The Fourth Instalment Part 2

The Fourth Instalment Part 2

Foreword

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.

Catch up on the story so far by reading the previous instalments – Instalments of the Interactive Novel


Fourth Instalment Part 2

 

From between the open gates Gertie watched as the carriage turned a bend in the road. She stared after it for a few moments wishing it would come back. She was not prone to second thoughts, she tended to jump before thinking, but finding herself alone at the edge of road she found her thoughts drifting back to the previous day.

At first, she had been too excited by the thought of adventure to consider what she was getting involved in. Moments after Nigel had told her to pack, she had hurried up to the Professor’ study on the pretence of seeing if he had finished his breakfast. Unable to contain herself she tapped on the door, opened it without invite, and caught the Professor with a mouthful of boiled egg as he flicked through the morning paper. He looked furious at the interruption, but with his impeccable manors could not bring himself to speak with his mouthful.

“Sorry sir,” she said.

The Professor swallowed. “Miss Stubbs what is the nature of this interruption?”

“I came to see if you needed anything?”

“Since when have you waited on me? If I wanted anything I would have rung. Now off with you and leave me in peace,” he looked down at the paper.

Gertie reached for the door.

“Wait,” he abruptly barked. “We need to have a talk.”

She grimaced internally. She had blown it in her over eagerness. He was bound to tell her he had reconsidered, and she would be staying in London after all.

The Professor gestured to the stool in front of him. She lowered herself down on to it. Nigel was right. It was uncomfortable. The hard seat was too small to begin with.

“How long have you been in my service?” he asked.

“Just over six months.”

“And we have not had chance to speak before?”

Gertie shook her head. She had little contact with the Professor. When in the house he was usually locked up in his study or his laboratory and only Nigel or Mrs Copper were permitted to answer his calls.

“What do you know of my work?” the Professor asked.

“You investigate ghosts and ghouls and prove they don’t exist, sir.”

“And what about you Miss Stubbs. Do you believe in the supernatural?”

“Of course not, sir,” she said immediately. The question had been a test. She had heard Nigel moan enough times about how the Professor would not consider the supernatural existing, to know the answer he expected. She intended to tell him whatever he needed to hear.

“Exactly, the supernatural or the paranormal are either the imagination of the gullible, fraudulent claims, or ploys performed by skilled hoaxers. Rather naively Nigel still holds on to his belief in the supernatural. It makes him a rather frustrating assistant at times. It is reassuring that on this case there will be two of us with a level head.”

The Professor stopped to have a sip of his tea. He placed the cup down and continued. “Now both Mrs Cooper and Master Briggs talk highly of you and we would not be having this conversation without their trust in your abilities. Many of my contemporaries do not believe it is the place for women in intellectual pursuit. I disagree. In my experience one’s gender does not define the strengths or limitations of one’s character. However, due to the nature of my work and the risk involved it is only prudent that I ask for your approval.”

“No need sir. You can rely on me.”

He frowned at her eagerness. “I have not even told you what I intend. I have been invited to investigate unexplained phenomena at a friend’s home. A young maid has been accused of witchcraft. It has put me in a bit of predicament. Accusations of witchcraft are targeted at women. These are circles that neither myself or Nigel can operate in. I fear as men we would be instantly mistrusted. That is why we need your help. I would like you to take a position in the house and befriend the maid. Then working together, we will clear her name from the vile accusations against her.”

“Should be easy sir. After all there is no such thing as witchcraft,” she lied. She felt hypercritical after berating Nigel for not insisting on the existence of the supernatural, but she did not want to say anything that ruined her chances of being involved in the investigation.

“Before you say yes, you must understand the risks involved. You will be there to gather information to point me in the right direction, but I will not be able to guarantee your safety. There has been a death, possibly a murder, we might be looking for a killer as well as a hoaxer.”

For Gertie, the element of danger had been the final selling point. She had hastily agreed and only now standing on a hill listening to the faint toiling of a bell from the village below was having doubts. The bell would be the church summoning the mourners to attend. It was a reminder that there had been a suspicious death, most likely a murder, caused by witchcraft.

For all her confidence, and although she hated to admit it, Gertie feared what she would find at Moonhurst Hall. She was certain witchcraft existed. She had even visited a witch for help during Nigel’s first investigation in the Potteries. That witch had been kind and helpful. Without her advice they would never have defeated the wraith that had stalked them. But she knew enough of human nature to know that there would be those who would use witchcraft for nefarious purposes.

She picked up the kitbag at her feet and turned to the drive. The stunted trees on either side of the drive were twisted specimens full of dead branches. The brown and shrivelled leaves were plucked by the faint breeze that rustled the long brown grass. The beauty of the country was waning. She suddenly felt exposed and vulnerable. The solitude and the vast openness around her were an alien feeling to her. She had grown up under the chimney stacks of the industrial Potteries, a place where people crowded and lived in squalid conditions. She had then moved to London. And although the Professor’s large house was in a wealthy borough there was still the feeling that people were always nearby. You could hear the city and see people upon the streets. Up in these hills there was nobody around for miles. She was alone, nobody to come to aid if anything happened.

A boulder in the grass to her left shifted. Startled by the sudden movement she stopped in mid stride. She tensed herself, ready to flee as the boulder rose into the air.

