Classics Translated

The Signal-Man

Charles Dickens, first published 1866; translated into Modern English, otherwise exactly the same. 

“Hello! Down below!”

When he heard me calling to him, he was standing at his box’s door with a short flag rolled in his hand. Considering what was said, my location should have been obvious, but instead of looking up to where I stood atop the steep ledge – he looked down the tracks. There was something remarkable about the way he did it, though – for the life of me – I cannot say what. It was enough to attract my attention even though he was hard to see down in the deep trench. I was high above him, blinded by the glow of an angry sunset; I had to shade my eyes before I could see him at all.

“Hello! Below!”

From looking down the tracks, he turned again and – looking up – saw me standing high above him. “Is there a path I can use to come speak with you?”

He looked up at me without replying, and I looked down at him without repeating my question. Then, the earth began to shake slightly, but it quickly grew violent, and a sudden blast of air caused me to jump back as though I were being pulled down. Steam rose from the speeding train and rolled away over the landscape; I looked down again, and the man was re-rolling his flag after waving it at the passing train.

I repeated my question. He paused, staring at me before pointing his flag towards a spot roughly two or three hundred yards away on my level. I called down, “alright” and made my way over. Looking closely, I found an uneven, zigzagging path and followed it.

The trail was extremely deep and unusually steep. It cut through a clammy type of stone that oozed and became wetter as I went down. The walk took long enough for me to recall a reluctant expression when he pointed out the path.

When I was low enough to see him again, he was standing between the rails, looking as if he were waiting for me to appear. His arms were crossed, and his chin rested in his hands. He seemed surprised that I paused and was wondering why.

I resumed my descent and stepped out onto the railroad; as I got closer to him, I saw that he was a pale man with a dark beard and thick eyebrows. His post was in the loneliest, most dismal place I ever saw. On either side was a dripping-wet wall of jagged stone, blocking out all but a strip of sky. In one direction, only a long, crooked view of this great dungeon could be seen, and the other ended in a gloomy, red light. It was the entrance to a black tunnel, and inside the massive structure was a depressing, forbidding air. So little sunlight ever found this spot, that it had an earthy, deadly smell, and so much cold wind blew through it, that I felt a chill as cold as death.

I was close enough to touch him before he moved. Without taking his eyes from mine, he took one step back and lifted his hand.

This was a lonesome post to occupy, and I said so; when I looked down from above, it instantly drew my attention. I suppose a visitor was rare, but hopefully not unwelcome. He merely saw me as another random person with a new interest in the great wonder of railroads. I spoke to him for that reason, but I am not sure of the words I used; I do not enjoy beginning any conversation, but there was something in this man that intimidated me.

He looked towards the red light near the tunnel’s opening in a very curious way – as if something were missing – and then looked back at me. I asked if that light was part of his job.

He answered in a low voice. “Don’t you know that it is?”

A monstrous thought came to me as I studied his fixed eyes and gloomy face; that he was a ghost, not a man. I stepped back, but in doing so, I saw he appeared frightened. This put an end to my monstrous thought.

“You look as if you are afraid of me.” I said, forcing a smile.

“I think I have seen you before,” he replied.

“Where?”

He pointed to the red light he had looked at.

“There?” I said.

Watching me intently, he replied a silent, “yes.”

“My good man, what would I do there? However, I will swear that I was never there.”

“I think I was mistaken,” he said. “Yes; I am sure I was.”

Our demeanors softened, and his answers to my questions were knowledgeable and interesting. He had many responsibilities, but most importantly, his job required him to be attentive and precise. There was practically no manual labor; he only changed the train signal, trimmed the lights, and sometimes turned an iron handle. When I asked about those long, lonely hours that would bother me so much – he simply said it was routine, and that he had grown used to it. He taught himself a language down there – even if he did form his own crude pronunciations of the words he read. He also practiced fractions and tried a little algebra, but he had no skill for mathematics. I wondered if he was required to stay in that damp tunnel the whole time, or if he could take a break to enjoy the sun. It depended on how busy he was; some days were slower than others. In sunny weather, he often did venture out of the shadows, but he never strayed too far from his electric bell, and he always listened for it nervously; it sounded like it was not worth the anxiety it caused him.

