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
Gertie sunk her teeth into her lip to stop herself from crying out. Her heart felt as if it was about to burst from her chest. She lurched forward pulling the hand free from her shoulder. She spun round.
“Mary?” she panted. She clutched her thumping heart. “I didn’t know you were there. You made me jump.”
Mary lowered her head to the ground. She looked up at Gertie with large round eyes. “Sorry.”
“What are you doing here?” Gertie asked
“I woke to find your bed empty. I went to look for you in case you were lost. We are not allowed to walk around the house after dark. If Mr Gates caught you, we both will get punished.”
“Why would he punish you?”
She laughed bitterly. “What excuse does he ever need? He would say I am supposed to be showing you the rules of the house.”
“I don’t think that would be enough of reason to punish you.” Mary didn’t reply. She just looked at the ground. Gertie wondered if it was the butler she was terrified of. Struck by a sudden thought Gertie frowned. “How did you know to find me in the gardens?”
“I saw you on the stairs. I was going to call out, but I didn’t want anybody else to hear. Then you went downstairs. I didn’t want you to get in trouble, so I followed you. I thought you were going to kitchens to steal food but then you went outside.”
Gertie suspected she was telling the truth. Wearing just a nightdress and barefoot Mary wasn’t dressed for prowling around the gardens.
Mary fidgeted nervously.
“What are you doing in the gardens anyway?”
Remembering the mysterious lights Gertie turned to the orangery. They were gone. She hurried over to where she had last seen them.. In the moonlight it was hard to be certain but there appeared to be no indentations in the ground from stands or burnt grass. It was as if the bluey green flames had never existed.
“There was a fire here. They looked like burning orbs. Did you see them?” Mary shook her head. “You must have seen them. They had blue flames. It was like no fire I have ever seen before.”
Mary tugged at her arm. She looked even more worried than normal.
“We have to get out of here. We got to get back to the house.”
“Please. It’s not safe.”
Gertie allowed Mary to pull back through the gardens. There seemed little point staying now the flames were gone. She waited until they reached the drive and were in the shadow of the house before questioning Mary further.
“Are you going to explain what you’re scare of now that we are out of the garden?”
“Those were fairy lights you saw. It would be the fairies leading you away. If you had followed the flames, they would have lured you to your death.”
“Yes, they carry little lanterns to lure people to follow them. It is not safe to be walking around at night. Come on we have to get back to bed.”
They crept back through the house. As they headed up the spiral staircase to the attic Gertie looked out the window. The bluey green flames had returned. There flickering flames reflected in the still pool of water. Fairies or not the flames were a mystery for another day.
Tuesday 11th of September 1860 Part 1
Sat in the bright light of the breakfast room Nigel could not help but feel self-conscious about his manners. Eating breakfast with the Berwick family and the Professor was out of his comfort zone. He sat ridged in his seat and used his cutlery with slow careful movements hoping not to bring attention to himself. The lack of conversation did not help. Bleary eyed the Professor picked at his food, his lack of appetite clear to see. On arriving Professor Ashcroft had complained about a migraine. Nigel felt no sympathy for him. Mr Berwick looked just as unwell and it didn’t take a detective to come to the conclusion, they were both suffering with hangovers.
The two women that joined them cast a frosty silence over the room. Hattie looked everywhere but at the woman sat opposite her. For her part Mrs Edith Berwick did nothing to thaw the atmosphere. She was a thin looking woman with a stern face but considering she was supposed to be confined to her sick bed looked quite healthy, certainly better than the two men looking sorry for themselves. When the Professor had remarked that she looked well she had brushed the comment aside by insisting she was having one of her rare good days.
Mr Gates lurked at the back of the room ready to pounce if he was called upon. Nigel was certain the butler was watching his table etiquette with a critical eye. Nigel would have been far happier if he had been eating with the servants. It certainly would have been more relaxed.
“What are your plans for today, Arthur?” Mr Berwick asked dapping the corner of his mouth with his handkerchief. Like the Professor he had touched little of his breakfast.
