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 with story so far by reading the previous Instalments of the Interactive Novel
The Sixth Instalment
Accompanied by a single footman Mr Gates waited on the steps of Moonhurst Hall. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back as Nigel and Professor Ashcroft climbed down from the carriage. The sky was transforming into a palette of colours in the late evening. For all the Professor’s eagerness to return to the hall they had stayed for the rest of the service. The funeral had resumed beside the grave with the mourners packing the churchyard. Nigel and the Professor had stood by the open church doors. During the service Nigel found his eyes drifting towards the cellar door. He had kept expecting the cloaked figure to emerge from the darkness. He had not mentioned the figure to the Professor. The Professor would only berate him for letting his imagination get the better of him.
“How did the rat hunting go, sir?” Mr Gates said. He gestured for the footman to take their bags.
“A bit of an anti-climax,” the Professor said. “Has the rest of my luggage arrived?”
“Yes, sir, your trunks have been taken to your room. If you would please follow me. Mr Berwick has requested an audience with you on your arrival.”
“Very good. Lead on.”
Passing through the front door Nigel noticed the stone walls were the thickness of a man reaffirming his initial impression of the massive square shaped hall being a fortress. The entrance lobby of the hall was a long room ending in a set of wide curved stairs. Two large ornate golden chandeliers hung down from a high ceiling decorated with elaborate plaster flowers. The red papered walls were covered in paintings depicting images from Roman mythology, dogs, and portraits of men and women that Nigel assumed were previous generations of the Berwick family.
“Excuse me,” Nigel called out. Mr Gates glanced at him. “Did Gertie arrive here safely?”
“I presume you mean Miss Stubbs,” Mr Gates said. “She arrived this afternoon shortly after Mr Berwick and I returned from the funeral.”
“That would have been two hours after we left her by the gates,” Nigel said. “Was she alright? Had something happened to her?”
“How am I the devil to know?” Mr Gates replied. “She seemed well enough to me. If I was to hazard a guess, I would say that she stopped to enjoy the afternoon sun. Sir, you know how young people can be. Never in a hurry unless they have somebody breathing down their neck.”
“You seem to have the measure of my employees,’” the Professor remarked. He noticed Nigel’s scowl. “Where is Miss Stubbs now?”
“I have put her to work, sir. She is shadowing Miss Richards as instructed. I must admit Miss Stubbs is a welcome addition to the household. We have lost a number of staff and I have struggled to recruit replacements from the local villages.”
“And the reason for this?” the Professor asked.
“The allegations of witchcraft, sir. Superstitious servants have left fearing that they were to become victims of a curse. They have taken their suspicions with them and the rumours have spread. The local community all believe that a witch’s curse has been cast again the Berwick family and anybody that works in the home may become a victim. It is not surprising. These remote communities hold on to all sorts of archaic beliefs. I have informed Mr Berwick on what I believe to be the most pragmatic action to take. Yet he has refused to take my advice.”
“And what is your advice?”
“To cease the employment of Mary Richards. It is her that the accusations of witchcraft are centred. If she were to leave the hall then so would the rumours of witchcraft. It is really quite simple, sir.”
“Yet it would destroy the life of an innocent girl.”
Mr Gates fell silent. He opened a door and they entered a room with glass cabinets full of birds. The bottom cabinets had large waterfowl, a graceful swan with its wings held open, a pair of hissing geese, pheasants, a turkey, a male and hen peacock were just some of birds on display. Another cabinet was filled with songs birds from native species to more exotic birds. There was a cabinet with birds of prey from small owls to large eagles with knife like talons and hooked beaks. The taxidermy looked back with their lifeless eyes and Nigel felt a pang of regret. None of the beauty, grace, or the majestic these animals had once possessed remained in these lifeless husks.
They left the trophy room and entered the library. It was large chamber with the windows looking out on the elaborate gardens at the back of the house. Around the perimeter of the room were bookcase stretching from floor to ceiling. There was a large map table in the middle of the room and a small reading desk. In front of the fire were several chairs and a lounger. Mr Berwick sat in one of the chairs staring at the flames in front of him with a glass of whisky in his hand. Hearing the door open he looked up and gave a small smile.