We went into his box where there was a fire, a desk for his logbook, a telegraph machine, and the little bell he previously mentioned. Hoping he would excuse the remark about his education without offense – I could not help notice he seemed educated for his position; he observed that men like himself are much more common than I would think. Men like him often end up in workhouses, the police-force, and even the army in desperate cases; he knew of others in the railroad industry as well. When he was a young student of natural philosophy, he attended lectures, but he also ran wild and wasted opportunities. He had no complaints about it – he made his bed, and he was lying in it; he was far too old to make another.

I condensed everything he said quietly in his dark, serious way; the whole time his attention was split between me and the fire. Occasionally, he threw in the word, “sir,” when referring to his younger days. He was interrupted by the bell several times along with needing to send and receive messages. Once, he had to stand outside waving a flag and shouting something to the driver as a train passed. He was remarkably dedicated to his duties – always stopping his answers mid-sentence until each new task was done.

Basically, I would have sworn he was one of the safest men ever employed in that position… except for the two times he fell silent and pale when the bell did not ring; then, he opened the door and looked towards the red light near the mouth of the tunnel. On both occasions, he came back with the same baffled expression I mentioned before and could not explain why.

When I stood to leave, I said, “You almost make me believe that you are a content man.” Though, I am afraid I must admit this statement was not completely true.

“I believe I used to be, but I am troubled, sir; I am troubled.” He replied in the same, low voice as when he had first spoken.

He would have taken the words back if he could, but I responded quickly. “With what? What trouble?”

“It is very difficult to explain, sir, and very difficult to speak of. If you ever visit again, I will try to tell you.”

“But I specifically intend to visit again. Just say when!”

“I get off early in the morning, and I will return tomorrow night at ten, sir.”

“I will come at eleven.”

He thanked me and walked me out. “I’ll use my white light until you have found the way up, sir. Make sure not to call out when you find it or when you reach the top!” He said in his peculiar low voice.

“Very well.” His manner seemed to make the place colder, but I said no more.

“And when you come tomorrow night, don’t call out! Let me ask you one last question. What made you shout, ‘hello! Down below,’ tonight?”

“Heaven knows… I said something like that—”

“Not ‘like that’, sir. Those were your exact words. I know them well.”

“Yes, those were the very words, but I only said them because I saw you below.”

“There’s no other reason?”

“What other reason could I possibly have?”

“You didn’t feel like they were conveyed to you in a supernatural way?”

“No.”

He wished me goodnight and held up his lamp. I walked alongside the tracks with an unpleasant feeling that a train was coming. When I found the path, it was easier to climb than descend, and I returned to my inn without any trouble.


As promised, I arrived the next night when the clocks were striking eleven. He was waiting for me at the bottom with his white light. “I have not called out; may I speak now?” I said when we were closer.

“By all means, sir.”

“Hello, then.” I extended my hand.

“Hello, sir.” He replied as we shook; then, we closed ourselves in his box and sat by the fire.

“I’ve made up my mind, sir.” He leaned forward and spoke in a whisper. “I’m going to tell you what troubles me. Yesterday, I mistook you for someone else. That troubles me.”

“That mistake?”

“No. The other person.”

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do they look like me?”

“I don’t know; their left arm was covering their face, and their right arm was waving violently – like this.” He imitated someone frantically waving their arm around and shouted, “For God’s sake, clear the way!”

“One night,” he continued, “I was sitting here when I heard a voice cry, ‘hello, down there!’ I jumped up, looked outside, and saw this Someone standing by the red light near the tunnel – waving as I just showed you. The voice was hoarse from shouting. ‘Look out! Look out!’ It cried, and then repeated itself. ‘Hello, down there! Look out!’ I picked up my lamp, turned it on red, and ran towards the figure. ‘What’s wrong? What happened? Where?’ I called as it stood just outside the dark tunnel. I got closer and wondered why it was covering its eyes. I ran right up to it, and when my hand stretched out to pull the sleeve away, it vanished.”

“Into the tunnel?” I asked.

“No. I ran 500 yards into the tunnel and lifted my lamp; I saw the distance markers and the wet stains dripping down the walls, trickling through the arch. Then, I ran out even faster than I had entered and looked around the light with my own; I climbed the iron ladder to the gallery, came down again, and ran back here to send telegraphs both ways. I acknowledged an alarm was given and asked if anything was wrong, but the answers stated that all was well.”

I tried to shake the chill that ran down my spine as I told him he must have been mistaken. There were known cases where a sickness in the brain could cause people to see things that were not there; some patients were even aware of the hallucinations. They would prove what was real with various tests. I said, “for an imaginary cry, you only need to listen to the wind blowing through this unnatural valley. Do you hear the wild sound it makes with the telegraph wires?”

