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The Signal-man

Scary Books: Three Ghost Stories
: Charles Dickens

"Halloa! Below there!"

When he heard a voice thus calling to him, he was standing at the

door of his box, with a flag in his hand, furled round its short

pole. One would have thought, considering the nature of the ground,

that he could not have doubted from what quarter the voice came; but

instead of looking up to where I stood on the top of the steep

cutting nearly over his head, he turned himself abou
, and looked

down the Line. There was something remarkable in his manner of

doing so, though I could not have said for my life what. But I know

it was remarkable enough to attract my notice, even though his

figure was foreshortened and shadowed, down in the deep trench, and

mine was high above him, so steeped in the glow of an angry sunset,

that I had shaded my eyes with my hand before I saw him at all.

"Halloa! Below!"

From looking down the Line, he turned himself about again, and,

raising his eyes, saw my figure high above him.

"Is there any path by which I can come down and speak to you?"

He looked up at me without replying, and I looked down at him

without pressing him too soon with a repetition of my idle question.

Just then there came a vague vibration in the earth and air, quickly

changing into a violent pulsation, and an oncoming rush that caused

me to start back, as though it had force to draw me down. When such

vapour as rose to my height from this rapid train had passed me, and

was skimming away over the landscape, I looked down again, and saw

him refurling the flag he had shown while the train went by.

I repeated my inquiry. After a pause, during which he seemed to

regard me with fixed attention, he motioned with his rolled-up flag

towards a point on my level, some two or three hundred yards

distant. I called down to him, "All right!" and made for that

point. There, by dint of looking closely about me, I found a rough

zigzag descending path notched out, which I followed.

The cutting was extremely deep, and unusually precipitate. It was

made through a clammy stone, that became oozier and wetter as I went

down. For these reasons, I found the way long enough to give me

time to recall a singular air of reluctance or compulsion with which

he had pointed out the path.

When I came down low enough upon the zigzag descent to see him

again, I saw that he was standing between the rails on the way by

which the train had lately passed, in an attitude as if he were

waiting for me to appear. He had his left hand at his chin, and

that left elbow rested on his right hand, crossed over his breast.

His attitude was one of such expectation and watchfulness that I

stopped a moment, wondering at it.

I resumed my downward way, and stepping out upon the level of the

railroad, and drawing nearer to him, saw that 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. On either side, a

dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, excluding all view but a strip of

sky; the perspective one way only a crooked prolongation of this

great dungeon; the shorter perspective in the other direction

terminating in a gloomy red light, and the gloomier entrance to a

black tunnel, in whose massive architecture there was a barbarous,

depressing, and forbidding air. So little sunlight ever found its

way to this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell; and so much

cold wind rushed through it, that it struck chill to me, as if I had

left the natural world.

Before he stirred, I was near enough to him to have touched him.

Not even then removing his eyes from mine, he stepped back one step,

and lifted his hand.

This was a lonesome post to occupy (I said), and it had riveted my

attention when I looked down from up yonder. A visitor was a

rarity, I should suppose; not an unwelcome rarity, I hoped? In me,

he merely saw a man who had been shut up within narrow limits all

his life, and who, being at last set free, had a newly-awakened

interest in these great works. To such purpose I spoke to him; but

I am far from sure of the terms I used; for, besides that I am not

happy in opening any conversation, there was something in the man

that daunted me.

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 it me.

That light was part of his charge? Was it not?

He answered in a low voice,--"Don't you know it is?"

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.

In my turn, I stepped back. But in making the action, I detected in

his eyes some latent fear of me. This put the monstrous thought to


"You look at me," I said, forcing a smile, "as if you had a dread of


"I was doubtful," he returned, "whether I had seen you before."


He pointed to the red light he had looked at.

"There?" I said.

Intently watchful of me, he replied (but without sound), "Yes."

"My good fellow, what should I do there? However, be that as it

may, I never was there, you may swear."

"I think I may," he rejoined. "Yes; I am sure I may."

