Happy Halloween! In this spooky special episode of Thinking in English, I thought I would introduce you all to one of the most famous ghost stories of all time – “The Signal-Man” by Charles Dickens.
“The Signal-Man” is an incredibly famous ghost story, written in 1866 by the great writer Charles Dickens. A railway signalman tells the narrator about a mysterious vision he keeps having. He works near a railway tunnel where he controls the movements of passing trains. But he is haunted by a ghostly figure which appears on the railway just before tragic events occur.
As the story was written over 150 years ago – the vocabulary and way of making sentences may be a little more difficult that you are used to. BUT, I want you all to challenge yourself. Focus on the story, and don’t get distracted by vocabulary and phrases that may be new to you! I’ll leave an extensive vocabulary list at the end of my reading.
I’m going to read a brief extract from the short story on the podcast today, and if you are interested in reading the whole story, I’ll leave links to access the full free book! Sit back, read along with the transcript and vocabulary on my blog, and prepare to be freaked out by “The Signal Man.”
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Hoarse (adj) – (of a voice or a person) having a rough voice, often because of a sore throat or a cold
Figure (n) – the shape of a person’s body, or a body seen not clearly or from a distance:
To steal (v) – to do something quickly while trying not to be seen doing it
Abhorrence (n) – a hate of something or someone
Deception (n) – the act of hiding the truth, especially to get an advantage
To minister (v) – to attend to the needs of (someone).
Affliction (n) – something that makes you suffer
To beg (v) – to make a very strong and urgent request
Coincidence (n) – an occasion when two or more similar things happen at the same time, especially in a way that is unlikely and surprising:
Spectre (n) – a ghost
Instantaneously (adv) – in a way that happens immediately, without any delay
To lament (v) – to express sadness and feeling sorry about something
Vehemence (n) – the forceful expression of strong feelings
Gesticulation (n) – movements with your hands or arms intended to express something or to emphasize what you are saying
Dismal (adj) – sad and without hope
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“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.”
“Into the tunnel?” said I.
“No. I ran on into the tunnel, five hundred yards. I stopped, and held my lamp above my head, and saw the figures of the measured distance, and saw the wet stains stealing down the walls and trickling through the arch. I ran out again faster than I had run in (for I had a mortal abhorrence of the place upon me), and I looked all round the red light with my own red light, and I went up the iron ladder to the gallery atop of it, and I came down again, and ran back here. I telegraphed both ways, ‘An alarm has been given. Is anything wrong?’ The answer came back, both ways, ‘All well.’”
Resisting the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine, I showed him how that this figure must be a deception of his sense of sight; and how that figures, originating in disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the functions of the eye, were known to have often troubled patients, some of whom had become conscious of the nature of their affliction, and had even proved it by experiments upon themselves. “As to an imaginary cry,” said I, “do but listen for a moment to the wind in this unnatural valley while we speak so low, and to the wild harp it makes of the telegraph wires.”
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That was all very well, he returned, after we had sat listening for a while, and he ought to know something of the wind and the wires,—he who so often passed long winter nights there, alone and watching. But he would beg to remark that he had not finished.
I asked his pardon, and he slowly added these words, touching my arm,—
“Within six hours after the Appearance, the memorable accident on this Line happened, and within ten hours the dead and wounded were brought along through the tunnel over the spot where the figure had stood.”
A disagreeable shudder crept over me, but I did my best against it. It was not to be denied, I rejoined, that this was a remarkable coincidence, calculated deeply to impress his mind. But it was unquestionable that remarkable coincidences did continually occur, and they must be taken into account in dealing with such a subject. Though to be sure I must admit, I added (for I thought I saw that he was going to bring the objection to bear upon me), men of common sense did not allow much for coincidences in making the ordinary calculations of life.
He again begged to remark that he had not finished.
I again begged his pardon for being betrayed into interruptions.
“This,” he said, again laying his hand upon my arm, and glancing over his shoulder with hollow eyes, “was just a year ago. Six or seven months passed, and I had recovered from the surprise and shock, when one morning, as the day was breaking, I, standing at the door, looked towards the red light, and saw the spectre again.” He stopped, with a fixed look at me.
“Did it cry out?”
“No. It was silent.”
“Did it wave its arm?”
“No. It leaned against the shaft of the light, with both hands before the face. Like this.”
Once more I followed his action with my eyes. It was an action of mourning. I have seen such an attitude in stone figures on tombs.
“Did you go up to it?”
“I came in and sat down, partly to collect my thoughts, partly because it had turned me faint. When I went to the door again, daylight was above me, and the ghost was gone.”
“But nothing followed? Nothing came of this?”
He touched me on the arm with his forefinger twice or thrice giving a ghastly nod each time:—
“That very day, as a train came out of the tunnel, I noticed, at a carriage window on my side, what looked like a confusion of hands and heads, and something waved. I saw it just in time to signal the driver, Stop! He shut off, and put his brake on, but the train drifted past here a hundred and fifty yards or more. I ran after it, and, as I went along, heard terrible screams and cries. A beautiful young lady had died instantaneously in one of the compartments, and was brought in here, and laid down on this floor between us.”
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 agonised 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.”
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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 spot.
“No,” he answered. “It is not there.”
“Agreed,” said I.
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That was an extract from “The Signal-Man” by Charles Dickens. If you would like to read the whole story and find out what happens in the end, I’ll leave a link to a free e-book from Project Gutenberg! I hope you all enjoyed this episode – I wanted to try something different.
Fiction is such an important and amazing tool for English learners – and with audiobooks and fiction-based podcasts available everywhere now… I think you should all be using them!
I’ll leave a vocabulary list at the end of this episode if you’d like to listen, and there is one on the blog and description of the podcast (if it fits).
What did you think of “The Signal-Man”? What is your favourite ghost story? Do you celebrate Halloween in your country?
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