Church

You will have heard of Sherringham, the lawyer, I'm sure. Most people have. I know him but slightly, although I have been fortunate enough to hear this curious tale from his own lips. It concerns an episode from his personal history which took place in 1870 or thereabouts, long before he became the celebrated figure that he is today. At that time he had just come down from Cambridge and was due to be apprenticed to a firm of solicitors in Russell Square when he was struck down by some malady that quite set him aback for a space. So it was that, on the advice of his physician, he decided to spend some time in the country in order that he might recuperate.

I don't know the name of the village that he chose as his retreat. Sherringham was vague upon the subject, perhaps deliberately so, saying only that it was a picturesque and moderately-sized settlement somewhere in Oxfordshire. He described his delight upon seeing the place for the first time after alighting from the train: the tumbledown cottages that gathered around the village green, the Saxon church with its sturdy walls of flint and chert, the road that wound around the buildings, twisting and turning and folding back on itself. There were few other distractions, just a grocery shop and a tavern with the unusual designation of The Hedgehog King, an establishment which we will visit later in this account. For now we must be content with Sherringham's first impressions, which were favourable since he owns that once the locomotive that had brought him to this idyll had steamed out of earshot, a silence descended quite unlike anything he had known before, punctuated only with a little birdsong and the soft breath of the wind.

The house in which Sherringham had arranged to stay was a former manor whose owners had transformed it into a guesthouse for paying customers. It had been recommended to him by, I believe, a school friend and was about a mile from the village. He had hoped there might have been a dog cart on hand to convey him thence, but there was no such transport to be had and so he had no choice but to walk. This inconvenience was one that he very quickly met with gratitude, for it afforded him the opportunity of a pleasant stroll and very soon he began to feel reinvigorated by his surroundings.

His path took him along a neat little coach road which looped around the perimeter of an ancient wood of alder, oak and ash. Before him, and to the right, he had a near uninterrupted view of rolling farmland, dotted here and there with an occasional building or copse, climbing up to a ridge in the far distance. The afternoon sun was bright, though not warm, and so low in the winter sky that it induced him to squint.

Sherringham was delighted with all of it, and became all the more overjoyed when his destination came in sight. It was, he reports, a most curious building. To this day he famously has a passion for matters architectural - you may have read his monograph on the subject - so you can imagine his elation at finding that his home for the week was to be a manor house built on the model of many similar seventeenth century buildings, but boasting the most extraordinary agglomeration of alterations and additions. At some stage in its history, some person of the most astonishing audacity and imagination had done their level best to transform the place into a ramshackle simulacrum of a medieval castle. It was fabricated on a much smaller scale, of course, and it was certainly not a fortification in any functioning sense: the turret that teetered over the west wing most probably concealed a chimney stack and it was unlikely that there was easy access to the battlements that crowned the façade. It was a folly but, in its own way, a charming one and Sherringham couldn't help but beam in satisfaction as he tromped up the gravel driveway.

He says nothing of how he passed the rest of the day, although he speaks with some affection of the highly individual nature of the house and its furnishings. It isn't necessary to dwell upon his observations here, save to mention one detail whose significance I will make plain in a later portion of this story: a suit of armour that stood in the main hall, in front of a portrait of a figure wearing the same. It struck him quite powerfully upon his arrival and he had the opportunity to examine it more closely the following morning before he went in to breakfast.

Never having professed to be an expert in such matters, Sherringham freely admits that he had no idea of its antiquity, but he estimated from its general state of dilapidation that it was medieval rather than a more modern reproduction. He was wrong in this regard, although the error is understandable since the metal plates were buckled and pitted with tiny indentations, like pinpricks. It had been posed in such a way that one leg was slightly raised and the right arm was held aloft. A shield was strapped to the other limb and was held across the body, and this too was similarly distressed.

The entire tableau was evidently meant to closely approximate the attitude of the figure in the picture behind. This was a portrait of a heavily whiskered gentleman of about fifty, wearing this very suit of armour prior to it having sustained damage. Sherringham observed that the upstretched arm in the portrait wielded a sword, a highly decorated weapon with an ornate hilt and emerald pommel, but such a magnificent object was disappointingly absent from the display.