His manner cleared, like my own. He replied to my remarks with

readiness, and in well-chosen words. Had he much to do there? Yes;

that was to say, he had enough responsibility to bear; but exactness

and watchfulness were what was required of him, and of actual work--

manual labour--he had next to none. To change that signal, to trim

those lights, and to turn this iron handle now and then, was all he

had to do under that head. Regarding those many long and lonely

hours of which I seemed to make so much, he could only say that the

routine of his life had shaped itself into that form, and he had

grown used to it. He had taught himself a language down here,--if

only to know it by sight, and to have formed his own crude ideas of

its pronunciation, could be called learning it. He had also worked

at fractions and decimals, and tried a little algebra; but he was,

and had been as a boy, a poor hand at figures. Was it necessary for

him when on duty always to remain in that channel of damp air, and

could he never rise into the sunshine from between those high stone

walls? Why, that depended upon times and circumstances. Under some

conditions there would be less upon the Line than under others, and

the same held good as to certain hours of the day and night. In

bright weather, he did choose occasions for getting a little above

these lower shadows; but, being at all times liable to be called by

his electric bell, and at such times listening for it with redoubled

anxiety, the relief was less than I would suppose.

He took me into his box, where there was a fire, a desk for an

official book in which he had to make certain entries, a telegraphic

instrument with its dial, face, and needles, and the little bell of

which he had spoken. On my trusting that he would excuse the remark

that he had been well educated, and (I hoped I might say without

offence) perhaps educated above that station, he observed that

instances of slight incongruity in such wise would rarely be found

wanting among large bodies of men; that he had heard it was so in

workhouses, in the police force, even in that last desperate

resource, the army; and that he knew it was so, more or less, in any

great railway staff. He had been, when young (if I could believe

it, sitting in that hut,--he scarcely could), a student of natural

philosophy, and had attended lectures; but he had run wild, misused

his opportunities, gone down, and never risen again. He had no

complaint to offer about that. He had made his bed, and he lay upon

it. It was far too late to make another.

All that I have here condensed he said in a quiet manner, with his

grave dark regards divided between me and the fire. He threw in the

word, "Sir," from time to time, and especially when he referred to

his youth,--as though to request me to understand that he claimed to

be nothing but what I found him. He was several times interrupted

by the little bell, and had to read off messages, and send replies.

Once he had to stand without the door, and display a flag as a train

passed, and make some verbal communication to the driver. In the

discharge of his duties, I observed him to be remarkably exact and

vigilant, breaking off his discourse at a syllable, and remaining

silent until what he had to do was done.

In a word, I should have set this man down as one of the safest of

men to be employed in that capacity, but for the circumstance that

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 (which was kept shut to exclude the unhealthy

damp), and looked out towards the red light near the mouth of the

tunnel. On both of those occasions, he came back to the fire with

the inexplicable air upon him which I had remarked, without being

able to define, when we were so far asunder.

Said I, when I rose to leave him, "You almost make me think that I

have met with a contented man."

(I am afraid I must acknowledge that I said it to lead him on.)

"I believe I used to be so," he rejoined, in the low voice in which

he had first spoken; "but I am troubled, sir, I am troubled."

He would have recalled the words if he could. He had said them,

however, and I took them up quickly.

"With what? What is your trouble?"

"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


"But I expressly intend to make you another visit. Say, when shall

it be?"

"I go off early in the morning, and I shall be on again at ten to-

morrow night, sir."

"I will come at eleven."

He thanked me, and went out at the door with me. "I'll show my

white light, sir," he said, in his peculiar low voice, "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!"

His manner seemed to make the place strike colder to me, but I said

no more than, "Very well."

"And when you come down to-morrow night, don't call out! Let me ask

you a parting question. What made you cry, 'Halloa! Below there!'


"Heaven knows," said I. "I cried something to that effect--"

"Not to that effect, sir. Those were the very words. I know them


"Admit those were the very words. I said them, no doubt, because I

saw you below."

"For no other reason?"

"What other reason could I possibly have?"

