James Roderick Burns

A Doctrine of Signatures

IT WAS PERHAPS the only thing absent from Forty Years in a Moorland Parish, the small volume he had published in 1891 to memorialise life on the Yorkshire moors, and which he had not meant to stand above his works of philology, natural history or archaeology (and indeed, his long and fruitful years as a priest); yet which had – which had.

He touched its ridged green spine, lifted the cover and brushed his fingertips over the silky marbled endpapers, but the customary smile would not come.


‘Gennelm’n to see you, sir,’ said Martha, tapping gingerly at the study door.

‘I beg your pardon?’

Canon Atkinson looked up, expecting some trifling domestic disturbance that could be dispatched at a moment’s notice, but the maid remained, standing resolute in the doorway.

Gennelm’n, sir.’

He sighed.  The Gentleman’s Magazine, having approved his 1858 article on the natural history of the kestrel, was desirous this year of another on a topic of his choosing, but its composition was not going well.  The doctrine of signatures – a belief amongst the ancients that God shaped elements of the botanical world so as to reveal their fitness for treatment of similarly-shaped parts of the human body, thus Liverwort & c. – was stubbornly resisting his intended treatment: viz, events in the moral life of Adam’s stock similarly bodying forth a divine purpose, shaped and filled with meaning according to their individual contours.

It was not so much the idea itself as its practical application.  With rich and bitter irony, he saw the truth of it: ever the interruption, ever the retardation of growth!  The canon shrugged on a house jacket and made his way downstairs.  A familiar figure, rising, blotted out the parlour light for a moment.


‘Angus?  To what do I owe this pleasure?’

‘Nothing good, sir.  The – ah, the Lodge staff.  There has been an incident.’

‘Incident?  Of what sort?  Do you require my services?’

‘I think it best if you come and see for yourself.’

Even on the foulest of days it was less than a half hour’s walk across the dale.  He doubted much more could be added to the article today, so begging a moment to change into more appropriate attire, the Canon set out with his friend into the warm light of an autumn afternoon.


At his desk, some thirty years later, he recalled with grim precision the innocent sensations blooming in his chest as they tramped along.  Here a rabbit’s hind-legs, delightful and quick amidst a pile of leaves, then just as suddenly gone into the hedge – a rise of hope.  There darkening skies, a line of trees cracking to lacework in a freshening wind – perhaps the first notes of unease.

The Lodge keeper, Angus McFall, was not a garrulous man.  His lack of words, bequeathed no doubt by his ancestors, had only been confirmed by a lifetime of Yorkshire taciturnity.  Yet even in comparison with his usual practice, he kept the cards close to his chest during the journey, meeting the canon’s enquiries with mere grunts, one single, grudging response:

‘Best wait for the Lodge.’

At length they turned in at Holly Lodge gate.  A constable was already planted there, long-arrived from Whitby by the looks of his loose posture; the keeper nodded solemnly at him as they passed.  John’s heart sank at the changed appearance of the yard, normally so clean and chalk-bright: rope strung tight across the door, flagstones splashed with clabber and kennels firmly bolted shut.  Behind the windows nothing whatsoever showed.  McFall steered him through a smaller side gate onto the moor.

‘Angus, I – ’

‘All will be clear, John, in a moment.  Please.  The beck.’


Since his arrival from Cambridge a few years before, the flow and chatter of the brook had charmed him (so, too, the moorland birds and springy bracken, the lowing of cows and salty speech of the people).  It was silted and boggy in places, but still ran the length of the dale like a tune unspooling from a silver fife.

In one low-lying patch, near the sweep of a bend, lay a figure: a woman, boots trailing, her arm bent unnaturally underneath her body.  The canon ran down to the woman before his friend could stop him, grasped her shoulder and pulled her face from the water.


He knew her.  Knew her, but knew not this pinched and dreadful visage.  He knew her radiant with life, full and pale as milk; she’d sat each week like a welcoming star in his little church’s firmament, psalter clasped in mended gloves, bonnet sprigged with heather.  John looked up at the keeper with terror and bewilderment in his eyes, but McFall was shaking his head.  The canon sobbed, took the dead girl in his lap.  His foot slipped down into the brook, but he hardly noticed.  The leg of his tweeds drank in the frigid water.  Minutes passed.

‘Angus?’ asked the canon.

The keeper merely shook his head again, gesturing with a shaking hand for the vicar to lay down his charge.  In a dumb fugue they stumbled through damp ferns to the solidity of the hunting lodge.


