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 or watch an Abridged Narration of the latest Instalment
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Voting closes 4th May 2020
Gertie Stubbs brushed her loose hair away from her forehead. Her reflection in the stream looked dishevelled. She had lost her hairpins and her hair fell over her shoulders in a tangled mess. She spotted a twig wrapped up in her hair. Wincing she pulled the twig free removing a few strands of hair and pricking her fingers on the twig’s thorns. She flung the twig into the river and sucked the blood off her finger. Her tongue still throbbed where she had bit it and sucking on her finger seemed to ease both pains. Running her fingers through her hair she pulled it together behind her ears. It still hung loose but it looked marginally better.
She had to do something about her tear marked cheeks. Her tears had left tracks of clear skin on her dusty face. She crouched down and put her hands into the water. It was freezing. She cupped her hands together then splashed the icy water against her face. She gasped, but felt so much better. The water invigorated her, snapping her out of a dream like state as it brought clarity to her thoughts. She gazed back at her reflection. Not so dishevelled and on the verge of presentable, if a little wet. It would have to do.
She picked up her kitbag from the side of the road. She couldn’t remember abandoning her bag beside the bridge, but then she couldn’t remember deciding to head down the trail. She had been enthralled by something, lured by a force she had been powerless to resist. She looked back down at the coppice of the woods and was struck by the sudden thought to go back down to the stone circle. That this time it would be different, she would get answers.
She marched as fast as she could across the bridge before temptation got the better of her. She would have to go back to the circle, she was certain there was something evil within its circumference, but she would not go alone. Next time she would take the Professor and Nigel with her. It would be safer in numbers. On the other side of the bridge all her desire to return to the coppice vanished as if somebody had turned off a switch inside her head.
Gertie marched towards the hall, looking for any sign of activity. In front of the hall was a large manicured lawn. The grass had been cut short and looked lush and green compared to the long brown grass growing around the hills. The grounds were deserted, but then if the head gardener had died, the gardeners were probably all attending the funeral. Approaching the hall, she wondered what entrance she should use. Guests would use the front door, but as she was attending as a maid, she would be expected to use the servants’ entrance.
Suspecting the servants’ entrance would be tucked away at the back of the hall she followed the drive past the front of the house to the stable. Built from red brick surrounding a cobblestone courtyard there was enough stables to house over twenty horses A clock tower stood at the entrance to the courtyard. Apart from a large tabby cat laid out in the sun the stables were empty. She followed the drive to the rear of the hall. At the back of the stables sloping up the hill towards the stone ridge was a bank of rhododendrons. They grew in thick forest of shinny green leaves. She barely glanced at them. Her attention was taken by the gardens at the back of the hall. The pristine flowerbeds were full of summer flowers displaying a riot of colours, yew trees cut into twisting corkscrews, and ornamental trees. There was a large rectangular pond in the middle of the garden, a rosery, and at the far end of the gardens sat an orangery with a domed roof. Winding gravel paths connected all the features to a grand entrance at the back of the hall.
“This is private property,” a voice suddenly called out.
Startled she spun around to find a girl in her mid to late teens sitting under the rhododendrons behind her. Gertie had been certain she was alone. She was already on edge after the stone circle and the girl’s sudden appearance had frightened her half to death.
“You scared me,” Gertie said pressing a hand to her thumping chest.
“I said this is private property,” the girl repeated lowering her book on to the grass. The girl had large eyes, a pale complexion and dirty blond hair. She was dressed in a long flowing dark green dress with short sleeves exposing her arms below the elbows. “Do you understand?”
“Sorry, my name is Gertrude Stubbs.”
“And is that supposed to means something?”
“I’m here to see Mr Gates. Mr Berwick sent me?”
“Did he now?” The girl straightened up from her slouched position. “And why would my father be sending a pretty thing like you here?”
“He has offered me a job in his household.”
She laughed. “Has he now? My father does not normally get involved with the staff. I doubt he could name half of them. Yet he recruited you personally. Are you from one of his other households?”