She laughed aloud. It was a dirty sheep its fleece grey with grime. She had left Nigel’s worries worm their way into her mind and was now jumping at sheep.

The sheep stared at her chewing on its cud. She thought there was accusation in the look in its eyes as if blaming her for trespassing on its land. Looking around she spotted other scrawny sheep picking their way through the grass. Perhaps she wasn’t so alone after all.

She followed the drive around a bend and was greeted with her first look of Moonhurst Hall. The house was a large sprawling gothic mansion. Built from heavy grey stone the building looked more like a fort than a home with small windows, thick walls, and a cylindrical turret on each corner. Off to the right was the stable house and a large walled garden made from red brick that conflicted with the hall nearby. Between Gertie and the hall was a stream running down from the top of the hill towards the valley below.

Eager to be back around people she hurried down the drive. A stone bridge crossed the knee-deep stream. Reaching the bridge, she paused. To her left was a footpath, or perhaps a sheep track following the stream to a coppice of trees in the valley below. She did not know why the path had caught her attention; it was just a narrow muddy track. She couldn’t explain it, her gut feeling mad no sense, but she knew she would find something important by following it.

She looked at the hall in two minds. She was supposed to report to Mr Gates. That was the Professor’s instructions. She had promised Nigel she wouldn’t do anything rash. She should do as she had been told and not go wandering off down sheep trails. Yet she didn’t move. There was something drawing her to the path, a strange siren call she couldn’t ignore. Nigel and the Professor would be at the funeral for a few hours. She had plenty of time to follow the path, satisfy her curiosity, get back to the hall, and nobody would be the wiser. She took a step off the bridge. The little voice inside her told her to fight the temptation. It warned that the path would only lead to trouble.

It was just Nigel’s worries surfacing in her. He had been coddling her since London like a mother hen. What gave him the right to lecture her about how dangerous this could be? Was it just because she was a girl? Well, he forgot she too had been chased by reanimated corpses and hunted by a murderous wraith. She would be careful, and she knew how to look after herself, something that she could not say the same about Nigel. With him bumbling about he was more like to be targeted by the witch than her. He would get in trouble and it would be her coming to his rescue again.

The sudden spark of fury shocked her. Where had that come from? She hesitated and in doing so realised she had been walking down the sheep trail. She didn’t even remember leaving the drive. She turned to look at the bridge several hundred yards up the hill and found herself rotating in a full circle to face the coppice. There was something pulling her onward. Without resisting she succumbed to the temptation to keep walking.

The stream bubbled beside her as it splashed against smooth rocks. The long grass shed its seeds as the hem of her dress brushed past. The trail became narrower, the mud slippery underfoot. She reached the trees, a clump of hawthorns growing in twisted tangle of branches and trunks covered in cruel thorns, their leaves brown and withered. The path headed away from the stream and into the coppice. The voice told her to turn away. That she would find nothing good in those trees.

She entered the coppice. There was no wind, no sound of animals just an eerie stillness as if she were walking through a painting. The path reached a folk. She instinctively took the left path. The branches of the trees grew into an arch that reached over her head creating a dark tunnel. There was light ahead. Feeling she was reaching her destination she sped up, the overwhelming desire to continue smothering the worm of fear in her belly.

The trees opened into a clearing in the middle of the coppice. A dozen jagged stones each the height of a man marked out a circle in the centre of the clearing. A different symbol had been carved into each granite monolith. Long grass and samplings grew between the stone marked circle and the trees, but within the circumference of the circle the ground was barren dust.

Despite the warm sun Gertie had goosebumps. The stillness was oppressive. The uncomfortable feeling that she was not alone, that something was watching her, crept over her. She wanted to turn back. The worm of fear was now a snake writhing inside her. Every instinct told her to run, but she could not turn away. Compelled she strode towards the circle. The grass on the perimeter was shrivelled and black as if burnt before turning to dust.

She stepped into the dusty circle. A sudden breeze played with her hair. Gertie tensed. She could feel the breeze nowhere else on her. It was like an invisible hand lifting her hair and letting it drop. The breeze blew again. It sounded like a wheezing breath an animal would make. Then a gust buffeted against her back pushing her towards the centre of the circle. Outside the circle the grass and trees remained still, yet the gust shoved her forward. The wind plucked at her dress, tugged at her hair, and slapped her face as if thousands of little hands were pulling at her.

Terrified she pushed against the wind, fighting to free herself. The wheezing on the wind sounded like the chanting of a guttural language. She stumbled to the ground biting her tongue. She tasted the warm bitterness of her blood. She could hear laughter as if something was enjoying her fear. Frantically she crawled through the dust. Lower to the ground the wind buffeted her less. Her hands reached hold of the grass at the edge of the circle. The wind was pulling at her legs trying to drag her back into the circle. She spat out a mouthful of blood and screaming with the effort pulled herself free from the circle.

The wind died instantly. She scrambled to her feet. The oppressive stillness had returned. She was being watched. She knew it. She could feel hungry eyes studying her. Terrified she fled the glade with a deep laugh ringing in her ears.

What happens next is up to You!

The choices with the most votes will decides what happens next, so choose wisely.

 

In the next instalment Gertie is going to meet the maid accused of witchcraft but what is her character like? You decide from the polls below

Voting Closes Monday 20th April 9am BST

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