The Reverend Joseph Binks removed his spectacles and polished them with a large pocket handkerchief, before replacing them on the bridge of his nose with fastidious care. He picked up the note and read it again with a sigh.
“Squire Herbert’s mother has fallen dangerously ill and he has summoned me to attend her without delay. She is in great need of spiritual comfort, he says.”
“It really is too bad dear,” replied his wife, pouring herself another cup of tea. The lid of the silver teapot rattled, faintly, as she returned it to the tray. “How will you get there? Your sister is not yet back from Gloucester with the pony and trap.”
“I will just have to walk, Clara. I cannot wait for Cicely’s return and leave the poor woman in agonies of the soul.” His wife ‘tsked’ and rolled her eyes.
“But it will take you ages to walk to the hall.”
“On the contrary, my dear, I can be there in three quarters of an hour if I take the short cut.” He saw the colour drain from his wife’s face.
“Through Hangman’s Copse!” she exclaimed. “You know that place has an evil reputation, and,” her voice dropped to a hoarse whisper, “the black dog has been seen again recently. Old Mrs. Jenkins says her sister’s niece saw it quite clearly. You wouldn’t!”
“Stuff and nonsense, my dear, mere idle country gossip and tittle-tattle – I shall put my trust in the Lord. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”
“But have you not heard?” interrupted his wife. “That ruffian Tovey has escaped from Gloucester gaol. You know what he swore to do to you after his trial. It makes my blood run cold to think of him somewhere out there.” She gave small, ladylike, shudder.
“Dearest Clara, if Tovey has any sense he will be long gone by now. He will not be lurking about on a damp autumn evening in a, so called, haunted wood in order to wreak some form of petty revenge on a country parson.”
“Have it your way, husband, but if it were me, I would wait until the trap was available and go by the main road.”
“If I wait for the trap, the pony will be too tired to go out again. As I have already said, I will put my trust in the Lord and walk. The exercise will do me good.”
Mrs. Binks merely sniffed and sipped her tea.
Reverend Binks shivered as the chill of the evening air struck him. Calling out a cheery, “farewell Clara, don’t wait up” to his wife, he shut his front door and turned up his coat collar. The laurel bushes that surrounded the rectory garden and the trees on the other side of the road dripped, forlornly, in the thin drizzle. Leaving his gate, he followed the road for a hundred or so yards and then turned to his left, taking a bridle path that ran uphill. Hangmen’s Copse lowered at him from the crest of the ridge.
A strange oppression of his spirits descended on him as he entered the copse and he began to notice an odd smell. He paused and inhaled deeply, it was the unmistakable odour of wet dog. He had had a morbid fear of the animals, ever since he had been badly bitten by a maiden aunt’s over exuberant terrier when he was a young boy. Looking around wildly he saw … nothing, but the muddy path and, rain sodden, foliage. Taking a deep breath to steady his nerves he walked on.
The feelings of unease grew steadily – was that pattering sound the rain on the leaf litter? No it sounded more like the footfalls of a large dog keeping pace with him. He could hear the muffled clink of a chain and, when he stopped, the panting of the creature’s breath just behind his shoulder.
Panic began to grip him at the thought of his, unseen, companion. When he heard a low growl, his nerve failed him for a moment and he stopped abruptly. Something coarse, hairy and damp brushed against the back of his hand. A frightened whimper escaped his lips and he plunged on deeper into the trees, muttering prayers of protection. As the light failed, he could see from the corner of his eye the vague outline of a huge dog. And, as the darkness deepened, the animal’s form became more solid until he could clearly make out its rough, shaggy pelt, the short length of broken chain that dangled from its collar and the dull, red glow of its eyes. His feelings of dread intensified and it was all he could do to force himself to carry on walking.
“Why are persecuting me, hellhound?” he muttered.
As he reached the middle of the copse, the dog stopped, stock still, and stood with its legs stiff and its hackles raised. It was snarling in an alarming manner. Then, with a ferocious burst of energy, it charged into the bushes. Reverend Binks could hear the snapping of twigs as the creature forced its way through the undergrowth. Then his ears were assaulted by an explosion of noise – a deep throated bark followed by a cry of fear that ended in choking sob and a soft bubbling sound, then a silence so profound that even the trees appeared to have ceased their dripping.
After a moment or two, the dog reappeared back at the Reverend’s side, something dark and sticky dripping from its jaws. This was all too much; Reverend Binks gave a sob of fear and broke into a run, something he had not done since he was at school. His journey through the copse was a waking nightmare, his lungs burned and his legs ached with the, unaccustomed, effort. Every muscle in his body screamed at him to stop and rest, but all the time he was driven onwards by the sound of the pattering feet and the clink of the chain as the dog kept pace with him.
The feelings of fear and oppression fell from him as he burst out of the trees. He skidded to a halt and stood panting, looking back at the copse. The dog was standing by the last of the trees, making no effort the leave their shelter. It appeared to be … shrinking. No, on closer inspection, it was sinking, slowly but steadily, into the ground.
Reverend Binks sat with the old lady until ‘she departed this vale of tears,’ as he put it, in the small hours of the morning. Having heard his story – he was spattered with mud and still visibly shaken on his arrival at the manor house – Squire Herbert put him up for, what remained of the night, in a guest bedroom. Next morning, after a hearty breakfast, he sent him home in a dog cart.
It was on the following day, as Reverend Binks and Clara were taking afternoon tea, that the end of the story was finally revealed.
“Oh, I say,” exclaimed Clara from behind the newspaper she was reading. “It would appear that that scoundrel Tovey has been discovered … he’s dead. It says here that Squire Herbert’s gamekeeper found his body in the middle of Hangman’s Copse yesterday morning.” She paused for a moment as she scanned the rest of the article. “Oh, how awful! The Coroner has stated that his throat appears to have been torn out by some wild creature, probably a large dog.”
Reverend Binks removed his spectacles and polished them with a large pocket handkerchief, before replacing them on the bridge of his nose with fastidious care. Then, he sipped his tea and looked thoughtful.