‘The Ghostly Signalman—A Railway Story’ by W.T. (21 June, 1884)

One winter evening last year I stood on the platform on Silverton Station. It was a bitterly severe night, the cold damp clung to everything around like a film of silver gause, coating the windows and the globes of the lamps, and striking a chill to the hearts of the few whom misfortune or business made travellers.

I gazed around the dim landscape. A few lights in the hollow marked the little town; nearer the line with its red and green signal lamps shining faintly out of the gloom. Far in the distance you could hear the deep boom of the sea sounding like the groan of a chained giant.

The platform was deserted, the waiting-room empty, cold, and bare, with the ghost of a fire flickering in its rusty grate. This was far from inviting for one who, like myself, had to spend two or three hours in solitary vigils. But from a signal-cabin on the platform there shone a bright glare that was most tantalising to me. As I passed and re-passed the apparent comfort inside made the outside the more gloomy, and the cheerful faces of half-a-dozen men seated at the fire seemed more pleasant every peep. The burly figures, the ruddy cheeks, the hearty laugh that broke at times on the stillness, even the curling smoke from their pipes looked warm and had an air of comfort compared with the chill and darkness of the platform.

At last I screwed my courage up to ask their hospitality. “May I beg to intrude upon your company, gentlemen,” I said; “as the outside is so uncomfortable, and your fire looks so tempting, I am induced to ask your permission to warm myself at your hearth till train time.”

“Certainly, sir,” said a stout, jolly man, with a gold band round his cap; “you are as welcome as flowers in May, but in December I think this is superior to all the flowers of the field,” so saying he pointed to the fire.

“I must agree with you on that,” said I, stretching my hands to the (to me) delicious warmth. As I sat down on the bench beside him on his invitation he took out a cigar, and passed the case of cigars to my new associates, telling them to help themselves.

I was soon enjoying myself heartily. There was a slight restraint at first among my friends, but they soon got over their shyness, got used to my presence, and continued their conversation.

“Don’t tell me, Jim,” said a stout, lively man, deeply marked with smallpox, a roguish twinkle in his eyes, and a turned-up nose that seemed to look above all sublunary objects. “I believe you thought you saw the thing, but for to say it—well, really, that is stuff; tell it to the marines, I knows better.”

The signalman to whom this speech was addressed, a quiet, grave, greyhaired man, with a sad expression, shook his head and said—

“Brown, had you gone through the affair as I did you might not be so unbelieving.”

“I beg pardon, but to what circumstance do you refer? I remarked.

“Well you see, sir,” answered Jim, “I made a statement about a ghost I saw once—”

“That you thought you saw,” put in the obstinate engine-driver.

“Look here, boys,” said the jolly man with the gold band, who I found was the stationmaster, “if you have no objections let the gentleman hear the story, and believe me, sir, whether it is a delusion or not it possesses some interest.”

“I will be very much delighted if you will be so good as to oblige me.”

Jim took out his tobacco pouch, leisurely filled his pipe, and commenced.

