The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens

Snip20180106_3The 4 of Hearts came up for the first Deal Me In Challenge of the year.  I had not heard of this story by Charles Dickens.

This short story had the Penguin and I visiting a ghost. I have not read a ghost tale since those scary tales by Edgar Allan Poe in Grade 12. It is not a genre I am drawn to.

The characters in this short story are few: The Narrator (a man), The Signal Man who works on the railroad and the ghost.

The Narrator is out walking one day. He looks down at the railroad tracks and sees the Signal man along the tracks. He calls out, ” Halloa! Below!”. The Narrator wants to go below and visit the Signal Man.  The Signal Man freezes but finally talks the Narrator down the zig zagged track below.

He is a very nervous Signal-man. Why?  Because he believes he has seen a ghost by the tunnel near where he is standing.  The ghost has said that very same phrase to him, “Halloa! Below!”  while wildly gesticulating, waving his arms. It is a warning.  He has see this a couple of times and there have been deaths related to the train after each appearance.  He hasn’t told anyone about these experiences.

At first the Signal Man doesn’t say much to the narrator because he is nervous of him. He is not sure he is a real man instead of a ghost.

When the Narrator asks if he can visit a second time the Signal Man reluctantly agrees. But he tells the Narrator to not call out upon his arrival.  Just show up, no announcement.  The Narrator doesn’t yet know the greeting he used before is the one the ghost uses.

Snip20180106_4On the next visit the Highway man, after much small talk in front of the fire in his shed, finally discusses what he has seen with the Narrator. He finally explains why he was reticent the night before to talk to him.

“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 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. 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.” 

The story continues and it becomes clear the Signal Man knows he has seen a ghost. The Narrator does not believe in ghosts at all and is very sceptical. He thinks the Signal Man may be losing his mind and wonders if he is safe to work for the railroad. He thinks about reporting the incident to his superiors but he holds off. He wants to meet with the Signal Man again before making a decision.

In researching this story it appears the themes around it are do we only, as humans, believe in what our five senses tell us or is there another plane where things happen that can’t be explained.  There are people who believe in the supernatural completely while others shun it all together. Personally I don’t believe in much that can’t be seen, felt, smelled, heard or tasted. I am a complete sceptic though every once in awhile I have had experiences that I cannot explain. So who knows.

Read on only if you want to know how this story continues as it is a spoiler. You can read the full story here if you’d like. I really enjoyed it and was delighted to have found it. When I think of Dickens I don’t think of him with his short stories.  I will stay tuned in the future for more I might come across.

But…….-S P O I L E R   A L E R T-  here:

(The Penguin leaves the room)

I remain to see what happens.

The story continues…

The Narrator again visits the Signal Man. On his way he sees a man near the tracks calling out the same warning, wildly waving his arms.

The Narrator continues:    “Before pursuing my stroll, I stepped to the brink, and mechanically looked down, from the post 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.”

………………………………………………………He continues down the hill to the tracks upon seeing several men gathered around a tarpaulin that “looked no bigger than a bed”.

When he arrives he learns the Signal Man has died.

“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 imitated.



5 thoughts on “The Signal-Man by Charles Dickens

  1. i think i read this a very long time ago and had a kind of hohum reaction to it… don’t know why, now, tho… i don’t normally like ghost stories much, although i read Poe in my teens: it gave me nightmares… and there is a level below human consciousness; they call it the quantum world…

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