We sat listening to the wind for a while, and he thought that was all very well, but he was already familiar with the sound; he had spent many long, lonely winter nights there. Instead, he begged that I allow him to finish his tale.

I asked his forgiveness, and he touched my arm before slowly continuing his story.

“Six hours after I saw it, a horrible accident happened on the tracks, and within ten hours, the dead and wounded were brought through the tunnel – over the spot where the figure had stood.”

I shuddered unpleasantly despite actively trying no to. I admitted this was a remarkable coincidence – it is no wonder it made such an impression on his mind – but the fact is, that remarkable coincidences happen all the time; they must be considered when dealing with such subjects. Though, when I feared my words had offended him, I was sure to add, “men with common sense rarely believe in coincidences when it comes to their daily routines.”

He again begged me to allow him to finish.

I again asked his forgiveness for my interruption.

Again, he laid his hand on my arm and glanced over his shoulder with hollow eyes. “It happened only a year ago; I had recovered from the shock after six or seven months, but one morning – while standing at the door – I saw the ghost near the red light again.” He stopped with his eyes fixed on me.

“Did it cry out?”

“No. It was silent.”

“Did it wave its arm?”

“No. It leaned against the light pole with both hands covering its face. Like this.”

I watched as he imitated the scene; it was a gesture of despair. I have seen the same one in graveyards.

“Did you approach it?”

“I came in and sat down – partly to collect my thoughts, partly because it made me feel faint. When I looked again, the sun had risen, and the ghost was gone.”

“But that was it? Nothing else happened?”

He touched my arm with his finger a few times – nodding in a ghastly way with each poke.

“That same day, when a train came out of the tunnel, I saw into the carriage windows; there was a tangle of waving hands and heads. I saw it just in time to stop the driver. He hit the brakes, but the train continued drifting for another 150 yards. I chased after it, and heard terrible screams and cries along the way. A beautiful young lady had died instantly in one of the compartments, and she was brought here – laid on this floor between us.”

I instinctively pushed my chair back as I looked to where he pointed at the floor.

“It is true, sir. It happened precisely as I said.”

I could not think of anything to say, and my mouth was very dry. The wind and wires sounded like a long, sorrowful wail.

“Now – listen to this and see what you think of my troubled mind. The ghost returned a week ago; ever since, it has been coming and going often.” He continued.

“At the light?”

“At the Danger-light.”

“What does it do?”

He repeated himself with even more passion and intensity – making the same frantic gestures that seemed to say, “for God’s sake, clear the way!” Then he continued. “I get no peace or rest; it calls to me in an agonizing way for several minutes at a time. ‘Look out, down there!” It stands there – waving to me and ringing my little bell—”

“Did it ring your bell yesterday evening when I was here, and you went to the door?” I asked.

“Twice.”

“Do you see how your imagination misleads you? I was looking at the bell; I would have heard it, and it did not ring then or at any other time. It only rang when the station was communicating with you.” I said.

He shook his head. “I have never made that mistake, sir. I have never confused the actions of a man for a spirit’s. When the ghost rings the bell, it has a strange vibration unlike anything else, and I never said the bell physically moved. I’m not surprised that you didn’t hear it, but I heard it.”

“Was the ghost there when you looked outside?”

“It was there.”

“Both times?”

“Both times.” He repeated firmly.

“Will you come to the door with me and look for it now?”

He bit his lip – somewhat unwilling – but rose anyway. I opened the door and waited on the step while he stood in the doorway. There was the Danger-light, the dismal mouth of the tunnel, the high, wet stone walls of the valley, and the stars above them.

“Do you see it?” I asked, carefully studying his face. His eyes were wide and strained but not much more than my own were when I looked at the same spot.

“No,” he answered. “It is not there.”

“Agreed,” I said.

We went inside, shut the door, and took our seats. I was thinking of how I could keep this progress going when he resumed the conversation in a very matter-of-fact way. It seemed as if he would not even consider the facts, and it made my argument sound like the one that was incorrect.

“By now, you should understand what troubles me so much; I must know what the ghost means?” He said.

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

“What is its warning against?” he said, staring into the fire as he contemplated. “What is the danger? Where is it? There is danger hanging over us somewhere on the tracks; some horrible catastrophe will happen. It cannot be doubted after what happened before – this is the third time! This surely is a cruel haunting. What can I do?”He pulled out his handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his heated forehead.