“No. I only met Mr Berwick for the first time the other day. I applied for a job he had advised.”
“Funny he never told me anything about a new member of staff,” the girl said. “And I presume that means my father has returned to honour us with his presence?”
Gertie hesitated. She detected a bitterness in the girl’s voice.
“Yes. He has just gone to a funeral, but he will be home this evening.”
“I can’t wait.”
Wanting to get away from Mr Berwick’s hostile daughter and her interrogation, Gertie gave a small curtsy. “I should be going. He told me to report to Mr Gates.”
“You won’t find him here. He’s at the funeral. Most of the household are too.” The girl patted the grass beside her. “Why don’t you come join me? We can have a little chat. Get to know each other.”
Gertie found nothing warm in the girl’s smile. If anything, it was insincere, forced, the kind of smile a fox would make to an unsuspecting rabbit.
“I should be going. Mr Berwick expects me to be working. If Mr Gates is at the funeral there must be someone. I can report to. Perhaps the housekeeper?”
“It’s her husband they are burying. Did you know that our head gardener killed himself?”
Gertie shook her head.
“He was mad. So mad that he gouged out his own eyes and cut out his tongue,” the girl said watching Gertie’s face. The girl frowned at Gertie’s feigned shock. She tilted her head to one side as if weighing up Gertie response. “Yet that does not surprise you, does it?”
There was the clatter of wheels and hooves. A carriage sped up the drive to the coach house.
“We’ll finish our little chat another time. Looks as if my father has returned. Perhaps you and I can be friends, Gertrude. Let’s see if you can be trusted. If my father asks, you haven’t seen me.”
She picked up her book and slinked back amongst the rhododendrons. Gertie hurried away from the strange girl. She had new admiration for Nigel. When he was undercover, he lied with ease, it probably just took practice. She would get better at it. If Nigel could convincingly be someone else so could she.
Ahead of her Mr Berwick and a man in a top hat emerged from the stable block. Mr Berwick looked flustered. Sweated beaded up on his red face. Hearing her footsteps, he glanced up, then kept marching to the front door.
“Is something wrong, sir?” Gertie asked.
Without stopping Berwick addressed the man beside him. “This is Miss Stubbs. See that she is taken care of. I am going to retire to the library. Have some tea and a glass of our finest scotch sent to me.”
He strode off to the front of the hall leaving Gertie with the new man. The man looked down his nose at her. Then offered her his gloved hand. Gertie reluctantly shook it.
“I’m Mr Gates, butler of Moonhurst Hall” he said. “Follow me.”
He led her to set of descending steps hidden discreetly behind a hedge at the side of the hall. At the bottom of the steps a heavy wooden door opened into a corridor. From previous experience in stately homes Gertie knew that the slabbed floor, grubby white walls were no reflection on the rooms above. This was the servant’s domain and as no guests would frequent them, they were kept bland and serviceable.
Mr Gates took her to his small parlour beside his office. He gestured for her take one of the comfy chairs while he went to pass on Mr Berwick’s orders. He returned a few moments later and after busying himself removing his hat, coat and gloves he sat down in the chair opposite.
“So, your Professor Ashcroft’s maid.”
“Assistant,” she corrected. She reached into her bag and passed him the letter she had been given.
He didn’t reach for the letter. Instead he left her holding it while he took his glasses from his case. Using a handkerchief, he slowly wiped the lenses. He placed the glasses on his nose, returned the case to his jacket pocket, and then folded the handkerchief before tucking it in his breast pocket. Gertie tensed irritated by his petty display of power. She had little patience for the hierarchy amongst servants. At the end of the day they all were there just to serve the household. He finally took the letter from her. Quickly scanned it then crumbled it up and threw the paper ball into the empty fireplace.
“Nothing I didn’t already know. So, you’re here to befriend Mary Richards. If I had it my way she would have been thrown out of here. The girl is nothing but trouble.”
“Do you believe she is a witch?”