“Care for a drink Arthur?”
“I could certainly do with one.”
Berwick looked up at Mr Gates. “A glass for the Professor. And then tell the kitchens that we will be ready to eat. My wife will not be joining us, but Hattie will.”
Mr Gates nodded and after passing the Professor a glass filled from a decanter on a side table retreated from the room. The Professor waited until the door closed behind him before speaking.
“How is Edith’s condition?”
“She is exhausted. She has already eaten and has decided to rest. I’m sure she will be well enough for visitors in the morning.”
“I would also like to talk to her physician.”
“That can be arranged. He is due to check up on her on Wednesday. In the meantime, how did you get on with the rats.”
The Professor proceeded to explain in detail about what had occurred in the church. Half listening Nigel gazed at the rows of texts around him wondering how many out of the hundreds of books had ever been read. He would wager that probably most of them had never been opened. Like everything in this house, the library was a statement boasting not only financial wealth but a wealth of knowledge.
“Mr Gates has made his own suggestions on how to solve these rumours of witchcraft,” the Professor said drawing Nigel’s attention away from his meandering thoughts.
“He has told you that we should banish the poor maid?”
The Professor nodded. “Might I ask why you have not?”
“We both agree there is no such thing as witchcraft. Like you, I fear the girl has been made a scapegoat. If I were to act, then I would only be confirming the accusations and the existence of witchcraft. Besides Hattie would hate me for it. She is quite fond of the girl.”
There was a light tap at the door preceding the return of Mr Gates. In his drone like voice he announced diner was to be served. With the Professor explaining to Berwick that the pentagram was proof of a hoaxer they entered the dining room. With the curtains drawn it was a gloomy room with the fire and only several candelabra providing any light. A table long enough to sit twenty filled the room. Only four places at the far end of the enormous table had been laid. A girl in her mid to late teens sat waiting for them. She looked up at them with large eyes weighing them each up in turn. Her gaze lingered on Nigel for a few moments before she turned away uninterested.
“Arthur…” Berwick glanced at Nigel. Then said as an afterthought. “I mean gentlemen, I would like to introduce you to my daughter Hattie. Hattie this is my good friend Arthur Ashcroft and his apprentice Nigel. They are here to get to the root of these allegations of witchcraft and perhaps even find the cause of your mother’s mystery illness.”
“She is not my mother,” Hattie said. “She is your wife.”
“Please Hattie, we have guests.”
Hattie stood up. She gave the Professor a brief curtsy and then sat back down. She looked up at her father challenging him. Mr Berwick pretended he did not notice and sat down next to his daughter. The Professor sat opposite Berwick. Nigel hesitated. He wondered if he could have his meal with the household staff rather than endure the uncomfortable atmosphere between Berwick and his daughter. The Professor glared at him. Nigel took his seat opposite Hattie. While Mr Gates poured each of them a glass of wine the footman brought out a trolly with their starters of pâte and bread.
“Your father and I went to school together,” the Professor said to Hattie. His attempt to make conversation turned into retelling tales from his boyhood at private school. Hattie for her part did not even feign interest. She picked at her food, clearly bored, as the Professor and her father discussed old school friends and the teachers they had. When both the Professor and Berwick were looking away, she caught Nigel’s eye. She gave an exaggerated yawn and rolled her eyes.
The starters were cleared away to be replaced with a shank of lamb and seasonal vegetables. With another glass of wine in them the Professor and Berwick became more and more enthused in their tales. After a desert of poached pear and ice cream Mr Berwick invited the Professor to the parlour to continue their conversation.
“Nigel, you have to write up today’s events. I expect to read your report first thing in the morning,” the Professor instructed as he rose to his feet.
Nigel waited until the door closed behind them before standing. He felt drained yet he had a long night of writing ahead and somehow had to speak to Gertie. Especially as the Professor did not seem to be the slightest bit concerned about her.
“Are you going somewhere?” Hattie asked.
“You will have to excuse me. I have work to do.”
