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.
At the end of the third instalment the narrative split into two. This is part one of the fourth instalment. The second part will be published on Friday 17th April. If you want to read the previous instalments you can find them Instalments of the Interactive Novel
Voting closes for what happens next for the choices at end of Part 1 is Monday 20th April 2020 9am BST
The road wound its way down the hill to a small village nestled in the valley. The stone houses and workshops huddled round the river in its centre. A stone humpback bridge just wide enough for a carriage was the only crossing point. On the bank of the river a water mill churned away, smoke and the sound of a hammer against anvil came from the blacksmiths, and a young boy led an old nag along the potholed road. The rest of the activity in the small village was gathered around the churchyard. Towering over the houses was the steep spired church complete with grinning gargoyles, their grotesque stone faces leering at the mourners below.
With the undertaker’s cart blocking the road, their carriage pulled up outside the village’s only pub. A sign with the chipped and faded picture of a hook beaked crow swung above the door. Given instruction to stow their bags inside Nigel pushed open the door. With its small windows the pub was gloomy, added light was cast by candles and a smouldering fire. The dark oak bar with twisting symbols carved into the wood only added to the gloom. Against the far wall several tables were pushed together. A young girl laying the tables looked up.
“Is the landlord in?” Nigel asked.
“He’s gone to the funeral with most of the village. He will be back later for the wake.”
“I’m with Mr Berwick from Moonhurst Hall. He told me to leave our bags here.”
She looked at him suspiciously. “Mr Berwick, you say?”
“Yes, he is just outside. I can get him if you want.”
“No, you had better put them down by the door. I’ll put them somewhere safe.”
Nigel placed the three bags by the door and when he had straightened up the girl had disappeared into a back room. He wondered why the sudden mention of Mr Berwick’s name had made her so compliant.
By the time Nigel stepped back outside the coach was gone. Without muttering a word to him Berwick and the Professor set off towards the church. Nigel chased after them.
“Busy funeral,” the Professor remarked looking at the crowd of over hundred men and women congregated outside of the church. Half a dozen men were gathered beside the undertaker’s cart. A short plumb man stood beside them giving the final instructions to the pallbearers.
“He was a popular fellow,” Berwick said. “Mr Gates will have allowed most of the staff from the hall to attend the service. There will also be people from the village and local farms. Every year we hold a summer fete at the hall, just a bit of fun to give something back to the local community. The late Mr Neville used to organise the games. Mr Gates will be able to tell you more. Ah talk of the devil, there is Mr Gates now.”
A man in his late fifties was heading towards them. He was a cold looking man with a square face and heavy jaw. He walked with a rigid posture, his back straight, as if he had a pole strapped to his torso. He was impeccably dressed in a long trench coat, a top hat and black leather gloves.
“Good afternoon, sir,” Mr Gates said tipping his hat towards Mr Berwick. “I trust you have had a safe journey?”
“It was pleasant enough,” Berwick said. Speaking to Gates the nervous quiver in his voice had vanished replaced with a brisk sternness. “This is my good friend Professor Arthur Ashcroft and his assistant Master Nigel Briggs.”
Mr Gate made a brief glimpse at Nigel before tipping his hat at the Professor. “It is good to meet you, sir. I hear you are an expert in the supernatural.”
“Debunker of the supernatural,” the Professor corrected. “I assure you there is nothing that cannot be explained with the latest scientific thinking. I will soon have a perfectly rational explanation for what has been happening at Moonhurst Hall.”
“Splendid sir. This poppycock about witchcraft is beginning to interfere with the running of the household. I have already been forced to carry out disciplinary measures due to staff refusing to carry out orders. It needs nipping in the bud. Just let me know whatever you need during your stay at Moonhurst Hall.”
“I will do my good man. After the funeral I will need to have a more in-depth discussion about what has been happening.”
“However, I can be of assistance,” Mr Gates glanced over his shoulder. The pallbearers were removing the coffin from the back of the cart. “I beg your pardon, sir, but we had better get to our places. Mr Berwick you will be at the front with me. Unfortunately, Professor you and your lad will have to find a place at the back of the church.”