Mr Gates scowled. “I have been instructed to treat you like every other member of staff at my disposal. You will not be receiving any special treatment from me. We have had a few members of staff leave us and I expect you to pick up the slack. If you are to fit in around here Miss Stubbs, you better learn your place quick. Your instructions are not to rouse suspicion and that means you follow the etiquette of the household. Now in normal circumstances female staff report directly to the housekeeper, Mrs Neville. However, the funeral of her husband was disrupted today…”
“How?” Gertie interrupted.
“Do not interrupt me girl. You are a maid and you do not question your superiors. Now Mrs Neville has been given a few days of leave. During this time, all members of staff are to report to me. Now in order to allow you the chance to befriend Miss Richards you will be working alongside her and assisting her in her duties. She will show you the ropes.”
He paused as if wanting a confirmation. Gertie looked back at him blankly. She had taken a dislike to the butler. She wasn’t employed by him, she worked for the Professor. She would show Mr Gates courtesy in front of others but refused to grovel to him when they were alone.
Mr Gates snorted. “Have it your way girl. You are dismissed. Follow the corridor to the end of the hall then take the stairs up to the antic. Through the third door on the left you will find your sleeping quarters. You can leave your bag there. I will have Miss Richards sent up to you with a uniform. And make yourself look presentable. You look like you have been dragged through a hedge.”
Gertie followed his directions up a spiralling staircase to the antic. On either side of the corridor were wooden walls with flaking grubby white paint. She opened the door to find a small dormitory with four metal framed beds. Only one of the beds was made. There was a small wardrobe and a chest of draws beside each bed. Gertie sat down on the thin mattress on an empty bed. She didn’t have to wait long until Mary Richards entered the room. In her mid-teens her features were soft and round if anything she was rather plain. Nothing about her screamed witch. She had no conjoined eyebrows, no long nose, and her complexion was free of warts just a small bit of teenage acne on her forehead. She wore a black plain dress, a white apron, and a white bonnet. She held a matching uniform over her arms.
“Mr Gates has sent me up with this,” Mary said watching the floor rather than making eye contact.
“Thank you,” Gertie said taking the uniform off the girl. She threw the apron and bonnet on the bed before holding the dress up against her. It should fit yet it was a rough material. She bet it would itch. “I am Gertie.”
“Mary,” the girl said tentatively.
Gertie smiled. “Mr Gates says that we are going to work together.”
“Yes, he told me so.”
Gertie waited for Mary to elaborate but she just continued to state at the floorboards.
“I am sure we will be friends,” Gertie smiled. She immediately regretted speaking the words. She had felt uncomfortable when Mr Berwick’s strange daughter had shared a similar sentiment.
Mary looked up at her wary. “I will let you get changed.”
She backed quickly out of the room. Gertie continued smiling until the door shut. She cursed under her breath. She had too been friendly and made Mary suspicious. After being accused of witchcraft the poor girl was naturally distrustful. Who wouldn’t be? Gertie just had to take her time and she would win the girl round. More of a concern was what had happened at the funeral. Mr Berwick had flustered on his return. She hoped Nigel and the Professor were alright, but after what had happened to her she feared the worst.
Panting and whining the four terriers were straining to get inside the church. With wiry coats and little beards around their snouts they were not dainty dogs. They were tough little mutts, with scarred muzzles and tattered ears. They had been brought from a local farm for their rat catching prowess. A frayed rope around each of their necks was held in the hands of a scruffy dressed man.
“They look keen,” the Professor remarked.
“They just want to get in there and do their job,” the man said. “Best ratters in the country.”
They would have to be Nigel thought. Four dogs were nowhere near enough to deal with the number of rats that had been in the church. There had been hundreds of the vermin. They had been everywhere. A writhing wiggling mass of furry bodies. The thought of the rodent that had climbed his leg made him shudder.
A small hunting party gathered inside the church grounds. Clutching weapons they looked as if were about to go to war. And perhaps they were. They intended to take the church back from the vermin invaders. The vicar was amongst their number holding a shovel over his shoulder as he shared a joke with the gravedigger. A dozen other young men waited with spades, pitchforks, and shovels in their arms. Safely behind the church wall the rest of the village waited for the spectacle when the church doors were opened, and the rats poured out.
