Welcome to The Interactive Novel, the novel that allows you the reader to decide what happens during the novel.
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. Read all the previous Instalments of the Interactive Novel
From out in the hallway 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.
Nigel brought the blanket up to his neck. He clutched it tightly as if it was a shield. What if it was the cloaked figure from the church cellar now lurking in his bedroom? He trembled at the thought.
“Nigel?” a voice hissed from the darkness. “Nigel are you awake?”
“W-who is it?” his quivering voice betraying his fear.
There was a flick of flame as a candle burst into life providing an orange ball glowing through the curtain. The curtains were yanked apart from around his bed. Blinking against the light he looked up at Gertie smiling down at him. Her hair hung loose over her shoulders and she wore just a night dress.
“I didn’t scare you, did I?”
“It doesn’t look that way to me. It looks like you were hiding under the covers.”
“I was just cold,” he said dropping the covers away from his neck. “Anyway, what are you doing here?”
“I thought I was supposed to report to somebody, but neither you nor the Professor have asked to see me.”
“I tried several times, but Mr Gates always said you were busy.” He glanced at the door. “You know you shouldn’t be here. If anyone finds out, you will get into trouble.”
“Nobody is going to find out. The door to your room is shut and so are the curtains. There is no way that anyone can know that I’m here.”
Nigel didn’t look convinced. She put her lantern on the bedside table.
“What are you doing?” he asked. Without answering she climbed on to his bed. Nigel tensed as she leant over him to draw the curtains. She then sat back against the footboard opposite him. “There is that better?”
In the orange glow of the candle he could see her wry smile.
“What if somebody saw you coming here?”
“I was careful. It’s the middle of the night. Everybody is asleep or in their rooms. Do you always worry this much?”
“It is just being cautious. You didn’t go into anyone else’s room by mistake?”
She groaned. “You are like a little old lady sometimes. Stop worrying. I’m not stupid. I knew what room you were in. I made your bed today, along with all the other jobs I have had to do. While you are being treated like royalty, Mr Gates is working me like a dog. He’s just like Mr Pilliwink, a little dictator.”
“He doesn’t like me questioning him either.”
“I bet he’s hiding something.”
Nigel shrugged. “Could be, but I suspect it is just a way of him trying to remain in control. He’s not used to anyone questioning him or having anyone looking at how he runs the household, especially those he believes are beneath him. “
“Well I don’t like him.”
“Have you met the maid accused of witchcraft?”
“Her name is Mary Richards. Mr Gates has assigned me to work alongside her until I find my feet. She is quiet and shy. I have tried to talk with her, but I don’t think she has said more than two words to me.”
“Do you think she is involved?”
“No, she doesn’t seem the type. I think she is terrified of something. I’ve tried to be friendly, but she is that timid she wouldn’t scare a mouse. But if you do want to know someone that is creepy and strange then it is Mr Berwick’s daughter.”
Gertie frowned. “I didn’t know you were on first name bases with her ladyship. You really are going up in the world.”
“Hattie is not creepy. She seems nice. Although I don’t think she gets on well with her father. I have found out that Mrs Berwick is her stepmother, so that might be the cause of the tension between them.”
“And the fact that she is strange. I met Miss Berwick this afternoon and she gave me the creeps. She was too friendly, it was like a big act, almost as if she was up to something.”
“She is just lonely. She spends all her time locked in this house. She never has any guests, so she’s just a little bit rusty at making friends.”
“Since when does the lady of the house make friends with the servants?” She gave him chance to respond but he didn’t answer. “Something is not right with her. She is up to something. Trust me on this. You be careful around her.”
Nigel laughed. “And now who is the worrier? You took a dislike to her and are jumping to conclusions. Hattie is just lonely. Have you ever thought that Mary might be put off by your attempts at being her friend? That she might think you have ulterior motives?”
“I do have ulterior motives. It’s my job to prove that she is not guilty of witchcraft,” Gertie said defensively. “You let me worry about my job and I will let you worry about yours. Just be careful there is something going strange on here.”