“Wait one moment,” Nigel called out. The three men turned to him. “One of our companions is walking to the hall. If you are here who will be there to greet her?”
Mr Gates turned to Professor Ashcroft as if seeking permission whether to answer or ignore Nigel. The Professor pressed a hand to his forehead.
“Of course, Miss Stubbs. I forgot all about her. One of my associates will be working in your household and has been instructed to report to you on arrival. My apprentice here is worried that left to her own devices she will get into trouble.”
“She will be shown to my office to wait. I will be returning to the hall along with all the staff directly after the service. I will make it my first duty on return to seek Miss Stubbs out.”
He gave a curt nod and led Mr Berwick away. They passed the cart and walked into the churchyard. Nigel and the Professor waited out on the road as the pallbearers carried the coffin through the gates and for the mourners to fall into line behind.
“I want you on your best behaviour,” the Professor said. “Remember this is somebody’s funeral. I expect you to show respect, keep quiet, and do not draw attention to yourself. Also keep an eye out for anyone acting in a suspicious manner. Our hoaxer might be here.”
Nigel and the Professor waited until the last of the attendees had entered the church before stepping inside. The church was full. People were crammed into every pew and a small group stood at the back. Above the alter was a stained-glass window depicting the crucifixion, an organ sat beside the pulpit, and large wooden beams supported the steep roof. The plain coffin was laid before the pulpit. The vicar, a jolly looking man, stood beside the lectern waited patiently until the last of the mourners had taken their seats.
“We all are gathered here today, with grief in our hearts to remember Mr Philip Neville,” said the vicar in a booming voice. While he spoke, a young boy handed out orders of service. Nigel opened the folded page where the hymns had been handwritten in spiralling text that made it hard to decipher the words.
Nigel scanned the crowd. At the front of the church was the family. The deceased’s widow and fully grown children sat on the left-hand side of the church. Mr Berwick and the senior staff of the hall and estate sat on the right. Around the church most of the attendees were men outnumbering the women by six to four. Except for Mr Berwick and the Professor, they were all from the lower classes. The cut of their suits gave them away. Many wore faded jackets that had been patched in the past. This was a rural community built round sheep farming, coal fields, and lead mining.
The congregation rose on mass. The organ began to bellow out a sombre tune. Led by the vicar the congregation began to sing as one. Nigel looked down at the order of service in his hand. He tried the first verse but struggling to keep in tune with the others fell silent. Beside him the Professor sang with gusto, unconcerned that he sang like a howling hound. Keeping his mouth moving but not uttering any sound, if anybody looked in his direction then they would think he was singing quietly along, Nigel lifted his head up from the pamphlet. He looked at the congregation, a lot of the mourners had their heads down singing quietly. There was certainly nobody acting suspicious. He found his eyes drifting to the ceiling high above. Where the cross beams of the roofing struts met were hideous carvings of monstrous faces that looked more bestial than man. Frowning he looked back down at the pulpit. The bible was in a box chained to the lectern in the shape of an eagle with the bible resting on the birds back. Yet the brass eagle had been poorly made as if the sculptor had never seen a bird. The head was elongated more like a serpent and the wings lacked the definition of feathers making them look more like the wings of a bat
Turning away he caught a sudden moment out of the corner of his eye. He turned to the foot of the lectern. There was nothing there. For a second, he could have sworn something small and brown had darted across the front of the church. He looked at the congregation. Nobody else had noticed it. Singing the final verse of the hymn everybody else was looking down at the words.
Nigel was about to dismiss it as his imagination and lack of sleep when he spotted a long pink worm vanishing round the corner of the nearest pew. He leaned forward. A hand fell on his shoulder. He turned to the see the disproval of the Professor.
“Sorry, sir” he mouthed and straightened up.
The hymn came to an end.
“Please be seated,” the vicar commanded. As one the congregation lowered themselves into their seats.