“If I send a danger signal, I won’t be able to give a reason,” he continued, wiping the palms of his hands. “I would get into trouble for nothing. They would think I was crazy. I would say, ‘danger! Take care’ and they would ask what and where the danger was. What should I say then? ‘Don’t know, but for God’s sake, take care!’ They would ignore me – what else could they do?

His pain was very sad to see; he was a good man enduring mental torture. The pressure was more than he could handle.

Pushing his dark hair back and rubbing his temples feverishly, he continued. “When it first stood under the Danger-light, why didn’t it tell me where the accident was going to happen? Why not say how to stop it? The second time – when it hid its face – why didn’t it tell me, ‘she is going to die. Let her stay home’? If it only came to show me that its warnings are true, then why not simply warn me the same way now? And I – Lord help me – am merely a poor Signal-man on this lonely station! Why not go to somebody with credibility and the power to do something?”

Seeing him in this state, I realized I needed to help him regain his composure – for his sake as well as the public’s. Therefore, setting aside the question of real or imaginary, I told him that no matter what – he had done his duty well, and that should be comforting even if he did not understand a confusing ghost’s appearances. That attempt was far more successful than anything else used to reason with him. He calmed, and his workload increased as it grew late. I left at two in the morning; I offered to stay, but he would not hear of it.

I looked back at the red light more than once as I climbed the pathway; I freely admit that I did not like it, and I would have slept poorly beneath it. I did not like the two accidents or the dead girl, either.

What ran through my thoughts most was the consideration of what to do now that I was aware of the situation. The man proved to be intelligent, vigilant, and painstakingly exact, but how long will that last in his state of mind? Though it is a low-ranking position, he still holds an important trust. Would I bet my own life on his chances of continuing with precision?

Ultimately, I felt it would be treacherous to tell his superiors what he told me without first proposing an alternative to him; I resolved I would offer to accompany him to the best doctor we could find. He said that the next night, he would be off an hour or two after sunrise and back after sunset. I decided to return accordingly.


Next evening was lovely, and I left early to enjoy it. The sun was not quite set when I crossed the field near the top of the deep valley. I decided to keep going for an additional half hour to give myself a half hour walk back so it would be time to meet the Signal-man.

Before beginning my stroll, I stepped to the edge and looked down from where I had first seen him. I cannot describe the thrill I felt when – close to the mouth of the tunnel – I saw the figure of a man with his left sleeve across his eyes, frantically waving his right arm.

The nameless horror that struck me passed in a moment when I saw that this man was indeed only a man; there was a small group of men standing nearby, to whom he seemed to be making the gesture. The Danger-light was not yet lit. An entirely new, low structure sat against the light-post; it was made of wooden supports and a tarp, and was no bigger than a bed.

With a strong sense that something was wrong, and – cursing myself for leaving the man alone with no one to supervise or correct him – I descended the path as quickly as possible.

“What is the matter?” I asked the men.

“The Signal-man was killed this morning, sir.”

“Not the man who works in that box?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Not the man I know?”

“You will recognise him if you knew him, sir – his face is in good condition.” The man said, solemnly, removing his hat and raising one end of the tarp.

“Oh, how did this happen – how?” I asked, turning from one to another as the tarp fell back into place.

“He was cut down by a train, sir. No man in England was better at his job, but for some reason, he was not clear of the outer rail. It happened in broad daylight; he turned on the light and had the lamp in his hand. As the train came out of the tunnel, his back was towards her, and she cut him down. That man drove her, and he was demonstrating how it happened; show the gentleman, Tom.”

The man wore a rough, dark suit and returned to his former position at the mouth of the tunnel.

“Coming round the curve in the tunnel, sir, I saw him at the end – as if I were seeing him through a telescope. There was no time to check speed, and I knew him to be very careful. He didn’t seem to take notice of the whistle; I shut it off when we were getting close and called to him as loud as I could.”

“What did you say?”

“I said, ‘down there! Look out! For God’s sake, clear the way!’”

I gasped.

“Ah! it was dreadful, sir. I never stopped calling to him. I put one arm over my eyes so I wouldn’t have to see, and I waved this arm until the last moment, but it was no use.”

Without prolonging the story to dwell on any one curious situation more than another – I may point out the coincidence of the train driver’s warning. It included not only the same words the Signal-man repeated to me, but also the words that only I had attached to the gesture he imitated.