If you are a fan of history and romance, you have probably encountered Alfred Noyes's poem "The Highwayman", or the musical version sung by Loreena McKennit. It is about (surprise, surprise ) a highwayman, along with the girl he loves, Bess, the landlord's daughter, and (spoiler alert!) tells the story of their tragic deaths.
Maybe I'm just not romantic, but when I first read this poem as a sophomore in high school, I was struck mostly by the total stupidity of the title character. (More spoilers ahead. Click here to read the poem, if you haven't already, or just read on if you don't mind knowing.) "So the girl I loved killed herself to warn me about soldiers who wanted to shoot me. Obviously the proper way to honor her sacrifice is to ride towards those same soldiers in broad daylight screaming my wish for revenge so that they can shoot me anyway! What a great idea!"
If I were Bess the landlord's daughter, I wouldn't be caught dead with this idiot. Which, if you read the last couple stanzas of Noyes's poem, is precisely what she is. I suppose it's meant to be tragically beautiful that their ghosts keep on having that final meeting where he kisses her hair, but I just can't get past how everlastingly dumb the highwayman was. He had to be good at ambushing people if he was successful enough to be wearing jewels and lace, so why couldn't he have ambushed the redcoats? He'd probably still have died, but he might have been able to take out the sadists who tied Bess up against that gun.
Of course, in the interests of fairness, we also have to look at what Bess was up to. The redcoats probably weren't very stealthy about marching up to the door of the inn, and a young lady who's in love with a highwayman ought to be able to figure out that a troop of soldiers in the neighborhood isn't good for business. We don't get any details on where Noyes's Bess was or what she was doing when the redcoats arrived, so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and assume that she was busy inside the inn, probably doing chores, and didn't realize the soldiers were coming until they were already there.
But if she hadn't been...
Well, see for yourself. Here is Part One of Alfred Noyes's "The Highwayman", unedited, and then my thoroughly reconstructed Part Two. Click the title for the full, original text as provided by WikiSource, and please enjoy!
The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding—
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn-door.
He'd a French cocked-hat on his forehead, a bunch of lace at his chin,
A coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of brown doe-skin;
They fitted with never a wrinkle: his boots were up to the thigh!
And he rode with a jewelled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jewelled sky.
Over the cobbles he clattered and clashed in the dark inn-yard,
And he tapped with his whip on the shutters, but all was locked and barred;
He whistled a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord's black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord's daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
And dark in the dark old inn-yard a stable-wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened; his face was white and peaked;
His eyes were hollows of madness, his hair like mouldy hay,
But he loved the landlord's daughter,
The landlord's red-lipped daughter,
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say—
"One kiss, my bonny sweetheart, I'm after a prize to-night,
But I shall be back with the yellow gold before the morning light;
Yet, if they press me sharply, and harry me through the day,
Then look for me by moonlight,
Watch for me by moonlight,
I'll come to thee by moonlight, though Hell should bar the way."
He rose upright in the stirrups; he scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair i' the casement! His face burnt like a brand
As the black cascade of perfume came tumbling over his breast;
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight,
(Oh, sweet, black waves in the moonlight!)
Then he tugged at his rein in the moonlight, and galloped away to the West.
He did not come in the dawning; he did not come at noon;
And out o' the tawny sunset, before the rise o' the moon,
When the road was a gypsy's ribbon, looping the purple moor,
A red-coat troop came marching—
King George's men came marching, up to the old inn-door.
They said no word to the landlord, they drank his ale instead,
And they jested as they swilled their drinks on Bess's narrow bed;
Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets at their side!
There was death at every window,
But the soldiers who looked from the window
Saw only a dusty roadway where a stableboy did ride.
They whistled "Yankee Doodle" to taunt the shabby lad,
With his hair ill-cut 'neath his feathered cap and the fit of his clothes so bad,
But he trotted past without answer, not lifting hand nor eye,
And the soldiers calmed to their watching—
For the one who would come by moonlight to meet his love—and die.
But what if they'd known of the stables, where Tim the ostler lay,
His hands bound fast, his mouth stopped up, his clothing snatched away?
But what if they'd known of the midden, and lying discarded there
A black cascade in the sunlight
(Oh, sweet, black waves in the sunlight!)
With a wink of a dark red ribbon atop the long black hair?
For Bess was fetching water when she heard the red-coats' tread,
And quick as a bird she darted to the stable door instead;
From there she watched and she listened, and heard the soldiers tell
How they'd lie in wait till the moonlight,
Watching the road by moonlight,
For the one who'd come by moonlight, and send him down to Hell.
In fury Bess turned on the ostler, for she knew he was to blame;
Though Tim he begged for her mercy, and called her by her name,
She struck him down with her bucket, she took his clothes as disguise,
And she cut off her hair in the sunlight,
Saddled her horse in the sunlight,
And rode to her love through the sunlight, 'neath the red-coats' very eyes!
And still of a winter's night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
Two highwaymen come riding—
Two highwaymen come riding, up to the old inn-door.
They both wear velvets and laces as they clatter and clash along,
And their eyes are laughing merry, and their lips are full of song,
As they walk their mounts to the stables, for a bed awaits them there!
The highwayman and his lady—
Bess, his strong-souled lady—
With a dark red love-knot plaited into her short black hair.