The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens

sigAlthough better known for his novel length authentic views of the Victorian era, such as Oliver Twist, Bleak House or Great Expectations, Charles Dickens (1812-1870) was also a dab hand at the short and eerie.

The Signal-Man is a perfect example of that. It is a story about ghosts, fear, premonitions, the supernatural and the unexplainable.

The tale focuses on the two main characters, the signal-man and a gentleman out for an evening stroll. The latter is drawn into the strange experiences of the railway worker in a way the gentleman will never forget. The story begins with the gentleman trying to get the other man’s attention from the top of a steep hillside above the railway lines.

“Halloa! Below there!” instead of looking up to where I stood on the top of the steep cutting nearly over his head, he turned himself about, and looked down the Line

The gentleman on the hill found there was something remarkable or strange about the way the signal-man was looking around him for the origin of the voice. Instead of looking towards the sound he was looking down the line towards the entrance of the tunnel. Quite peculiar.

From looking down the Line, he turned himself about again, and, raising his eyes, saw my figure high above him.

He called to the signal-man enquiring whether it was alright for him to come down and speak to him.

Just then there came a vague vibration in the earth and air, quickly changing into a violent pulsation, When such vapour as rose to my height from this rapid train had passed me, – saw him refurling the flag he had shown while the train went by.

The signal-man seemed a little reluctant to show the man the path leading down the hill embankment.

he was a dark sallow man, with a dark beard and rather heavy eyebrows. His post was in as solitary and dismal a place as ever I saw.

The signal-man seemed distracted, as if still searching for something or someone.

He directed a most curious look towards the red light near the tunnel’s mouth, and looked all about it, as if something were missing from it, and then looked at me.

The gentleman asked him whether the the light was part of his charge or duty. The signal-man appeared uncertain of his answer, almost as if he wasn’t quite sure if it was part of his job.

The monstrous thought came into my mind, as I perused the fixed eyes and the saturnine face, that this was a spirit, not a man. I have speculated since, whether there may have been infection in his mind

At this point the gentleman begins to believe the signal-man may be a sandwich short of a picnic. Not quite there, as one says in these parts of the woods.

“You look at me,” I said, forcing a smile, “as if you had a dread of me.” “I was doubtful,” he returned, “whether I had seen you before.”“Where?” He pointed to the red light he had looked at. “There?” I said. Intently watchful of me, he replied (but without sound), “Yes.”

The two men spoke about the loneliness of the job and the solitary environment the signal-man spent the majority of his time in. Enough to make anyone just ever so slightly paranoid and susceptible to highly suggestive matters.

while he was speaking to me he twice broke off with a fallen colour, turned his face towards the little bell when it did not ring, opened the door of the hut, and looked out towards the red light near the mouth of the tunnel

The visitor remarked remarked that the signal-man seemed content, although he didn’t really mean it. Quite the opposite appeared to be the case.

I am troubled, sir, I am troubled.”“It is very difficult to impart, sir. It is very, very difficult to speak of. If ever you make me another visit, I will try to tell you.”

The two men agreed to speak about it when they next saw each other, so the visitor departed with the intent of returning the following night. He hoped he would be able to help the signal-man, perhaps put his troubled mind at ease.

 “till you have found the way up. When you have found it, don’t call out! And when you are at the top, don’t call out!”

The signal-man shone his white light along the path, so the visitor wouldn’t stumble on his up. As the visitor started up the path the troubled man asked him..

What made you cry, ‘Halloa! Below there!’ to-night?” “You had no feeling that they were conveyed to you in any supernatural way?”

The next night the visitor returned eager to hear what the signal-man had to say. He said he had mistaken the visitor for someone else. Someone who had spoken exactly the same words, whilst waving his arms about him in an apparently wild manner.

“I don’t know. I never saw the face. The left arm is across the face, and the right arm is waved,—violently waved. This way.”I followed his action with my eyes, and it was the action of an arm gesticulating, with the utmost passion and vehemence, “For God’s sake, clear the way!”

‘Halloa! Below there!’ I started up, looked from that door, and saw this Someone else standing by the red light near the tunnel, waving as I just now showed you. The voice seemed hoarse with shouting, and it cried, ‘Look out! Look out!’ And then again, ‘Halloa! Below there! Look out!’ I caught up my lamp, turned it on red, and ran towards the figure, calling, ‘What’s wrong? What has happened? Where?’ It stood just outside the blackness of the tunnel.