“That is a shame I thought you and I could have a little chat. Get to know each other better.”
“Perhaps another time. It has been a long day and I still have a lot of work to do.”
She pouted. “That is a shame. I will show you to your room.”
Mr Gates cleared his throat. Nigel forgot he had been lurking in the shadows out of sight. “I do not think that would be appropriate, Miss Berwick. Allow me to escort Master Briggs to his room.”
“Actually, I thought I would go to the library. There would be more room for me to work.”
Hattie jumped to her feet. “Then I will take you. Surly there is nothing inappropriate in going to the library together. Follow me Nigel.”
Nigel looked at the butler hoping he would intervene. He had lot to do and did not want to spend an evening with Hattie playing host. Mr Gates remained silent his face neutral.
“Perhaps you can get somebody to bring me a pot of tea?” Nigel asked. “I have a lot to write up. I will also need somebody to show me the way to my room at some point. I do not know my way and I would hate to stub my toe.”
He winked at Mr Gates then left the room wondering if the butler had got his hint to send Gertie to him. Perhaps he had made it too subtle. But he couldn’t ask for her in front of Hattie. From his own experience working undercover the less people knew of her identity the better.
“It’s very dark,” Nigel remarked. Down the corridor the only light came from the candle in Hattie’s hand. He could not think of anything else to say and the silence made him uncomfortable.
“You’re not scared of the dark are you?”
“No,” Nigel lied. He had been stalked by a wraith that hid in the dark. Since then he was always wary of what could be lurking in the shadows. Some nights he still could not sleep without a lit candle at his side. He suspected that tonight in the unfamiliar surroundings of the hall would be one of those nights.
“Is the hall old?” Nigel asked feeling he had to say something else. He always struggled with small talk.
“The original hall was built over three hundred years ago. Not much of the old building remains. It has been altered several times over the centuries. My grandfather was the last one to spend any money on the hall. My father does not care much for the place. If it ever becomes mine, I might knock it all down and start again.”
“That would be a shame. You would lose all the history. Just imagine the stories that these walls could tell.”
“Stories where all the characters are now dust. What has happened is in the past and should be forgotten about. The dead cast a long shadow over this place.”
“What do you mean?”
“Do you believe in witchcraft?” Hattie asked opening the door to the corridor with all the stuffed birds.
“I try to keep an open mind. Why? Do you know anything about what is going on here at the hall?”
She stopped midstride. “Are you accusing me?”
“No, no, of course not,” he said. The reflected candle flame flickered in the lifeless eyes of the hundreds of dead birds. “I was just asking if you had experienced anything out of the ordinary.”
He wished she had not stopped. He couldn’t ask to leave the room; she had already guessed that he didn’t like the dark and if she suspected, he was unnerved by the dead birds, she would brand him a coward.
“I saw the straw dolls they found in the chimneys and some of the servants have said they have seen strange things, but not me.”
He knew he should question her further but talk of witchcraft was for the light of the day not when stood in a dark room surrounded by dead birds. There was a malice in their cold eyes as if they were accusing him of their fate.
“Is it just you and your mother and father living here?” he asked hoping a change of conversation would encourage her to move on. It worked. She lowered the candle and headed for the library door.
“My father is rarely here. He spends most of his time either in London or Sheffield. Normally it is just me, my stepmother, and the servants of course. Since my stepmother has been ill, we rarely have guests.”
Nigel felt sorry for Hattie. With just herself and her stepmother rattling around in this massive house she had to be lonely. Entering the library, she busied herself lighting candles around the desk. The fire still smouldered, and Nigel added some more coal to it. Hattie stood behind the desk looking awkward as if waiting for an invitation to stay. Nigel felt a twinge of guilt. She just wanted some company, but he had work to do and if Gertie was to report to him, he had to send her away.
“I’ve got a lot of work to do,” he prompted. “It would be easier if I’m alone.”
“Yes, of course. I will leave you to it.”
She picked up her candle and left. Nigel picked up his pen and held it hovering above his page. He shouldn’t feel bad about sending her way. He was here to investigate claims of witchcraft not to entertain Mr Berwick’s daughter.