“You’re right about that. You should have been at the funeral.” Nigel proceeded to tell her about the horde of rats that interrupted the service, finding the pentagram in the church cellar and the cloaked figure he had seen. He didn’t self-edit for Gertie. He could trust her to believe him. She looked horrified by his account especially about the rats.
“Of course, the Professor thinks this is proof of a hoaxer, but he is yet to explain how the rats mysteriously appeared and disappeared,” said Nigel. “What about you? Have you seen anything unusual?”
Gertie her arms tightly around herself, drawing her knees up into a ball.
“Something happened that I can’t explain. Halfway down the drive there is a bridge crossing a stream. Beside the stream is a path leading to a small wood. I went down the path. I couldn’t help myself. It was as if something was calling me, something I couldn’t refuse.”
She paused as she marshalled her thoughts.
“What happened?” Nigel prompted.
“The path took me to a stone circle. I didn’t want to go anywhere near the circle, but I couldn’t help myself. The moment I stepped inside a wind started blowing. A wind that was only inside the dusty circle. It pushed and pulled me towards its centre. There was a voice in the air. It was chanting a language I didn’t understand, and it sounded as if somebody else was laughing. I managed to crawl out of the circle. The moment I escaped the wind stopped as if had never been blowing. I ran back to the bridge. But do you know what the strangest thing was?”
Nigel shook his head. He struggled to meet her eye. He felt guilty that something had happened to her. He had known they should have never left her to walk up the drive alone.
“As soon as I got back to the bridge, I wanted to go back to the circle again. The voice in my head tempting me to return was promising it would be different if I went again.”
“Did you go?”
“Hell no. I ran across the bridge and the voice went quiet. When you go to the circle, don’t go alone. It’s not safe. Take the Professor with you.”
“I will think of some pretence to get him there,” Nigel said. He took a deep breath knowing she was not going to like what he was about to say. “Perhaps if I talk to the Professor, I could get him to send you back to London.”
“No, you will not. It’s not your choice whether I stay or go. It’s up to me.”
“Gertie it is not safe.”
“It’s late. I better get going.” She pulled open the curtain, jumped from the bed and snatched up her lantern. “I have been gone from my room for too long and you have covers to hide back under. Goodnight.”
“Gertie wait,” he called out. She stopped at the door. “Just be careful and if anything, suspicious happens let me know.”
“Do you want me to walk back to your room?”
She gave him a fiery look, hot enough to melt steel. He held up his hands sheepishly. She slipped out the door closing it quietly behind her. Nigel collapsed back against his pillow. His mind was whirling like the mysterious tempest. He doubted he would ever fall asleep.
Gertie crept along the dark corridor silently furious. She knew Nigel was only looking out for her wellbeing, but the hypocrisy riled her. Why could he face the dangers and not her? He was the one constantly terrified, the one cowering in his bed like a small child scared of the dark. It was her choice, nobodies else whether she stayed or not.
Part of her wanted him to talk to the Professor, just to see him squirm as he tried to persuade the Professor that witchcraft was real. The only reason she hadn’t challenged him was the fear that he would succeed, and she would find herself on the next train home. For the first time in her life she felt like she was doing something important. She had a purpose that could make a real difference in somebody’s life, unlike working as a maid or making delicate china flowers. The fate of Mary Richards depended on her uncovering the truth about was happening at the hall. This was something that she would not walk away from just to placate Nigel’s worries.
She left the main corridor through a doorway to the servants’ stairwell. This narrow winding staircase ran from the cellar to the attic allowing the staff to move around the hall unseen by the household. Gertie quickly opened the shutter on her lantern giving her enough time to see the first step and handrail. She closed the shutter as a precaution from anybody spotting her light. Nigel was right. It had been a risk going to his room and she would have a lot of explaining to do if anybody caught her walking around the house at night.