“I was intending on examining the garden shed where Mr Neville was found, but I have this darn migraine playing havoc,” the Professor said. “I think it might be best if I rest this morning. By the afternoon it should be gone and I will have a clearer mind to examine the evidence.”
“What about you dear?” Mrs Berwick asked.
“I have to business to attend. Mr Gibbs wants me to look at the new tenant farmer contracts.”
Hattie looked up from where she had been staring at her plate.
“You promised to take me riding today.”
“Sorry petal, I have work to do.”
Hattie was not to concede easily. “You employ Mr Gibbs to manage the estate. It’s his job. Why can’t he do it?”
Mr Berwick smiled weakly at the Professor.
“Please excuse Hattie, she does not understand the responsibilities of running an estate.”
The Professor held up his hand. “There is no need to apologise. As I am not feeling hundred percent this morning, Nigel can always accompany her. Of course, only with your consent.”
“I cannot see any problem with that,” Mr Berwick said. “What do you say Hattie? You can show Nigel the estate?”
“Only if he can keep up,” said Hattie.
Nigel wondered if he was invisible. Everybody was being asked what they thought but him. He cleared his throat.
“Sir, I don’t think that is a good idea.”
“Oh, please come Nigel,” Hattie said.
He smiled politely at her and turned to the Professor.
“Sir, we are here to investigate the accusations of witchcraft. There is must be something I can look into while you rest.”
The Professor waved his hand. “I will not have you idling the morning away. It will do you good to get some fresh air. It might make you alert for this afternoon.”
“But sir. I don’t know how to ride a horse.”
“Even you can manage it. You just have to sit on it and try not to fall off,” the Professor rose to his feet. “If you would please excuse me, I will retire to my room for a bit.”
Following the Professor’s example Mr and Mrs Berwick made their excuses and left. Mr Gates approached the table.
“I will send word to the stables for your horse to be saddled, Miss Berwick.”
“And tell them to prepare Nelson,” she said with a wicked smile.
To Nigel’s dismay Mr Gates lips curled up in his own smile of approval.
Nelson was a chestnut horse with a patch of white on his muzzle. He tugged against the reigns in the stable boy’s hands. Nigel looked warily at the dancing horse and then up at Hattie. She sat upon a black horse watching him in fascination.
“He looks a little frisky,” Nigel commented as Nelson snorted and brayed
“He’s just eager to get out for a ride,” Hattie said.
Nigel took a step towards the prancing horse. “Are you sure he is safe?”
The stable boy would not meet his eye.
“He can just sense your fear,” Hattie said. “You will be perfectly fine. There is nothing to be afraid of.”
He was nervous about riding a horse. The idea of sitting upon something that could think for itself was madness, especially when the animal appeared to be a skittish wreck. It looked as if the slightest noise would send the horse stampeding off.
“Perhaps I could ride another horse? One like yours.”
“Mine?” Hattie laughed. She patted the neck of her black horse. The animal remained as still as a statue seemingly oblivious to the world around it. “If you can’t ride Nelson then you will have no chance with Blossom here.”
“Your horse looks calm.”
“Don’t let appearances fall you. Climb on up Nigel or are you just going to waste the morning.”
Nigel reached his hand on to the saddle. He put his foot into the stirrup and hoisted himself up as he had seen Hattie do. He failed in his first attempt to swing his leg over. On the second attempt he sat down and managed to slide his foot into the other stirrup. He reached down for the reigns.
“Good luck, sir,” the stable boy said passing the reigns over.
The animal beneath him pranced wildly on the cobble stones. Nigel yanked on the reigns shouting whoa. He caught Hattie’s eye. She gave him a wicked smile then digging her feet into the side of her horse urged Blossom on. She cantered underneath the clock tower and out of the yard. Seeing the other horse leave, Nelson brayed loudly and galloped after her. Thrown around in the saddle Nigel clung on for dear life. No matter how he hard he pulled on the reigns or shouted commands the horse didn’t listen. All he could do was hang on and hope that he would not fall off and break his neck.