Field

He would have to make every effort to find out more during the course of his stay, he decided, but for now his immediate concern dealt with the subject of breakfast. As far as he was aware, there were only two other people staying in the house at the time. One was a young woman whom he had noticed sketching in the garden the previous day. The other was somewhat plump middle-aged man called Mr Barnaby, a commercial traveller who supplied local estates. Barnaby was the only other occupant in the breakfast room as he entered, but he was absorbed in the study of a catalogue of agricultural equipment and so Sherringham sat in silence and contemplated how he might spend his day. It didn't take him too long to decide upon his itinerary: he was keen to explore the area and he wasn't so frail that he would permit the thick bands of early morning mist to dissuade him. On completing his meal he went to his room, dug out his thick coat, pulled on a stout pair of boots and set out to enjoy the countryside.

The morning was spent profitably in wandering along footpaths and farm tracks, allowing himself to be guided by impulse and caprice. By midday he had found his way to the ridge that he had noticed upon his arrival, which feature revealed itself to be an old trackway. He followed its course until it delivered him to the remnants of a Neolithic hill fort and from here he had an excellent view of his surroundings. Looking down he could trace the line of the railway as it bisected the landscape, as a knife might score a piece of paper. Then there was the village and beside it the woodland, stretching west and south west until it touched the horizon. Before it, curving around its edge in an almost complete horseshoe, was the coach road and it occurred to him that had he cut through the woods the previous day he might have halved the distance between the village and the manor.

By this time the sun had finally emerged to boil away the morning mists, although damp wreaths still hung around in places, particularly over the top of the dark mass of trees. Sherringham gave an involuntary shudder and quickly turned his thoughts to the subject of lunch. He reasonably supposed that something might be obtained at the tavern in the village and so, taking a sighting on the church tower, he started down the hill.

There were just two other patrons enjoying the hospitality of The Hedgehog King when he arrived, further enhancing the impression that the village was almost deserted. The landlord was a wiry and sallow gentleman, somewhat withdrawn in comparison with most others in his profession, but he was not unhospitable and informed Sherringham that he could provide him with a light collation of bread and meat. Sherringham took a seat beside the fire while he waited for it to be brought to him, feeling tired but contented by the exertions of the morning. The tavern was small but discerningly appointed, with miniatures and brasses decorating its whitewashed walls. By far the most striking aspect was the fireplace, whose black mahogany surround was ornamented with carvings: long sinuous trunks ran upwards and curled round in spirals in stylised depictions of trees, branches and foliage; folded up within them were representations of numerous small round creatures. Sherringham squinted in the hope of identifying them and when recognition finally struck he could not help but give his discovery voice.

"Good grief, those things are hedgehogs!"

"Yes sir," the landlord confirmed as he arrived with Sherringham's meal. "I'm told that the design is unique in all of England, as is the name of this house."

"Yes, yes - The Hedgehog King!" Sherringham enthused. "I feel sure there should be some extraordinary tale behind it. You must tell me."

The landlord appeared uncomfortable upon receiving this request but he reluctantly acquiesced. "I'm not so sure about extraordinary," he said ruefully. "A lot of silliness, it is. There's a local tradition that the Hedgehog King has dominion over Collier's Wood and suffers no man to set foot there after dark."

"Collier's Wood - the wood on the edge of the village?"

"Indeed sir," the landlord confirmed. "And such a d----d lot of nonsense I never did hear. All the invention of Sir Ronald, I'm sure."

"Sir Ronald?"

"Sir Ronald Collier. Lord of the Manor some hundred and fifty years ago. You're staying at the manor, I take it? Yes, well, by all accounts that was just your regular country house before Sir Ronald took up residence, and did his best to turn it into a castle afore gallivanting around in a tin suit like something left over from the Battle of Agincourt."

"Quite! I've seen his portrait. So, a regular Don Quixote then?"

The landlord shrugged. "Well, I'm sure I don't know anything about your Mr Quixote, but Sir Ronald certainly had a bee in his bonnet about something. He insisted that there was this thing living in the woods, the Hedgehog King he said, and he pledged to meet it in mortal combat and see that the creature was vanquished. And when he did - or leastways, when he said he did - he commissioned this here carving and renamed this tavern in honour of the event."

Sherringham studied the carvings again. He could see why the landlord might be embarrassed by the tale. "You don't approve of this little bit of whimsy?"

"Well, I don't reckon it does us any favours. Makes us out to be superstitious yokels to visitors like yourself. If I had my way I'd tear all this out and we'd make a bonfire of it. If I had my way. Unfortunately, this tavern and nigh on half the village is still owned by the Collier family, so my hands are tied."

