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 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.
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.>
So begins this short story by Charles Dickens. If you have occasion to read the whole thing, you will find a disturbing supernatural and psychological history, where elegance and terror go hand in hand. “The Signal-Man” first published as part of the Mugby Junction collection in the 1866 Christmas edition of All the Year Round.
The railway “signal-man” of the title tells the narrator of a ghost that has been haunting him. Each spectral appearance precedes a tragic event on the railway on which the signalman works. The signalman’s work is at a signal-box in a deep cutting near a tunnel entrance on a lonely stretch of the railway line, and he controls the movements of passing trains. When there is danger, his fellow signalmen alert him by telegraph and alarms. Three times, he receives phantom warnings of danger when his bell rings in a fashion that only he can hear. Each warning is followed by the appearance of the spectre, and then by a terrible accident.
Maybe not one of the most popular stories written by Dickens but its reading is highly recommended and certainly one of my favorites.