Ahead Hattie looked over her shoulder. Seeing Nigel galloping after her she grinned and urged her horse into a gallop. They hurtled down the drive, over the bridge and just before they reached the gates, Hattie turned her horse on to a cart track heading up into the hills. Without any guidance from Nigel, Nelson followed. He was no more than a rag doll at the mercy of the horse beneath him. They galloped up the track winding their way towards the stone ridge behind the hall. There was no bridge to pass the stream a second time. Hattie’s horse splashed through the shallow ford while to Nigel’s horror, Nelson leapt over it. As the horse landed, he was lifted in the saddle and for a split second he thought he was about to go over the top of the horse’s neck, then he bounced back down on to the horse’s back.
Hattie slowed her horse down to a canter and to Nigel’s relief Nelson followed. They reached the stone ridge behind the hall at little more than a trot. The sheer sided cliff rose over them. Beneath them was the hall and further down in the valley Nigel could just make out the church steeple.
“You’re getting the hang of riding at last,” Hattie said. She pulled her horse to a stop. Nigel tugged on the reigns and to his surprise Nelson also drew to a halt.
Nelson’s coat glistened with sweat and his large chest heaved with the exertion. His energy burnt from the mad gallop had made the horse somewhat compliant to Nigel’s wishes.
“You knew I had never ridden a horse before,” Nigel said. He thought about climbing down, but for the moment Nelson was behaving and he didn’t want to upset the status quo. “And you give me this wild beast.”
Hattie laughed. Her face was flushed with exhilaration. “You got to start somewhere. I do not know what you are upset about. You did not fall off.”
“I could have done.”
“But you didn’t. You have to admit that you did enjoy it.”
“Not for one moment. And now I have a sore bottom from all that bouncing around.”
“But look at the view. Surly it was worth it?”
They could see for miles looking over the hall and the village in the valley below. Grudgingly he had to admit it was the worth journey.
“Perhaps if we had come up here a bit slower, I could appreciate it more.”
“When would the fun be in that? It is good to get the heart racing. Feel alive. Take a little risk.”
“I don’t see you sitting on this mad stallion.”
“He’s a gelding. And you have seen to have tamed him.” She laughed. “For now.”
Clicking her tongue against the top of her mouth she urged her horse on. Nigel copied and Nelson obeyed. He couldn’t help feeling pleased with himself. She was right perhaps he was getting the hang of horse riding after all. Although after being bounced up and down in the saddle and being terrified for his life he struggled to find any appeal to horse riding.
They followed the track down into the valley and into a wood of hawthorn, oak and beech trees. When they came across the stream Nigel wondered if she was taking to him the stone circle Gertie had spoken about. The cart track they were taking followed the stream. With sunlight dappling through the leaves, the chorus of birds and the slow meandering of the horses Nigel hated to admit it, but he was enjoying himself. The only shadow was the fear that at any moment Nelson would decide to go on another manic gallop.
They reached an abandoned water mill on the bank of the stream. The stone walls were smothered in ivy and there was a gaping hole in the roof. The two workshops that accompanied the mill had fared little better from the accroaching forest. Samplings and ferns grew in small pockets where dirt had acuminated on the stone walls. A fallen tree split one of the workshops in half. They reached a folk in the track with the left path overgrown with ferns and saplings. Hattie led the horses along the overgrown path. A minute later they reached a cliff of grey rock. A cave at the foot of the cliff was boarded up. Beads of water ran down the planks. Mould and mushrooms grew on the decaying wood.
“That used to be an old lead mine. The locals say this place is haunted,” Hattie said. “But father says it is just tales. He says that the mill was abandoned because the mine became unprofitable.”
Nigel looked at the ominous looking hole at the base of the cliff.
“Haunted by what?”
