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Stories of Mystery edited by Rossiter Johnson
THE SIGNAL-MAN by CHARLES DICKENS.
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 lamenting wail.
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 agonized manner, 'Below there! Look out! Look out!' It stands waving to me. It rings my little bell--"
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 it."
"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 point.
"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 mean?"
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?"