In The Signal Box

A Signalman risks his son's life to save the passengers on a train.

It's a quiet station, but it suits me well enough;
I want a bit of the smooth now, for I've had my share o' rough.
This berth that the company gave me, they gave as the work was light;
I was never fit for the signals after one awful night.
I'd been in the box from a younker, and I'd never felt the strain
Of the lives at my right hand's mercy in every passing train.
One day there was something happened, and it made my nerves go queer,
And it's all through that as you find me the station-master here.

I was on at the box down yonder-that's where we turn the mails,
And specials, and fast expresses, on to the centre rails;
The side's for the other traffic-the luggage and local slows.
It was rare hard work at Christmas, when double the traffic grows.
I've been in the box down yonder nigh sixteen hours a day,
Till my eyes grew dim and heavy, and my thoughts went all astray;
But I've worked the points half-sleeping-and once I slept outright,
Till the roar of the Limited¹ woke me, and I nearly died with fright.

Then I thought of the lives in peril, and what might have been their fate
Had I sprung to the points that evening a tenth of a tick too late;
And a cold and ghastly shiver ran icily through my frame
As I fancied the public clamour, the trial, and bitter shame.
I could see the bloody wreckage-I could see the mangled slain-
And the picture was seared for ever, blood-red, on my heated brain.
That moment my nerve was shattered, for I couldn't shut out the thought
Of the lives I held in my keeping, and the ruin that might be wrought.

That night in our little cottage, as I kissed our sleeping child,
My wife looked up from her sewing, and told me, as she smiled,
That Johnny had made his mind up-he'd be a pointsman too.
'He says when he's big, like daddy, he'll work in the box with you.
I frowned, for my heart was heavy, and my wife she saw the look;
Lord bless you! my little Alice could read me like a book.
I'd to tell her of what had happened, and I said that I must leave,
For a pointsman's arm ain't trusty when terror lurks in his sleeve.

But she cheered me up in a minute, and that night, ere we went to sleep,
She made me give her a promise, which I swore that I'd always keep -
It was always to do my duty. 'Do that, and then, come what will,
You'll have no worry,' said Alice, 'if things go well or ill.
There's something that always tells us the thing that we ought to do'-
My wife was a bit religious, and in with the chapel crew.
But I knew she was talking reason, and I said to myself, says I,
'I won't give in like a coward - it's a scare that'll soon go by.'

Now, the very next day the missus had to go to the market town;
She'd the Christmas things to see to, and she wanted to buy a gown.
She'd be gone for a spell, for the parly didn't come back till eight,
And I knew, on a Christmas Eve, too, the trains would be extra late.
So she settled to leave me Johnny, and then she could turn the key -
For she'd have some parcels to carry, and the boy would be safe with me.
He was five was our little Johnny, and quiet, and nice, and good -
He was mad to go with daddy, and I'd often promised he should.

It was noon when the missus started-her train went by my box;
She could see, as she passed my window, her darling's curly locks.
I lifted him up to mammy, and he kissed his little hand,
Then sat, like a mouse, in the corner, and thought it was fairyland.
But somehow I fell a-thinking of a scene that would not fade,
Of how I had slept on duty, until I grew afraid;
For the thought would weigh upon me, one day I might come to lie
In a felon's cell for the slaughter of those I had doomed to die.

The fit that had come upon me, like a hideous nightmare seemed,
Till I rubbed my eyes and started like a sleeper who has dreamed.
For a time the box had vanished-I'd worked like a mere machine -
My mind had been on the wander, and I'd neither heard nor seen.
With a start I thought of Johnny, and I turned the boy to seek,
Then I uttered a groan of anguish, for my lips refused to speak;
There had flashed such a scene of horror swift on my startled sight
That it curdled my blood in terror and sent my red lips white.

It was all in one awful moment-I saw that the boy was lost:
He had gone for a toy, I fancied, some child from a train had tossed;
The local was easing slowly to stop at the station here,
And the Limited Mail was coming, and I had the line to clear.
I could hear the roar of the engine, I could almost feel its breath,
And right on the centre metals stood my boy in the jaws of death;
On came the fierce fiend, tearing straight for the centre line,
And the hand that must wreck or save it, O merciful God, was mine!

'Twas a hundred lives or Johnny's. O Heaven! what could I do? -
Up to God's ear that moment a wild, fierce question flew -
'What shall I do, O Heaven?' and sudden and loud and clear
On the wind came the words, 'Your duty,' borne to my listening ear.
Then I set my teeth, and my breathing was fierce and short and quick.
'My boy!' I cried, but he heard not; and then I went blind and sick;
The hot black smoke of the engine came with a rush before,
I turned the mail to the centre, and by it flew with a roar.

Then I sank on my knees in horror, and hid my ashen face -
I had given my child to Heaven; his life was a hundred's grace.
Had I held my hand a moment, I had hurled the flying mail
To shatter the creeping local that stood on the other rail!
Where is my boy, my darling? O God! let me hide my eyes.
How can I look - his father -on that which there mangled lies?
That voice! -- O merciful Heaven! - 'tis the child's, and he calls my name!
I hear, but I cannot see him, for my eyes are filled with flame.