“The story is that they dug so deep into the ground that they reached the gates of hell. An evil was unleashed that stalked the mine killing all those it came across. A brave group of miners prevented the evil from escaping by caving the mine in on top of themselves. A dozen men lost their lives. Since then people have heard the voices of the killed miners crying for help.”
“Perhaps we should listen for them?” Nigel joked cupping his ear towards the cave.
“It’s not a wise idea to stay here for long. There is talk that some of the evil escaped the mine and it stalks these woods looking for another victim.”
Nelson neighed and fidgeted nervously. Was it Nigel’s imagination or had a stillness settled on the world? He could no longer hear bird song. He glanced at Hattie. She wore a serious expression on her face. Then she laughed and the chilling moment was lost.
“It’s just a story. We better get moving on, otherwise we are not going to get back in time for lunch.”
She urged her horse away from the mine. Nigel hesitated. Why had she brought him here? Was she hinting at something that might be responsible for the tales of witchcraft? He took a long look at the boarded-up mine. He shook his head. The miners had dug deep enough to reach the gates of hell seemed a little farfetched. It was all just a ghost story.
Or was it?
Tuesday 11th of September 1860 Part 2
Gertie stifled a yawn with the back of her hand. She was paying the price for her night-time excursions. It did not help that the footman had woken her with a rap against their door at the crack of dawn. After hurriedly dressing Mary and herself had reported to the kitchens. Before the Berwick family and their guests woke there were a range of jobs to carry out. The ovens were lit for the cook to bake bread, fireplaces throughout the hall need lighting to take the chill off the morning, and water need fetching from the well for cooking and to heat for the family’s toilet routine.
After the family had eaten, they had a breakfast in the servants’ mess room. All members of the household sat at their allocated spaces. Mr Gates sat at the head of the table. The opposite end was still empty waiting for Mrs Neville to return from her leave of absence. There were eight empty places around the table that Gertie suspected would normally have been filled. The household only retained one footman, a cook, two lady’s maids, Mr Berwick’s valet, a parlour maid, Mary and herself. At mealtimes and under the watchful gaze of Mr Gates nobody was allowed to talk. They sat in an uncomfortable silence eating a breakfast of porridge and toast with a pot of strawberry jam to smear over the burnt bread. Once Mr Gates had finished his cup of tea, he dismissed the rest of the staff with the exception of Mary and Gertie.
“The weather is good this morning,” he stated. “As you know we are short of a scullery maid, so I want you in the kitchen washing dishes. As we have also lost our laundry maid there is laundry for you to tend to. There are sheets to be washed and in this fine weather they will quickly dry. Miss Richards, the kitchens to help the cook. Miss Stubbs follow me.”
Expecting instant obedience, he spun on his heels and marched out of the room. Fearing she was in trouble Gertie followed slowly behind. She wondered if he had somehow found out about her night-time prowling. She doubted it, he would have summoned Mary as well. He must have found fault in some of her work. That would be nothing out of the usual, back in London Mrs Copper scolded her at least once a day on being slap dash in her duties.
Mr Gates stopped at his office. He opened the door and gestured for her to step inside in front of him. Professor Ashcroft sat at Mr Gate’s desk holding his head in his hand. He looked up at her with bleary eyes.
“Please sit Gertie.” He pointed to the chair opposite.
“Can I get you anything, sir?” Mr Gates said through gritted teeth. He was clearly put out by the Professor commandeering his office.
“Just that pot of tea.”
Mr Gates nodded and shut the door behind him.
“Are you well, sir?” Gertie asked.
“It is nothing. Just a migraine. Must be from all that traveling yesterday. Give me a few hours and I will be right as rain. It does not help with Nigel waking me this morning and badgering me to talk to you. The poor lad has been beside himself with worry about your wellbeing. He insisted I spoke to you this morning. Told me it could not wait as we had not seen you since yesterday. So, here you are as I expected, fighting fit. Do you have anything to report?”
