The Highwayman

 

The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees
And the moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas
The road was a ribbon of moonlight across the purple moor
And the Highwayman came riding, riding, riding
The Highwayman came riding up to the old inn door.
He’d a French cocked hat on his forehead and a bunch of lace at his chin
A coat of the scarlet velvet and britches 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
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 landlords black eyed daughter, Bess the landlords daughter
Plaiting a dark red love knot into her long black hair.

But deep in the dark old Inn yard a stable wicket creaked
Where Tim the ostler listened and his face was white and peaked
His eyes were hollows of madness his hair like mouldy hay
But he loved the landlords daughter, the landlords red lipped daughter
And dumb as a dog he listened and he heard the robber say.

One kiss my bonny sweetheart for I’m after a prize tonight
But I will return 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.

Up he stood in his stirrups he scarce could reach her hand
But she loosened her hair in the casement his face burned like a brand
As the black cascades of perfume came tumbling over his breast
And he kissed its waves in the moonlight oh sweet black waves in the moonlight
He tugged on his rein in the moonlight and galloped away to the west.

He did not come in the dawning and he did not come at noon
And out of the tawny sunset before the rise of the moon
When the road was a gypsy’s ribbon looped across the moor
The redcoat troop came marching, marching, 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
But they gagged his daughter and bound her to the foot of her narrow bed
And two of them knelt at her casement with their muskets by their sides
There was death at every window and hell at one dark window
For Bess could see from her casement the road that he would ride.

They had bound her up to attention with many’s a sniggering jest
They had bound a musket beside her with the muzzle beneath her breast
Now keep good watch and they kissed her she heard the dead man say
O look for me by moonlight watch for me by moonlight
I’ll come to thee by moonlight though hell should bar the way.

She twisted her hands behind her but all of the knots held good
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood
She stretched and strained in the darkness the hours crawled by like years
Till now on the stroke of midnight cold on the stroke of midnight
The tip of one finger touched it the trigger at least was hers.

The tip of one finger touched it she strove no more for the rest
She stood up straight to attention with the muzzle beneath her breast
She would not risk their hearing she would not strive again
For the road lay bare in the moonlight blank and bare in the moonlight
And the blood in her veins in the moonlight throbbed to her love’s refrain.

Tlot tlot tlot had they heard it ? The horses hooves rang clear
Tlot tlot tlot tlot in the distance were they deaf that they did not hear?
Then down the ribbon of moonlight and over the brow of the hill
The Highwayman came riding, riding, riding
the redcoats looked to their priming she stood up straight and still.

Tlot tlot in the frosty silence tlot tlot in the echoing night
Nearer he came and nearer her face was like a light
Her eyes grew wide for a moment she drew one last deep breath
Then her finger moved in the moonlight her musket shattered the moonlight
Shattered her breast in the moonlight and warned him with her death.

He turned and rode to the westward he did not know who stood
With her head bowed over her musket drenched in her own red blood
‘Twas dawn before he heard it and he slowly blanched to hear
How Bess the landlords daughter the landlords black eyed daughter
Had watched for her love in the moonlight and died in the darkness there.

O back he rode like a madman shrieking a curse to the sky
The white road smoking behind him his rapier brandished high
Blood red were his spurs in the golden noon wine red was his velvet coat
When they shot him down on the highway down like a dog on the highway
He lay in his blood on the highway the bunch of lace at his throat.

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
A highwayman comes riding, riding, and riding
A highwayman comes riding up to the old inn door.

Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark Inn yard
He taps with his whip on the shutters but all is locked and barred
He whistles a tune to the window and who should be waiting there
But the landlords black eyed daughter Bess the landlords daughter
Plaiting a dark red love knot into her long black hair.

Words by Alfred Noyes, Music by Loreena McKennitt

Okay, a lot of people have recorded this old classic poem before me. I think Phil Ochs was the first and I, myself, played on a version of Danny Doyle’s back in the Eighties. A couple of years ago, I was asked to play on a version being recorded by Loreena McKennitt, the Canadian Singer and Harpist. She sent me a demo cassette and we met in Dublin but, unfortunately our schedules didn’t allow that we should meet in the studio. I was much taken with her tune and started doing the song myself. I think I’ve changed the odd word here and there and I hope the Shade of Alfred Noyes will forgive me.
At least, Alfred, this is the first complete recorded version of your poem as a song-(to my knowledge..)

Profile of Alfred Noyes

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