All of these old paperback books I keep harping on about have been a part of my life for the last thirty five years or so. The stories in them are so familiar to me that I sometimes forget that they might be fresh to others. So, each Wednesday I thought I’d share some of my favourites (at least, the out of copyright ones), illustrated with photographs from an even bigger part of my life, Samantha Webster.
Tonight we have another classic, this time from Charles Dickens. A simple two-hander placed in the claustrophobic setting of a dank railway cutting, right next to the gaping entrance of a tunnel. It’s worth remembering that when this was written the railway network was still a very new invention so, although we can’t help but view this with modern eyes, in Victorian terms it is very much a technological horror. In fact, it is thought to be inspired by a real-life event which took place five years prior to publishing at Clayton Tunnel in Essex.
T H E S I G N A L – M A N
C h a r l e s D i c k e n s
“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 about, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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
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
“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.”
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.
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.
“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?”
“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?”
“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.
“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.”
“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.”
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