Gertie marshalled her thoughts. Nigel had not told the Professor about her visiting him in the night. As far as the Professor knew this was the first time, she had spoken to anyone. She decided there was no point mentioning the stone circle and mysterious wind. He would not believe a word of it. She could trust Nigel to get the Professor to investigate the circle.
“I am working alongside Mary Richards, sir.” The Professor looked puzzled. “The maid accused of witchcraft.”
“Of course. This blinking migraine is just slowing my thoughts. You will have to bear with me. What is your opinion on Miss Richards?”
“She seems nice. She is very shy, and I think she is scared of something.”
“The poor lamb is bound to be frightened. She has been accused of witchcraft. Now I am certain that some deviant individual is playing a hoax on the estate, they may even be a murderer. In your opinion do you think that Miss Richards is involved?”
Gertie hesitated. She knew they could not discount anyone, but her gut instinct told her Mary was innocent. She shook her head.
“My thoughts entirely. A shy young girl would make the perfect scapegoat for our hoaxer. Nigel and I will be looking into the ground staff today that worked with the late Mr Neville. I want you to keep your eyes open for anything out of the usual.”
“There was something strange last night, sir.”
“I woke up in the middle of the night and I struggled to get back to sleep, so I thought I would just stretch my legs. I was just climbing the stairs when I looked out into the gardens and I spotted a pair of burning flames by the orangery. They were burning a bluey green flame.”
“Interesting,” the Professor mused stroking his chin. “The coloured flame can easily be explained by the burning of copper. I suspect somebody added copper dust to a fire to create the effect.”
“The hoaxer you mean?”
“Precisely, I suspect to add another mysterious supernatural phenomenon for somebody to witness and assume witchcraft was involved.”
Gertie shifted uncomfortably in her seat. She wondered how he would feel about her finding a flaw in his theory.
“Sir,” she said with trepidation. “The hoaxer didn’t know that I would be looking out of the window. It would mean they were tending the fires on the off chance that somebody would spot them.”
“True. I suspect that they have been lighting the fires for a few nights and hoping that somebody would see. I can think of no other explanation.”
There was a light tap against the door and Mr Gates returned with a pot of tea and a cup for the Professor. Failing to hide his displeasure he placed the tray on the table and left the room.
The Professor gestured to the pot of tea with a wave of his hand. Gertie understood immediately. He was perfectly capable of pouring his own drink but was either too idle or too conditioned into expecting somebody to wait on him.
“I don’t think he is very happy about you using his office,” Gertie said pouring him a cup of tea.
“He is just a butler. They are all like that. Mr Pickles, my brother’s butler, has served my family for nearly forty years and constantly wears a frown that could curdle milk. Trust me butlers take their role very seriously. Now where were we?”
“We were talking about the flames I saw. I went out into the gardens, to get a better look, sir.”
“You did?” the Professor said startled enough to spill some tea down his chin. He dapped at it with his handkerchief. “You are made of stern stuff. You have the courage of a lion, Miss Stubbs. We had better not tell Nigel he will only have kittens at the idea. Did you find anyone in the garden?”
“No, sir, but as I approached the flames they vanished and when I got to where they had been, there was no sign that they had ever been there.”
“Well do you think that you may have dreamed the whole thing.”
“No sir. I mentioned what I saw to Mary this morning and she called them fairy lights.”
“Ignis Fatuus or fool’s fire if you prefer,” the Professor said with a smile. Gertie looked at him blankly. Professor Ashcroft liked nothing more than lecturing, or as he saw it sharing his knowledge, and for a moment his headache was forgotten about. “Also known as the will-‘o-the-wisp. Supposedly the mystical fires are lit by fairies, pixies or some other magical being to lure people off the road. Most of the time the unsuspecting traveller ends up falling in a bog, lost in the woods, or lured to the edge of the cliff. Sometimes the traveller is led to hidden treasure. Ignis Fatuus do exist but I am certain you didn’t see them last night.”