Having given his opinion, the landlord left Sherrigham to his lunch, which, by all accounts must have been a good one for afterwards he drowsily settled back into his chair and stared contentedly into the fire. The warmth, combined with the hypnotic flicker of the flames, did its work and he began to feel his eyelids drooping. He dozed for a little while but before sleep took hold of him completely he quite unexpectedly became fully alert to the feeling that he was being watched. He flinched, startled from his reverie, and then leaned forward towards the fire as the glowing coals crackled and spat. The temperature had dropped, or so it seemed to him, and there was a sensation as if of ice flooding through his body. Here was something horrible, something nameless and primordial; he felt it, but didn't see it; knew it, but it was unknown. The dancing halo of light cast around the fireplace seemed to make the carvings come to life, shapes twisting and cavorting on the edge of his vision. But it was the heart of the fire that drew his gaze. He leaned in closer, closer, his breath held, his hands gripping the arms of the chair. Then he saw it - just for a moment. His mouth fell open in a silent, gaping yawn as he fixed upon two eyes deep amongst the embers, red and blazing and watching him with an unnerving intensity.

He sat back with a cry and then the apparition was gone. Something terrible must have told upon his face, for the landlord, who had come to collect his plate, was full of concern.

"Is everything all right sir?"

"What? Yes, yes, I think... Yes absolutely fine I - " Sherringham ran a hand over his face. "I've not been too well just lately; not quite myself." He got shakily to his feet, announcing that fresh air would no doubt do him the world of good, then after settling his bill he made for the door.

"Perhaps we'll see you tonight at the concert?" the landlord asked, and in answer to Sherringham's confused expression he added: "In the church - the local choir give a recital every month. It's very popular."

Sherringham doesn't recollect his response. Clearly he was still feeling the effects of his recent illness and his overriding thought was to get outside. Once he was out in the open the confusion began to pass, but he felt frail and uneasy. A few hours' sleep might be what was needed and so he started to walk back to the manor with all haste. As the coach road delivered him to the outskirts of the village he noticed for the first time a footpath that departed from the road and trailed into the woods. Might this be the shortcut that he felt sure must exist? Should he chance it? Undecided, he stood for a while, looking along the path as it plunged into the dark canopy of trees and once again he shivered: a faded echo of the feeling that had come over him as he had sat beside the fire.

No, he would not. He told himself that he could not be certain that it wouldn't lead him elsewhere and although he noted a corresponding path emerging from the woods as he reached the manor, he could not regret his decision. There had been something unsettling about those woods; something that had quickened his step as he had paced along the road. He had felt, imagined perhaps, that something had been watching him from the gloom, a thousand tiny eyes hidden amongst the leaves and branches, and it was with some relief that he left the road and hurried up the drive to his lodgings.

He felt much better after he had rested. There was still some vestige of unease, as though he was affected by the nebulous sensations of a half-remembered dream. Could he recollect being lost in the midst of an endless woodland, panic rising as he became conscious of many, many tiny red eyes watching him from the blackness? Could he remember running and running and running, and all the while something malevolent and indistinct always and forever at his heels? He shook the sensations clear, dismissed these thoughts from his head and by the time he went down to dinner he recalled nothing of them.

Afterwards, he once more paused before the suit of armour and the portrait that he now knew to be Sir Ronald Collier. It was easy to see that the artist had captured something wild and unsettling about his subject. Perhaps it was the way those eyes glared out with something halfway between fear and manic zeal. A man haunted by his delusions, perhaps?

"What do you make of him?" asked a voice at his elbow.

Track

Sherringham turned to find the young lady whom he had espied sketching in the gardens the day before. This was Miss Banks: he had briefly been introduced to her at dinner, and now she furnished him with the additional information that she was a distant relation of the Collier family. Anxious to avoid any allusions to insanity that might run in her line, Sherringham evaded the question and substituted it with one of his own. "You're an artist?" he asked, pointing to the sketchpad in her hand.

"Only in a strictly amateur sense," she admitted. "I thought I might soak up some atmosphere. And of course, I'm curious about him." Sherringham followed her gaze to the picture and felt it would be safe to reveal what he had learnt about Sir Ronald from the landlord at The Hedgehog King. "You're lucky to have found out so much," she said once he had concluded his account. "They're not proud of him. Of course, you don't believe the tales?"