Some four years ago I was stationed at Black Bank signal cabin—a lonely box that stood on a hillock overlooking a moorland country without a house within a mile of it on one side and two miles on the other. My mate, Thomas Bruce, or Old Tom, as he was usually called on the line where he had been employed for many years, was a Scotsman, elderly, of quiet and studious habits. He was a man of education, and carried his ideas of neatness to such a pitch that, to use a word from his own dialect, he was rather “pernickity,” and his love of order was carried out in every detail. He was at the cabin to relive me as the clock struck, and expected me to follow his example. If I was late he never found fault, but I saw by his look at the clock that he was not pleased, and at once apologised, and as he was not hard upon me and easily appeased, we were always on the best terms. Our box was kept as neat as a pin, not a book out of place, not a speck of dust; the lamps shone like silver, the grate like jet, the hearth like snow, the windows as clear as crystal, and the benches scrubbed to perfection. His flowers—for he had a taste for gardening—were attended to with the most scrupulous care, and everything about him was subject to the same rule. He was, as I have said, a well-informed man, and one who could express himself on any subject. One day—I remember it well, what I paid little attention to at the time, but which stuck to me long after—he said, “James, do you believe in spectral visitations?” “Certainly not,” I answered. Said old Tom, “You are wise in your own conceit. I tell you, James, that you are one I love. I am a lonely man, and, my lad, if you are ever in a difficulty I may—for I will not live long—prove to you what you now reject is truth.” “But you are not going to die yet, Tom,” said I. “You are in good health.” “But,” he answered, “did you never read the lines of one of my countrymen? ‘Coming events cast their shadow before?’” “Oh,” said I, “you are letting your spirits down with these old wives stories.” “Perhaps,” he said; “but we do not know what an hour may bring forth. Go, my lad, I have kept you past your time. Good-bye.” “Tom,” I said, “I hope I will find you in better trim when I come out at six to-night.” “Perhaps,” he said. “Good-bye.” I went home, but in the middle of the day was summoned to come to duty, as my poor old mate was dead. The shock nearly stunned me. He was jumping off an engine on which he had placed our water pail to get it filled at the station, and, his foot slipping on some grease on the step, he fell, was run over, and killed on the spot. A few days after I with many of my work-mates—for old Tom was popular in spite of his peculiarities—followed the remains of the kind old man to his last resting-place in the little churchyard of Black Bank, where he sleeps with the flowers he had loved so well blooming on his quiet grave. He left the bulk of his little savings to me, as he had promised, in the will that he and made a few days before his death, because, as he had said, he had no kindred or friends. The death of my poor old mate made me dull and melancholy, but time, that heals the deepest sores, brought not forgetfulness, but tranquillity to my mind, and his memory was like a pleasant dream. Another man was appointed to the vacant place, a bright merry lad, whose gay laugh and thoughtless joke was a striking contrast to my quiet work-mate. Many months had passed, when one evening I went on the night shift, and relieved my neighbour. The night was bitterly cold, and in spite of the roaring fire I was chilly, and noticed that Jack lingered long and looked out on the snow-covered ground, and back on the blazing fire as he wrapped his coat around him as he disappeared in the darkness. A dull despondent feeling took possession of me as I watched his retiring figure. I sat down and tried to read the newspapers we got thrown out of the last passenger train from town, but it was of no use, I could not do so for my life. After twelve o’clock all the trains were passed except the night mail from town, which came about ten minutes past five, and was my last train. I dropt asleep, and must have slept for some time, for I woke up with a start to find the fire low in the grate. I looked at the clock, and then went to the window. A dense frosty fog hung over all things. I could hardly see my signals. “Not a good night to make up time in; I wish it was morning.” So soliloquising I stepped up on the form to get down the key of my lamp room, beneath which our coals were kept safe from depredation. As I did so, I slipped and fell with violence, striking my leg against the fender and rolled on the floor. I experienced a numb helpless feeling in my limb, and to my consternation found that my right leg was either broken or so badly sprained that I could not move or put it to the ground. This was a pretty fix. No one passed that way in the night time or early morning and few through the day. No help could come without me using the instruments, and I found that I was unable to move myself from the floor; I must lie till the fast train was signalled from Mudford Junction, and the signalman getting no answer would send some person to see what was wrong. The clock struck five; in ten minutes the last train was due. Minute after minute passed by, and I counted them with anxiety and nervous impatience. The lamps had burned low; the fire died out. A dull gleam of misty grey light showed the approach of day; sharp, clear, and loud rang out the attention signal from Mudford. I thought I heard a faint click; but it must be imagination. My mind was in misery as I lay impatiently listening for the train waiting signal, six beats of the bell. There it goes. One short beat. What! I almost sprang to my feet in my horror. The signalman had passed the train—it was beyond his power of recall! The madman! What frightful blunder had he committed? A train crowded with passengers, travelling at the probable speed of forty-five miles an hour to certain destruction, for the points lay for the ballast hill, a frail barrier of timber only protecting the siding from a decline or embankment of twenty-five or thirty feet into the steep country road. I knew that any chance of my danger signals stopping the train was hopeless. When I looked out an hour before I could hardly see them. It was no better that the dawn was approaching—the rime mantle was thicker than ever. The speed they ran at, even if they noticed the signals, was too quick to admit to their stopping in time. There was no Westinghouse brake in those days. I groaned in spirit, I prayed for myself, I prayed for the poor souls rushing into the jaws of death, unconsciously I cursed the Mudford man, then my own accident; I tried again desperately to rise; useless and now too late, for I heard the distant sough of the train. I suffered in a few minutes the anguish of a lifetime. To lie helpless and impotent, to hear the crash of the accident, the cries of the sufferers—men, women, and children. Was it possible? Could I be dreaming? A dark figure passed from the corner where the instruments stood, drew the levers, I heard them all go up. I felt a weight lifted off my heart; the train was safe! I tried to speak, to laugh, but I burst into tears of overwrought feeling. Rattle, rattle, the points shook, the train was at hand. “Is that you, Jack?” I cried. “God bless you, whoever you are.” No answer. I knew no man who was not a practical signalman could know how to manage the box so well. Then with an exultant roar, as if aware of its escape, the train rushed past. The figure moved towards the window and bent down as if to look out, the light of the tall lamps of the passing train shone on the face. “Merciful father” I tried to say, but I could not force my paralysed tongue to utter a word. With a stifled sob I fainted away, and all became a blank. “Wake up” were the first words I hear, as I felt being heartily shaken. “Get up, man. What is the matter with you? Get up, I say, what is wrong with you?” cried Jack, as with a look of terror I opened my eyes. “You look as if you had seen a ghost.” “So I have,” I answered, with a shudder. “Don’t talk stuff. I believe you have seen spirits, and tasted them to,” he said. “If you get up I will put you all right.” “I can’t rise; my leg in broken or badly sprained.” “So it is broken, by Jove,” he said. “Wait till I telegraph for help.” And the good-natured fellow sprang to the instrument. “Why, poor chap, he must have been a hard-hearted brute to leave you.” “Who?” “Why, the fellow who marked the express, for I can see it is not your writing.” “Let me see it,” I said, as my heart sank. “After a while. Wait till I send the message.” “Let me see it now, Jack Robson,” I cried. “There has been no living mortal here; let me look.” He handed me the book in an astonished and incredulous manner. There in a hand I knew as well as my own was the writing of Thomas Bruce. I have little more to say. The books were examined by men who knew the dead man’s handwriting, by experts, but all were at a loss. The newspapers of the day took it up one day and dropt it the next. The signalman at Mudford swore he was answered in the usual manner, and the pointsman at the next box swore the train was sent on to him correctly.

One thing, I refused ever to return to Black Bank cabin again, and the Superintendent gave me a shift, as an old and faithful servant who might claim some indulgence.

I lay ill for months afterwards, and my hair, as you see, it grew quite white, though before that night I had not a grey hair in my head. People say it was all imagination, but till I die I will live in the belief that I saw Tom Bruce that night, and that he passed the express.

W.T.

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