Using the handrail for guidance she carefully climbed the stairs feeling gingerly for the next step in the dark. She glanced out of a window overlooking the gardens. She paused. The elaborate gardens were bathed in the silvery light of the moon. At the far end of the gardens a pair of bluish green lights flickered like burning orbs. The mysterious lights were like nothing she had ever seen before. She bit her bottom lip, unsure whether to ignore them and continue to her room or investigate further.
She headed down the stairs. She was here to do a job. She paused on the landing of the second floor. For a moment she thought about going back to Nigel’s room and asking him to accompany her, but she instantly dismissed the idea. The lights might be gone by the time they returned and he might think that she could not succeed without him. She hadn’t seen any sign of life in the gardens and what danger could a couple of flicking flames be?
Continuing down the stairs she looked out each window she passed. The lights were still flickering their strange bluish green light. She hurried down into the servants’ quarters. She crept along the corridor daring not to breath as she passed Mr Gates’s room. She reached the door at the end of the corridor. The key was in it. She opened the door and stepped out into the night.
The moon cast enough light for her to see. Dressed in just a night dress she shivered in the cold air. Leaving her lantern at the foot of the steps she wrapped her arms tightly around herself. Having second thoughts she considered heading back inside. She was barefoot and was hardly dressed for wandering around the gardens on a September night. However, the thought of proving to Nigel that she could look after herself spurred on. She had come this far. She could not turn back now.
The hard-stone drive was numbingly cold against her feet. She winced every time she stepped on a loose stone. She made her way around the side of the house to the gardens. The nearly round moon was reflected in the rectangular pool in the middle of the garden. The topiary and shrubs took on sinister shapes in the moonlight. Somewhere in the distance an owl called. At the far end of the pool the strange flames still burned. She hunted for any indication that somebody was tending to the mysterious lights. The gardens appeared deserted.
Gertie stepped off the path winding its way through the garden. The gravel was too painful to walk on. The cold damp grass was a relief in comparison. Keeping to the lawns she made her way through the gardens. Except for the odd occasion when a tree or shrub blocked her view, she kept her eyes on the strange lights. She had the creeping suspicion that she was not alone. She made a few quick glances around then stopped. There were too many hiding places in the dark garden. She could walk within a couple of feet of somebody and not know they were there. She to ignore the feeling telling herself she was being paranoid rather than feed her growing suspicion.
She walked on past a flowerbed full of dahlias that looked black in the moonlight. She lost sight of the flames obscured by a large yew tree shaped like a sphere. Something rustled amongst the flowers. She warily stepped away from the flowerbed towards the garden path. Just a hedgehog hunting she told herself, or perhaps a cat on the prowl. Yet she tensed ready to run if needs be. It wasn’t a hedgehog or a cat that emerged, but a large, mangey brute of a rat. Its beady eyes blazed in the moonlight. It looked at her with not a trace of fear. She was reminded of Nigel’s description of the nasty rat that had perched upon the lectern in the church.
Gertie hated rats. Every time she saw a rat, she remembered the warm summer morning when she had been six years old. The sun had just risen over the roofs of the terraced house and bottle kilns. She had woken, her bladder bursting, and had hurried to the privy shared by the half a dozen households at her end of the street. She had been about to sit when she heard a scratching noise beneath her. Holding her nose against the smell she had looked down into the dark hole. A large rat scrambled out of the privy causing her to scream so loud that half the street had run from their houses.
She shuddered at the memory. The rat continued to watch her from the flowerbed. She pretended to lunge at the rodent. Unafraid the rat stood its ground. She plucked a handful of stones from the path. The first stone she threw passed above the rodent’s head. The rat did not flee. It stared at her balefully baring its large teeth. She took her time with her second shot, checking her aim. She pulled back her hand and threw the stone as hard as she could. The stone struck the rat in the back. The rat squealed and fled back into the flowers. She waited a few moments ready if the vermin reappeared, then happy she had driven it away she threw the remaining stones back on the path.
She hurried on rounding the large yew tree. The flickering bluish green orbs were slowly moving away from her towards the orangery. There was nobody illuminated by their light. They appeared to be levitating flames that moved with their own fruition.
She took a step towards them when a hand grabbed her shoulder….