The Professor crouched down and tucked his trouser legs into his socks.
“What are you doing, sir?” Nigel asked.
“It will stop the little blighters running up my trouser legs. I do not want to have a rat biting my…” He looked up to see the vicar standing over him. “Can I help?”
“We are ready to send those rats to hell, sir,” the vicar said grinning at the prospect. For some reason that Nigel could not fathom the hunting party looked to the Professor for leadership. A role the Professor seemed to be greatly enjoying.
The Professor straightened up. “Release the hounds.”
The scruffy farmer loosened the slip knots around the terriers’ necks. The dogs shot off to the church doors. Their noses pressed against the bottom of the door they snorted and whined in their desperation to get inside. One of the dogs started scratching at the bottom of the door as if it could dig its way through the wood. Keeping to one side the farmer leaned over and took the door handle. He glanced at the Professor. The Professor nodded and the farmer pulled open the door. The dogs were in before the door was even half open. There was clattering noise from within followed by high pitched squeals. Armed with their weapons the men poured inside.
The church was empty. One of the terriers was proudly carrying a rat in its mouth. Another terrier followed it trying to snatch the rat from its jaws. The other two dogs darted around the church with heads down sniffing as they hunted for more rodents.
“Where did they all go?” one of the men asked clearly disappointed that the vermin were gone. They had been denied their sport. A few of the younger men had already drifted back outside.
Gesturing for Nigel to follow the Professor headed for the nearest row of pews. Puzzled Nigel followed. There had been thousands of them crawling all over the church. Yet barring one unlucky rodent they had disappeared as if by magic. It was as if they had never been there to begin with.
The Professor knelt to study one of the vents. He passed Nigel a tuft of course brown hair.
“There is rat hair everywhere. They were definitely here. You can tell by all the faecal matter.”
Looking closer Nigel noticed the small brown pellets littering the ground and the pews. “But where have they gone?”
“That is the mystery.”
At the front of the church the vicar was instructing several of the young men to put down their shovels and to carry the coffin outside. The Professor headed for the pulpit
“Pity the vermin are gone. I was looking forward to slaying the little monsters,” said the vicar. “Left quite the mess. I think in the interest for the family and the deceased we will continue the service at the graveside.”
“Very well. My assistant and I will continue to examine the church. See if we can find out where the rats have gone.”
One of the terriers stood at a door by the organ. Its hackles were raised as it growled. It let out an aggressive bark drawing the other terriers over to it. The dead rat was dropped as all four of the little dogs lined up in front of the door barking and growling.
“Where does that door lead?” asked the Professor.
“To a set of stairs going up to the bells and then on to steeple. It also heads down into the cellar. Why? Do you think it is important?”
“The dogs seem to think so.” The Professor said crossing over to the door. He tried the handle. “It’s locked.”
“We keep it locked. Wouldn’t want anybody climbing up the bell to cause mischief.” The vicar rummaged in his robes and produced a ring of keys. He flicked through the keys to a long black key which he passed to the Professor.
The Professor unlocked the door and pushed it open to reveal a spiral stone staircase. Barking the dogs backed away from the open door.
“Somebody get those dogs out of here,” the Professor ordered.
The farmer hurried over with his frayed ropes. He slipped a loop over the head of each dog and pulled the knot tight. He began to drag the growling and barking dogs away.
“Wait,” Nigel said. He reached for the rope for one of the dogs. “May I just borrow him for a second.”
The farmer passed him the rope.
“I said I wanted those dogs out of here.”
“One moment, sir.”
Nigel led the dog towards the door. The dog hesitated and Nigel pulled on the rope. The dog thrust its front legs out in front of itself resisting as he urged it on. The growls became whimpers as the dog fought to pull itself away from the open door.
“You have proved your point,” the Professor said. “The dog is spooked.”
“Then we had better go and have a look. Leave the dog here.”