Gertie frowned, unsure whether he was playing some sort of joke on her. The Professor dismissed all notions of the supernatural as fanciful, it surly wasn’t possible that he believed in fairies?
“You think fairies exist?”
“Of course not. Fairies are just superstitious nonsense. Ignis Fatuus has a perfectly rational explanation that we do not need to result to tales of little winged people. Ignis Fatuus is caused by the combustion of gas emitted from decomposing organic matter. The phenomenon occurs in marshes, bogs or swamps where you can get a build up of rotting material. Precisely for that reason I can be certain that is not what you saw. We are in the rocky hills not in some fetid swamp. Trust me the flames you saw were made by our hoaxer.”
Professor Ashcroft rose to his feet. He stumbled and grabbed hold of the desk to steady himself.
“Just a little unsteady on my feet. It is this blasted migraine. Nothing to worry about,” he said noticing her look of concern. “I think I will have a little lie down and get my strength back. Keep vigilant Miss Stubbs and we will talk again tomorrow.”
Tuesday 11th of September 1860 Part 3
Professor Ashcroft strode along the garden path like a man on a mission. Nigel followed wearily behind. His arm ached from carrying the Professor’s heavy bag. The contents jangled together with every step.
“Hurry up, Nigel. We do not have all day,” the Professor called over his shoulder without stopping. A morning’s rest had rejuvenated him. His hangover was forgotten about and he was determined to make up for the missed morning. It didn’t help that Nigel and Hattie had been late returning from their morning ride and the Professor was determined not to let him forget the fact
“You may be treating this like a holiday. Galivanting around with Miss Berwick,” the Professor said. “But we have serious work to do.”
“Sir, it was your idea for me to go riding with Hattie.”
“That is no excuse for wasting most of the day. Really, Nigel you have to start taking responsibility for your own actions. I think you should try to be like Gertie she is making real progress in our investigation.”
“You have seen her?”
“Nigel, I do listen to your whinging. I had a meeting with her this morning while you were off on your fun ride. She has seen evidence of the hoaxer at work.”
“Last night she saw some mysterious flames in the garden. The girl has courage. She even went out to investigate, but they were gone.”
Nigel shook his head annoyed. He had asked her not to take risks and at the first opportunity she ignored him. He thought she would have learnt the dangers after what happened at the circle. She must have gone out in the garden after leaving his room. She could have come back and got him. Marching ahead the Professor was oblivious to his frustration.
“She has informed me the flames burnt blue. This can be achieved by adding copper to the fire. The fact the flames were gone by the time she reached them only proves we are dealing with a hoaxer. Perhaps if you knuckle down and focus on the investigation you might also come up with some interesting leads.”
The Professor stopped outside the tool shed. Nigel looked through a nearby gate into the walled garden. A pair of gardeners were working amongst the rows of vegetables. Nigel recognised them as pallbearers from the funeral. The Professor circled the shed. Nigel followed examining the red brick building. It had a heavy wooden door and the only windows were small portholes near the roof for ventilation.
“This is where Mr Neville was discovered,” the Professor said. “Just to remind you of the facts. He was found barricaded inside the building. From our inspection it is safe to say the only other way in and out of the building is via the windows. Yet we both agree that not even a child could fit through them. Now when the door was broken open Mr Neville was found dead. It looked as if had been beaten to death by a mystery assailant. Furthermore his eyes and tongue were missing and to this day they have not been found. As he was barricaded from the inside it has been assumed that Mr Neville carried out self-mutilation.”
“That seems a little bit unlikely, sir.”
“On the contrary. Inflicted by bouts of madness people can commit the most unbelievable acts. It does not see out of the realms of possibility that Mr Neville inflicted these appalling injuries on himself. Now our job is to go in there and look for anything may have been missed on previous searches.”
With that the Professor pushed open the door.
What Happens Next Is Up to You. Cast Your Vote To Decide. Whatever Recieves The Most Votes Will Happen Next
Voting Closes Monday 25th May 2020
Eighth Instalment Published Friday 29 May 2020