‘Mrs Pease?  Mrs Pease!  Tea.’

McFall slumped behind his office desk; Canon Atkinson in the supplicant’s chair, brushing listlessly, ineffectually at the lines of his damp suit.  At last the keeper raised his head.  The question could keep no longer, but he could not get it out.

‘She was in the rudest of health, John.  A young woman, attending well to her duties, joking with the stable-boy.  Just yesterday she petted her favourite hound and laughed, the boy said.’

‘So why, before God?  What has happened?  Why?’

Into the silence the housekeeper brought tea.  They waited till she left before attempting to speak.

‘That’s why you’re here, John.’  The keeper’s voice was soft.  ‘The surgeon’s already been and gone, insisted she be left in situ for some photographic monkey-work.  The constable’s here to ensure it.  She was – ah, John.  In a – she was in a delicate way.’

Angus picked up the pot and filled the ticking quiet with the gurgle of tea.

‘I – I did not know.’

‘How could you?’

‘I – well, perhaps not.  Yet, Angus …’

He sat, fingers plucking at his knees like a hound nipping fleas.  She had been a good lass – stout and open, a hard worker with loving family in town, and a faithful member of his flock.  He supposed now he must saddle up for that sad family duty.  How to tell of such tragedy?  Not merely the loss of young life, but at a person’s own hand.  He thought again of the cold brook and what could have driven her there.

The clock grew ever more present, its works clunking relentlessly on.  Angus stood, came around the desk to lay a hand on his friend’s shoulder.

‘Perhaps I should have said, John.  I – well, that’s to say, after talking with the surgeon, and the constable before coming to fetch you … ’

Outside, a pigeon flapped up from the gable end of the barn, cutting apart the shine of the leather on the desk top for a moment.  He glanced at the squire’s portrait, severe and resplendent in oils above the fireplace.  Behind the commanding stance, strong fingers resting possessively on a gundog’s head, was a gleam of something other captured in the lustrous paint.

‘John, I have my suspicions … ’

The canon stood, gasping, as the clock struck six.

‘God in heaven!’

He felt each stroke grate like the lever by a hangman’s drop.


With his hand on Forty Years still, the board and paper fat and comforting beneath his fingers, it was hard to recall the worst moments – for moments there surely were – he had worked to keep from between its covers.  The death of his first wife.  A smashed pulpit and ransacked cupboards, the work of a madman in search of the Hand of Glory.  (This gruesome object, a waxen hand chopped down from the gibbet said to make the bearer invisible, had gone to a museum decades before.  Its mummified stump could no longer protect a burglar from beneath a thick plate of glass.)  Even the discovery of witch-marks on a doorway – unholy, foolish symbols, and brazen words from the so-called wise-woman.

Yet this event – this murder, he chided himself; this brute, unhallowed removal – stood above them all, its black detail chiselled on his heart like the workings of some filthy scrimshaw.  He could not forget it.  Nor, in all its terror, its pity, did he wish to.


A month later – six weeks, perhaps – and all appeared settled: the death, duly registered and assigned the category of suicide, became another line in a ledger.  The surgeon refused to discuss it, giving the canon to understand in most ungentlemanly language that he wished to think on it no further.  The keeper simply took it to heart.  Each time John called, he was out: with hounds, tracking the fields, once absent with no word at all.  A new lodge maid curtsied and departed.

The Gentleman’s Magazine allowed him a further month before dispatching a polite editor’s enquiry.  Their readership had so enjoyed his natural dispatches on the kestrel; might there be, by chance, a further article forthcoming from the canon?  In the study he worked through the dry histories of Liverwort, Feverfew, Johnny-Jump-Up, pursuing these exploded theories in hope of some more modern and enlightening spiritual application, but found his own heart absent.  It rested elsewhere, cold and unsearchable.  At last his resolve collapsed and he offered a gentle wander through the glories of the Yorkshire dialect.  The editor was pleased; doubtless his readership, also.

When the post came, the canon cashed his cheque and stuffed the alms-box with damp, unfeeling fingers.

At the next opportunity he let his subscription lapse.


James Roderick Burns’ fourth short-form collection, Height of Arrows, is due from Duck Lake Books in 2020.  His work has appeared in American Tanka, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and Modern Haiku, as well as a short fiction chapbook, A Bunch of Fives.  He lives in Edinburgh and serves as Deputy Registrar General for Scotland.

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