"You had no feeling that they were conveyed to you in any

supernatural way?"


He wished me good-night, and held up his light. I walked by the

side of the down Line of rails (with a very disagreeable sensation

of a train coming behind me) until I found the path. It was easier

to mount than to descend, and I got back to my inn without any


Punctual to my appointment, I placed my foot on the first notch of

the zigzag next night, as the distant clocks were striking eleven.

He was waiting for me at the bottom, with his white light on. "I

have not called out," I said, when we came close together; "may I

speak now?" "By all means, sir." "Good-night, then, and here's my

hand." "Good-night, sir, and here's mine." With that we walked

side by side to his box, entered it, closed the door, and sat down

by the fire.

"I have made up my mind, sir," he began, bending forward as soon as

we were seated, and speaking in a tone but a little above a whisper,

"that you shall not have to ask me twice what troubles me. I took

you for some one else yesterday evening. That troubles me."

"That mistake?"

"No. That some one else."

"Who is it?"

"I don't know."

"Like me?"

"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!"

"One moonlight night," said the man, "I was sitting here, when I

heard a voice cry, 'Halloa! Below there!' I started up, looked

from that door, and saw this Some one 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

attain, '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. I advanced so close upon it that I

wondered at its keeping the sleeve across its eyes. I ran right up

at it, and had my hand stretched out to pull the sleeve away, when

it was gone."

"Into the tunnel?" said I.

"No. I ran on into the tunnel, five hundred yards. I stopped, and

held my lamp above my head, and saw the figures of the measured

distance, and saw the wet stains stealing down the walls and

trickling through the arch. I ran out again faster than I had run

in (for I had a mortal abhorrence of the place upon me), and I

looked all round the red light with my own red light, and I went up

the iron ladder to the gallery atop of it, and I came down again,

and ran back here. I telegraphed both ways, 'An alarm has been

given. Is anything wrong?' The answer came back, both ways, 'All


Resisting the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine, I

showed him how that this figure must be a deception of his sense of

sight; and how that figures, originating in disease of the delicate

nerves that minister to the functions of the eye, were known to have

often troubled patients, some of whom had become conscious of the

nature of their affliction, and had even proved it by experiments

upon themselves. "As to an imaginary cry," said I, "do but listen

for a moment to the wind in this unnatural valley while we speak so

low, and to the wild harp it makes of the telegraph wires."

That was all very well, he returned, after we had sat listening for

a while, and he ought to know something of the wind and the wires,--

he who so often passed long winter nights there, alone and watching.

But he would beg to remark that he had not finished.

I asked his pardon, and he slowly added these words, touching my

arm, -

"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


A disagreeable shudder crept over me, but I did my best against it.

It was not to be denied, I rejoined, that this was a remarkable

coincidence, calculated deeply to impress his mind. But it was

unquestionable that remarkable coincidences did continually occur,

and they must be taken into account in dealing with such a subject.

Though to be sure I must admit, I added (for I thought I saw that he

was going to bring the objection to bear upon me), men of common

sense did not allow much for coincidences in making the ordinary

calculations of life.

He again begged to remark that he had not finished.

I again begged his pardon for being betrayed into interruptions.

"This," he said, again laying his hand upon my arm, and glancing

over his shoulder with hollow eyes, "was just a year ago. Six or

seven months passed, and I had recovered from the surprise and

shock, when one morning, as the day was breaking, I, standing at the

door, looked towards the red light, and saw the spectre again." He

stopped, with a fixed look at me.

"Did it cry out?"

"No. It was silent."

"Did it wave its arm?"

"No. It leaned against the shaft of the light, with both hands

before the face. Like this."

Once more I followed his action with my eyes. It was an action of

mourning. I have seen such an attitude in stone figures on tombs.

"Did you go up to it?"

"I came in and sat down, partly to collect my thoughts, partly

because it had turned me faint. When I went to the door again,

daylight was above me, and the ghost was gone."

"But nothing followed? Nothing came of this?"