The door opened and Mr Gates entered carrying a tray with a pot of tea.
“Did you not get my hint about sending Gertie?” Nigel asked.
“I understood you to the letter,” Mr Gates said placing the tray on the table. “She is busy washing the dishes.”
“I need to speak to her.”
“That is not possible. Must I remind you that she is here to work. I will arrange for her to report to Professor Ashcroft in the morning. Now if there is nothing else, I can get you, I will leave you to your work.”
Nigel scribbled away. He focused on the paper in front of him rather than his dark surroundings. An hour later Mr Gates returned to lead him to his room. The butler led the way to a green wall papered room with a large four poster bed and dark wooden furniture. For once Nigel could not help smiling to himself. He had been given a guest bedroom. It was a world away from the servant’s dorms he was normally subjected to.
“There is a jug of water for you and a glass on the dresser. You will find a chamber pot under the bed,” Mr Gates said. “Is there anything else you require?”
“Could you send Gertie to report to me please?”
“Out of the question, Master Briggs. What would it look like to the rest of the household if they know that one our maid is visiting your bedroom? It would be the most inappropriate action we could take.”
“I just want to make sure she is alright.”
“The girl seems fine to me. I will have her report to the Professor in the morning. Now is there anything else?”
Nigel shook his head.
“Professor Ashcroft has instructed me to give you a wake-up call half an hour before breakfast. I suggest you stay in your room until then. The hall is large and for one that does not know its layout it would be unwise for you to go exploring after dark. Afterall we would not want anything untoward happening to you.”
Nigel frowned unsure whether his warning was out of courtesy or a threat. Mr Gates bowed and turned to leave.
“I have a quick question,” Nigel called out. Mr Gate raised his brow. “Earlier today you said that the locals have all sorts of strange beliefs. What did you mean by that?”
“This is a very rural area. Stories that were told hundreds of years ago are still believed as fact.”
“Are any of these stories about Moonhurst Hall or witches?”
“I would not know,” Mr Gates snapped. “Now if there is nothing else I must be going. I have other duties to attend.”
“Just one last thing. Hattie said the dead cast long shadows over the hall. What do you suppose she means by that?”
“How am I supposed to know her mind? I suggest you ask her yourself. Goodnight Master Briggs?”
Mr Gates shut the door forcefully enough that it rattled in the frame. Nigel grimaced. It seemed the butler didn’t like being questioned. Nigel wondered if Mr Gates would have the same reservations about answering the Professor’s questions. He doubted it. He suspected that Mr Gates did not like the idea of having to answer to anybody of a lower status. Perhaps that was why he had prevented him from seeing Gertie. It had been a petulant act of his power an attempt to exert some control over the situation
Apart from the candle on the bedside table Nigel blew out the candles dotted around the room. He climbed under the covers in the four-poster bed. He felt exhausted yet sleep would not come. He watched the flicking shadows cast by the flame. He could not help but draw parallels to the last time he lay in a strange bed, then he had been waiting for a demon to attempt to drink blood. Who knew what lurked in the hall? What made it worse was that this time there was nobody listening for his call for help.
It was no wonder he could not sleep. He sat up and pulled the curtains tight around the bed frame stopping only to blow out the candle. With his head back on the pillow and his surroundings shrouded in darkness he told himself he was safe in his room in London. Every time the house creaked or groaned the charade was broken and his eyes would snap open. He wondered if Gertie was having just as hard of time getting to sleep. Somehow, he doubted it. She could fall asleep anywhere.
A floorboard creaked louder than before. Nigel’s eyes snapped open. He had been dozing off. Breathing rapidly his eyes darted from side to side. He could not see anything beyond the curtains surrounding the bed. The floorboard creaked again. Nigel flinched. He told himself it was just the creaking of an old house. Then the hinges to his bedroom door groaned followed by the gentle rap of his door being softly closed. Somebody or something was in his room…
What happens next is up to You!
The choices with the most votes will decide what happens next, so choose wisely.
Vote Closes Monday 11th May 2020
Sixth Instalment Published Friday 15th May 2020