Sherringham was slightly taken off guard by her manner. She was challenging him to believe something that was absolutely ludicrous and she smiled at his puzzled silence. "Look at the armour, Mr Sherringham. What do you think caused that damage?" Sherringham took a closer look at the battered armour, pockmarked with little dents. Could those marks be, no, surely not... could they have been made by tiny spines?

"They call them pricklemice," Miss Banks said. "Local dialect word for hedgehogs. Charming, don't you think?" When Sherringham looked back she was gone.

Sherringham had no wish to return to his room and, being at a loose end, he was reminded of the invitation to the choir recital and decided that he might as well look in. He was glad that he did as it afforded him the opportunity to see the village in a different light, for the church was quite packed and it happily dispelled the impression that the entire place had been abandoned. After the concert he found himself falling into conversation with a number of the locals and in consequence it was late by the time that he left. So late, in fact, that he considered whether to seek a room at the tavern rather than walk back to the manor, but ultimately he dismissed the idea. After all, it wasn't far. In fact, the journey might take no time at all if he cut through the woods. Some hours had passed since the sun had gone down but there was a bright moon to light his way, and as he came upon the point where the woodland path met the road he saw that it presented itself as broad and well defined. Any reticence to explore that he may have felt previously had now well and truly dissipated and before very long the familiar coach road was out of sight behind him.

The going seemed easy enough at first: the ground was firm and dry, and bright columns of moonlight struck down through the canopy to guide him, but gradually he began to feel uneasy. There was something uncomfortable in the silence. When he stopped to listen, all he could hear was a soft whispering from above as the wind played through the tops of the trees. Over this, the thunderous sound of his own passage as he rustled through the fallen leaves was hideously conspicuous. He began to fancy that from the dark spaces that the moonlight couldn't touch he was being watched by a thousand tiny eyes which tracked his journey, like something from a half-remembered dream.

He hastened onwards, ever more eager to emerge at his destination, but the path grew narrower and became more overgrown until finally it split in two and offered Sherringham an unlooked for choice. The left hand fork was broader and more clearly marked but it seemed to rise upwards, which indicated that it was likely to lead deeper into the woods. The other way was the more obvious option as it continued on in a more or less straight line, but it was dark, overgrown and looked barely used.

As he paused to consider, Sherringham was startled by a sharp blow to his shoulder from something which fell from above, and he cried out more in alarm than in pain. Wheeling around he saw something small and round shuffling off into the undergrowth. He put his hand beneath his shirt where the object had struck and when he pulled it away he could see that it was covered with tiny spots of blood; little red pinpricks arranged in a regular pattern. As he wondered at this he shuddered at the sound of another falling object close by. This time he saw what it was before it could hide: a hedgehog which can only have fallen from the branches above him. Fallen, or jumped. An absurd vision of the creature leaping from the treetops passed through his mind, but he hardly had any time to consider this before he detected the sounds of further falls all around him. One creature struck him aside his head and he cried out. It was tangled in his hair, hissing and squealing, and frantically he tore it free, hurled it aside and began to run, instinctively taking the narrow right hand path. All the while he could hear the continued sounds of the plummeting animals in his wake, hurling themselves from the trees. He was outdistancing them, thankfully, but then he found his way blocked by a tangle of thick bushes.

Sherringham says that at that moment he felt terror like nothing he had ever experienced before. He knew he was trapped, that there was no way back, and the only escape was to desperately fight his way through the obstacle. The branches tore at his clothes, clawed at his skin as if they were alive, holding him down, smothering him in clammy leaves and cobwebs. Then, he knew not how, he burst though into a clearing, where he slumped down upon the earth, exhausted.

All he heard as he sat there was the thumping of the blood in his ears and his own laboured breathing, and he recalls that for some indeterminate time he did not care to move. His energies were spent, but eventually, sluggishly, he regained his senses and an interest in his immediate surroundings. The noise of falling animals seemed to be absent but now he could hear something new: a kind of soft, gentle scratching or ticking noise. Before him, in the centre of the clearing, illuminated by a shaft of silver as if it stood in a spotlight, was an oak tree. It was very old and largely hollow and Sherringham fancied that he could make out a faint red glow emanating from a void in its trunk.

After all that he had just experienced, Sherringham didn't know how he had the nerve to investigate the phenomenon, but he somehow felt drawn to it. He climbed to his feet and tentatively approached, leaning into the hole in the trunk and peering down into the dark cavity. There was something glinting, something only just within reach. He manoeuvred so that he could get his arm down inside and the tips of his fingers brushed the dry and crumbling interior of the trunk until they closed on a metal object. He adjusted his position again, got a firm grip and pulled. It wouldn't move at first, as if it was being held by something that was loathe to give it up. After one more heave he felt it working loose, and then with gathering momentum he pulled it free.

