No 1 Branch Line: The Signal-man
"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
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.
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 a force to draw
me down. When such vapor 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
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
"You look at me," I said, forcing a smile, "as if you had a dread
"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 labor--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 color,
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
"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
"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
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."
"No. That some one else."
"Who is it?"
"I don't know."
"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 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 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
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
"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
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
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
"And did the spectre seem to be there, when you looked out?"
"It WAS there."
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 accordingly.
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?"
"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."
"Oh, 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
"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