He touched me on the arm with his forefinger twice or thrice giving

a ghastly nod each time:-

"That very day, as a train came out of the tunnel, I noticed, at a

carriage window on my side, what looked like a confusion of hands

and heads, and something waved. I saw it just in time to signal the

driver, Stop! He shut off, and put his brake on, but the train

drifted past here a hundred and fifty yards or more. I ran after

it, and, as I went along, heard terrible screams and cries. 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."

Involuntarily I pushed my chair back, as I looked from the boards at

which he pointed to himself.

"True, sir. True. Precisely as it happened, so I tell it you."

I could think of nothing to say, to any purpose, and my mouth was

very dry. The wind and the wires took up the story with a long

lamenting wail.

He resumed. "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."

"At the light?"

"At the Danger-light."

"What does it seem to do?"

He repeated, if possible with increased passion and vehemence, that

former gesticulation of, "For God's sake, clear the way!"

Then he went on. "I have no peace or rest for it. It calls to me,

for many minutes together, in an agonised manner, 'Below there!

Look out! Look out!' It stands waving to me. It rings my little


I caught at that. "Did it ring your bell yesterday evening when I

was here, and you went to the door?"


"Why, see," said I, "how your imagination misleads you. 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. No, nor at any other

time, except when it was rung in the natural course of physical

things by the station communicating with you."

He shook his head. "I have never made a mistake as to that yet, sir.

I have never confused the spectre's ring with the man's. 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."

"And did the spectre seem to be there, when you looked out?"

"It WAS there."'

"Both times?"

He repeated firmly: "Both times."

"Will you come to the door with me, and look for it now?"

He bit his under lip as though he were somewhat unwilling, but

arose. I opened the door, and stood on the step, while he stood in

the doorway. There was the Danger-light. There was the dismal

mouth of the tunnel. There were the high, wet stone walls of the

cutting. There were the stars above them.

"Do you see it?" I asked him, taking particular note of his face.

His eyes were prominent and strained, but not very much more so,

perhaps, than my own had been when I had directed them earnestly

towards the same spot.

"No," he answered. "It is not there."

"Agreed," said I.

We went in again, shut the door, and resumed our seats. I was

thinking how best to improve this advantage, if it might be called

one, when he took up the conversation in such a matter-of-course

way, so assuming that there could be no serious question of fact

between us, that I felt myself placed in the weakest of positions.

"By this time you will fully understand, sir," he said, "that what

troubles me so dreadfully is the question, What does the spectre


I was not sure, I told him, that I did fully understand.

"What is its warning against?" he said, ruminating, with his eyes on

the fire, and only by times turning them on me. "What is the

danger? Where is the danger? There is danger overhanging somewhere

on the Line. Some dreadful calamity will happen. It is not to be

doubted this third time, after what has gone before. But surely

this is a cruel haunting of me. What can I do?"

He pulled out his handkerchief, and wiped the drops from his heated


"If I telegraph Danger, on either side of me, or on both, I can give

no reason for it," he went on, wiping the palms of his hands. "I

should get into trouble, and do no good. They would think I was

mad. This is the way it would work,--Message: 'Danger! Take

care!' Answer: 'What Danger? Where?' Message: 'Don't know.

But, for God's sake, take care!' They would displace me. What else

could they do?"

His pain of mind was most pitiable to see. It was the mental

torture of a conscientious man, oppressed beyond endurance by an

unintelligible responsibility involving life.

"When it first stood under the Danger-light," he went on, putting

his dark hair back from his head, and drawing his hands outward

across and across his temples in an extremity of feverish distress,

"why not tell me where that accident was to happen,--if it must

happen? Why not tell me how it could be averted,--if it could have

been averted? When on its second coming it hid its face, why not

tell me, instead, 'She is going to die. Let them keep her at home'?

If it came, on those two occasions, only to show me that its

warnings were true, and so to prepare me for the third, why not warn

me plainly now? And I, Lord help me! A mere poor signal-man on

this solitary station! Why not go to somebody with credit to be

believed, and power to act?"