It was a sword and one that was entirely familiar to Sherringham for he had seen it before. The ornately decorated hilt, the emerald pommel - he knew with absolute certainty that this was Sir Ronald Collier's weapon as depicted in the portrait. But there was also something else: the red glow issuing up from the hollow trunk of the tree was brighter now. He craned into the hole once more and then with a sudden cry he fell back. He had seen an eye: a single, red glowing eye deep within the hollow oak, glaring like a red hot coal. And it had been looking at him.

He had no time to consider this vision, since from nowhere there erupted a rising storm of chattering, scratching and chirping. There was movement all around as every branch, every bough seemed suddenly full of spiny little creatures. They ran down every trunk, coursed through the fallen leaves in streams to converge on a spot in the centre of the clearing. Sherringham took a stumbling step backwards as he watched a growing mound of creatures running over each other, twisting, turning and somehow merging into a single mass. Still they came, more and ever more of them, running together until some hideous an unnatural entity began to form before him. It was a solid, spiky, malignant orb with one single demonic red eye glowing it its centre, growing, and growing, and growing. The Hedgehog King! Sherringham turned and he ran.

What Sherringham recollects of his terrified flight is, by his own admission, hazy and confused. He is not aware that he was in control of his own actions; rather he was in the grip of some primordial instinct to escape. He didn't look back but was aware that the creature was behind him. He heard it rolling through the woodland, crushing and scattering everything its path and letting nothing impede its journey. There was a moment, Sherringham acknowledges, when he feared that he would never leave Collier's Wood and the instant that he caught sight of the road beyond the trees is one that he still counts as one of the most joyous revelations of his life. Upon gaining the protection of the highway - for instinctively he knew that here he would be safe - he collapsed and remembers little else.

Wood

Sherringham later learnt how the staff at the manor had discovered him and put him to bed, where he had slept on until midday. It was Mr Barnaby who woke him by paying him a visit in order to reassure himself as to Sherringham's state of health. Barnaby had been amongst those who had helped him inside and related how shocked everyone had been to have discovered him in such distress. The tattered and torn appearance of his clothing suggested that he had been set upon by someone and the staff were anxious to know if they should call for the local constable.

"Everyone is also rather curious about that?" Barnaby added, pointing to the corner of the room. Sherringham sat up and looked to where Sir Ronald's sword was lying across a chair. For a moment the only thing he could see was that single burning red eye.

"It has to go back!" he said.

Barnaby was startled at the ferocity with which Sherringham spoke. "My dear fellow, whatever is going on?"

"Please, it must go back," Sherringham insisted, and as he looked at Barnaby the latter gentleman flinched for there must have been something of the same wild look in his eye that was present in Sir Ronald's portrait. "Mr Barnaby, I wonder if you would do me a very great favour, although I realise that I have no right to ask it." Sherringham then told him as much as he was able about the events of the previous night, and of his conviction that the sword must go back whence it came, and that it should do so as soon as possible. Mr Barnaby was rightly taken aback when Sherringham asked him to perform this service, but nevertheless agreed. Sherringham was relieved at his reply and some of the tenseness seemed to leave him instantly. "But mark you do it soon," he warned, "before darkness falls. And mark you thrust it deep into the heart of that old oak."

There ended Sherringham's story. He admits that there has never been any corroboration for his odd tale and he is quite prepared to accept that the entire episode might have been an hallucination occasioned by fatigue and stress, but he says there are still times when he dreams of that one horrible red eye.

Whereas this may be the end of Sherringham's account there is a sequel that came to me quite recently. There is a young man by the name of Barnaby who has lately been admitted to my club, and who tells a story concerning something that happened to his uncle during his time as a commercial traveller in and around Oxfordshire. Most of this narrative I'm sure I need not relate since it will already be familiar to you, but it does add one further detail. Mr Barnaby, it seems, followed Sherringham's directions most faithfully. He had no difficulty identifying the clearing and the oak tree from the description he had been given, and he carried out his instructions most faithfully, thrusting the sword deep into the hollow cavity as far as it would go. He has, according to his nephew, never made any comment as to the veracity of Sherringham's tale, but he does say this: upon plunging that sword down through the dry bark, he heard, most distinctly, a tiny heartfelt squeak.

 

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