Nigel let go of the rope and the dog raced back to the farmer. “Do you think that is a good idea?”
“There is nothing to fear. It is just a cellar. Come along, and you too vicar.”
The vicar was no longer smiling. His round face was ashen. He lit a candle and passed it to the Professor.
The Professor promptly passed the candle to Nigel. “Lead on.”
Nigel stepped onto the staircase. It was noticeably colder on the steps. He looked back. The Professor face was blank detached from any emotion. He was either not concerned or was hiding his unease. Nigel suspected the latter. The vicar clutched a bible tightly in his hand.
Holding the candle out in front of him Nigel slowly descended the stairs. He kept close to the wall where the stone steps were their widest. There was a dampness in the cold air and a mouldy smell. The steps levelled out and he stumbled forward. The cellar ran the whole length of the church. At the far end of the cellar were five flickering flames.
“Should those candles be lit?” the Professor said.
“No,” the vicar said. “No one has been down here for days.”
“Then who lit them. Lead on Nigel, let us get a closer look.”
The Professor gently pushed Nigel forward. Nigel resisted like the little terrier had. He didn’t want to go near the candles, let alone be in the lead. The Professor shoved a little harder.
The flames had distorted the candles into grotesque shapes of melted wax. Each candle had been positioned at the tip of a large star drawn on the floor. Laying on its back in the centre of the circle was a skinned rat, its large yellow teeth bared. The Professor touched one of the edges of the star then held his finger up to Nigel’s candle. White chalk dust covered his finger.
“It’s a pentagram,” the Professor said brushing his chalk finger clean against Nigel’s shoulder. “A symbol adopted and used by many religions over the millennia. In different faiths the points of the star represent different elements or attributes. The symbol appears in myths and legends from all over the world. It even appears in the Arthurian Legend Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to emphasis his virtue.”
“Why is the star upside down?” Nigel asked.
The Professor frowned. “That all depends on where you stand. True from our position the star is upside down, but if you stood at the opposite end it would be the right way up. Drawn on the floor it is impossible for us to know which way the painter envisaged for it to be viewed.”
“But if we assume the rat’s head is pointing upwards then the star is upside down.”
“What have I told you in the past about assuming? We must work on facts not on gut instincts. However, I will research the significance of the positioning of a pentagram when my texts arrive at the hall this evening. Now Vicar, do you have any idea who would have drawn this?”
“No, sir. It shouldn’t be here. It is some sort of ritual.”
“That is obvious. But by who? Who has access to this part of the church?”
“I don’t know sir,” the vicar said flustered. “As I said we keep the door locked and there are only two keys to the tower. One I keep on me at all times.”
“And the other key?”
“Kept in my desk draw in the rectory.”
“I suggest as soon as we leave here you ascertain the whereabout of this spare key. Our hoaxer may have stolen it.”
“You think it is hoaxer.”
“Of course. Somebody released the rats into the church, and they meant us to come down here and find this display. They are trying to trick us into believing in witchcraft.”
Nigel frowned at the Professor’s assumptions. How had the hoaxer gotten all the rats into the church and then had them all miraculously disappear? His quip about the Pied Piper was a more realistic alternative.
The candle flames flicked caught by a sudden gust. Nigel swallowed nervously. They were underground.
“It is just a draft from the stairwell,” the Professor said. “Nothing to fret about.”
The breeze increased until it was ruffling their hair. One of the candles vanished. Chanting the Lord’s prayer, the Vicar ran for the stairs. A second candle blew out.
‘We better go as well,” the Professor said his voice strained. “We have seen all we need to. It’s been a long day best it we head back to the hall and speak to Mr Gates.”
Nigel did not need to be told a second time. He hurried after the Professor. Reaching the steps, the breeze ceased as abruptly as it had begun. The candle he held no longer flickered. Without stopping the Professor dashed up the steps. On impulse Nigel took one last look at the cellar. Only three candles remained lit. In the dim candlelight he had a fleeting glimpse of a cloaked figure crouched between the candles. Then as one all three candles went out concealing everything in darkness.
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