A man started to scream. He jumped from his pew frantically brushing himself off. Those beside him looked startled at his sudden outburst, then they were scrambling to their feet in horror. The vicar fell silent as all eyes turned to the sudden commotion in the middle of the eighth pew.
“Rats!” a woman screamed from the third pew on the right.
All around the church people were climbing on top of the pews desperate to get off the floor. There was screams as people swatted at their legs and patted manically at their clothes as they scrambled out of the pews towards the doors.
Nigel pushed his way against the fleeing people to the nearest row of pews. In the aisle of each pew was a small gridded vent to allow warm air to be pumped through the church. The vent had burst open and out poured scores of brown mangy rats. With matted fur and long worm like tails the vermin writhed over each other.
“Calm down,” the vicar called. “There is no need to…” He broke into a scream as a scabby rat fell from the ceiling on top of him.
Nigel looked up. Rats were scurrying across the oak cross beams. Squirming over each other the smaller rats were knocked from the beams falling on to the heads of those below. The aisle in the middle of the church was a squirming mass of furry bodies as more and more rats poured out of the vents. The rodents were everywhere. The organ began blowing notes as rats crawled over the keys. Rats scurried over the coffin, the pulpit, and a large vicious looking rodent with a malicious twinkle in its eye sat perched on top of the brass eagle head on the lectern.
The congregation broke into a mad panic desperate to escape. They climbed over the pews rather than walk upon the floor. The way the men and women scrambled over each other they were little better than the writhing mass of vermin.
Nigel felt sharp claws pricking against his legs. He looked down to see a filthy rat climbing up his thigh. Screaming with disgust he swatted the body away. He was pushed aside by a burly man rushing for the door. He barely acknowledged it. There were more rats crawling around his feet. He kicked out at the furry bodies as they scurried over his shoes.
Having seen enough Nigel pushed his way into the crowd fighting to get out of the church. Men pressed against him crushing his arms against his sides. He tried to shove his elbows out to make room, but he couldn’t move the bodies around him. Rats continued to drop from the ceiling adding to the panic. In the crush he was helpless. It was like being caught in a current as he was pushed and shoved by the crowd funnelling through the doors. He hoped nobody fell, if so they would be trampled in the hysteria. Approaching the doors, the pressure increased against him. He couldn’t breathe. A flailing limb smashed painfully into his chest. He stumbled forward and fearing he was about to fall, hit the back of the man in front of him. He was propped up and pushed out through the doors.
He felt the warm sun on his skin and the bright light in his eyes as he was carried out into the churchyard. Immediately the pressure of the crowd disappeared as they fanned out. Wheezing for breath Nigel staggered for the gates. His body was aching and throbbing from the crush at the doors. Around him men and women were frantically swatting at themselves. Some were in a state of undress as they tried to rid the rats that had climbed into their clothes. Others were rolling on the floor trying to dislodge the rodents that clung to them. The fallen rodents darted over shoes and around legs before disappearing into the graveyard.
The Professor stood by the gates chomping furiously on his pipe as watched the chaos in front of him. He stepped aside as a group of crying women ran from the churchyard. Nigel knew he would be struggling to explain what had just happened. The service had been just interrupted by hundreds of brown rats; how could he explain it. He hated being confronted by anything he didn’t understand.
“Are you ok sir?” Nigel asked. The Professor didn’t answer. He was watching a shaken Mr Berwick emerge from the hall alongside Mr Gates who appeared oblivious to the large rat swinging by its teeth from his top hat. “I have never seen so many rats. They will have to call the Pied Piper.”
The Professor rounded on him. Nigel shrunk back.
“Now is not the time for your feeble humour,” the Professor growled through gritted teeth. “Make yourself useful and suggest how this could happen.”
Nigel felt silent. The one suggestion he could make would not be appreciated. But how else to explain it. It had to be witchcraft.
What happens next is up to You!
The choices with the most votes will decides what happens next, so choose wisely.