relax Nigel, I will be fine. I can look after myself.”
“These could be real witches that we are getting mixed up in. We don’t…”
“What is taking so long?” the Professor called sticking his head out of the carriage door. He held his pocket watch towards Nigel and tapped his finger impatiently against it.
“I got to go. Just promise me you won’t take any risks.”
“I promise now go.” She said waving him away.
Nigel climbed back inside the carriage. He took one last look at Gertie standing beside the gates and then the carriage pulled away. He instantly regretted not insisting on accompanying her. He was already worried that something would happen to her on the way to the hall. He was being silly. It was only a ten-minute walk, in the middle of the day. What could possibly happen to her in that time?
What happens next is up to You!
The choices with the most votes will decides what happens next, so choose wisely.