The signal-man said he had run into the tunnel, but there was nothing and no person to see. Nothing except the red of the warning light.

I telegraphed both ways, ‘An alarm has been given. Is anything wrong?’ The answer came back, both ways, ‘All well.’”

Nothing wrong, so he assumed it was a perhaps a figment of his imagination. Unfortunately the opposite turned out to be the case.

“Within six hours after the Appearance, the memorable accident on this Line happened, and within ten hours the dead and wounded were brought along through the tunnel over the spot where the figure had stood.”

The visitor shuddered with something akin to fear. A ghostly apparition, a premonition or just a coincidence? But the signal-man hadn’t finished his strange story yet. The events of the first appearance were over a year ago by the time he saw the figure again.

one morning, as the day was breaking, I, standing at the door, looked towards the red light, and saw the spectre again.” It leaned against the shaft of the light, with both hands before the face. Like this.”

Later that a day a train came to an emergency halt at the signal-man’s station. A beautiful young lady had died instantaneously in one of the compartments, and was brought in here, and laid down on this floor between us.

“Now, sir, mark this, and judge how my mind is troubled. The spectre came back a week ago. Ever since, it has been there, now and again, by fits and starts.”The figure stands near the danger light shouting ‘For God’s sake, clear the way!”‘Below there! Look out! Look out!’ It stands waving to me. It rings my little bell—”

The visitor asks whether the apparition rang the bell when the signal-man had mistaken him for the ghost.

My eyes were on the bell, and my ears were open to the bell, and if I am a living man, it did not ring at those times. The ghost’s ring is a strange vibration in the bell that it derives from nothing else, and I have not asserted that the bell stirs to the eye. I don’t wonder that you failed to hear it. But I heard it.”

The two men looked for any sign of the ghostly messenger, but to no avail.

“By this time you will fully understand, sir,” he said, “that what troubles me so dreadfully is the question, What does the spectre mean?”“What is the danger? Where is the danger? There is danger overhanging somewhere on the Line. Some dreadful calamity will happen. Surely this is a cruel haunting of me. What can I do?”

The signal-man was almost frantic with worry, knowing that if he contacted or signalled ‘danger’ on either side of him without any reason, on a hunch based on a spectre, then he would get the all clear from both sides again.

It was the mental torture of a conscientious man, oppressed beyond endurance

He wondered why the ghostly apparition wasn’t clearer in his warnings. Why wasn’t he telling him what would happen, who would die and how to prevent it? The visitor left the signal-man with his mind full of troubles and feelings of apprehension. He planned to return once again to support him in his hour of need.

The visitor worried about his culpability in the matter. Should he warn someone at the railroad that the signal-man may be losing his mind. Was he a danger and perhaps unable to do his job properly?

At the same time he felt guilty at the thought of betraying his trust. The next day he decided to return to the signal-man after a leisurely walk, but something pulled him towards the hill and tracks.

I cannot describe the thrill that seized upon me, when, close at the mouth of the tunnel, I saw the appearance of a man, with his left sleeve across his eyes, passionately waving his right arm

The gentleman is filled with apprehension and yet at the same time deep down he knows something dreadful has happened. He should never have left the signal-man to his own devices.

“What is the matter?” I asked the men.“Signal-man was killed this morning, sir.”“He was cut down by an engine, sir. No man in England knew his work better. But somehow he was not clear of the outer rail. As he didn’t seem to take heed of the whistle, I shut it off when we were running down upon him, and called to him as loud as I could call.”

“What did you say?”

“I said, ‘Below there! Look out! Look out! For God’s sake, clear the way!’”

As he recounted the traumatic events of the morning the engine-driver waved his hand back and forth as he spoke those very words, which had haunted the signal-man in his last remaining days and hours.

Who is to say whether this was a ghost or manifestation of the signal-man’s own fears. A string of coincidences or something we just can’t explain?

Read The Signal-Man, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, Oliver Twist or A Christmas Carol and Feedbooks. Alternatively Oliver Twist, The Signal-Man, Nicholas Nickleby, and Great Expectations at the Internet Archive.You can listen to Barnaby Rudge, Bleak House, The Signal-Man, A Christmas Carol or Little Dorrit at Librivox. Or read Hunting Down a Killer, A Christmas Carol, Little Dorrit, Somebody’s Luggage or The Mystery of Edwin Drood for our take on a bit of Dickens.

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