When I saw him in this state, I saw that for the poor man's sake, as

well as for the public safety, what I had to do for the time was to

compose his mind. Therefore, setting aside all question of reality

or unreality between us, I represented to him that whoever

thoroughly discharged his duty must do well, and that at least it

was his comfort that he understood his duty, though he did not

understand these confounding Appearances. In this effort I

succeeded far better than in the attempt to reason him out of his

conviction. He became calm; the occupations incidental to his post

as the night advanced began to make larger demands on his attention:

and I left him at two in the morning. I had offered to stay through

the night, but he would not hear of it.

That I more than once looked back at the red light as I ascended the

pathway, that I did not like the red light, and that I should have

slept but poorly if my bed had been under it, I see no reason to

conceal. Nor did I like the two sequences of the accident and the

dead girl. I see no reason to conceal that either.

But what ran most in my thoughts was the consideration how ought I

to act, having become the recipient of this disclosure? I had

proved the man to be intelligent, vigilant, painstaking, and exact;

but how long might he remain so, in his state of mind? Though in a

subordinate position, still he held a most important trust, and

would I (for instance) like to stake my own life on the chances of

his continuing to execute it with precision?

Unable to overcome a feeling that there would be something

treacherous in my communicating what he had told me to his superiors

in the Company, without first being plain with himself and proposing

a middle course to him, I ultimately resolved to offer to accompany

him (otherwise keeping his secret for the present) to the wisest

medical practitioner we could hear of in those parts, and to take

his opinion. A change in his time of duty would come round next

night, he had apprised me, and he would be off an hour or two after

sunrise, and on again soon after sunset. I had appointed to return


Next evening was a lovely evening, and I walked out early to enjoy

it. The sun was not yet quite down when I traversed the field-path

near the top of the deep cutting. I would extend my walk for an

hour, I said to myself, half an hour on and half an hour back, and

it would then be time to go to my signal-man's box.

Before pursuing my stroll, I stepped to the brink, and mechanically

looked down, from the point from which I had first seen him. 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 nameless horror that oppressed me passed in a moment, for in a

moment I saw that this appearance of a man was a man indeed, and

that there was a little group of other men, standing at a short

distance, to whom he seemed to be rehearsing the gesture he made.

The Danger-light was not yet lighted. Against its shaft, a little

low hut, entirely new to me, had been made of some wooden supports

and tarpaulin. It looked no bigger than a bed.

With an irresistible sense that something was wrong,--with a

flashing self-reproachful fear that fatal mischief had come of my

leaving the man there, and causing no one to be sent to overlook or

correct what he did,--I descended the notched path with all the

speed I could make.

"What is the matter?" I asked the men.

"Signal-man killed this morning, sir."

"Not the man belonging to that box?"

"Yes, sir."

"Not the man I know?"

"You will recognise him, sir, if you knew him," said the man who

spoke for the others, solemnly uncovering his own head, and raising

an end of the tarpaulin, "for his face is quite composed."

"O, how did this happen, how did this happen?" I asked, turning from

one to another as the hut closed in again.

"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. It was

just at broad day. He had struck the light, and had the lamp in his

hand. As the engine came out of the tunnel, his back was towards

her, and she cut him down. That man drove her, and was showing how

it happened. Show the gentleman, Tom."

The man, who wore a rough dark dress, stepped back to his former

place at the mouth of the tunnel.

"Coming round the curve in the tunnel, sir," he said, "I saw him at

the end, like as if I saw him down a perspective-glass. There was

no time to check speed, and I knew him to be very careful. 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!'"

I started.

"Ah! it was a dreadful time, sir. I never left off calling to him.

I put this arm before my eyes not to see, and I waved this arm to

the last; but it was no use."

Without prolonging the narrative to dwell on any one of its curious

circumstances more than on any other, I may, in closing it, point

out the coincidence that the warning of the Engine-Driver included,

not only the words which the unfortunate Signal-man had repeated to

me as haunting him, but also the words which I myself--not he--had

attached, and that only in my own mind, to the gesticulation he had