Behind the Fiction Past
By Brenda Weeaks

Hello, and welcome to Behind the Fiction. This month I am highlighting a recently published historical novel, Watch by Moonlight by Kate Hawks. Ms. Hawks lives in Lincoln, CA, and this is her second novel.

Ever heard of the poem The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes? I had, long ago. It was brought to my attention again when someone played music artist Loreena McKennitt's CD, The Book of Secrets, for me. Track 5 of the CD has a 10 minute 19 second haunting version of The Highwayman. When I came across the historical novel Watch by Moonlight by Kate Hawks, I discovered Noyes's poem was behind the fiction. Curiosity got the better of me. I wondered if she could successfully bring the 18th century to life, create characters we could care for, or even stay true to the poem. There was so much riding on her decision to write a serious historical fiction based on Noyes's Highwayman. Having read the book, I feel she has accomplished all that and more.

Choosing to write a story based on a historical piece of work, person, or event can be a great challenge - a fail or succeed effort with no in between. I admire writers who attempt this for two reasons. One: they draw up memories - usually good ones -- of something in the past, and two: they bravely go against a tide of naysayers who will, most likely, never be happy with a tale - any tale -- retold anew.

Kate Hawks is one willing to follows her instincts and take a chance. Bravo.

Other books written with the famous poem in mind:
A Highwayman Comes Riding by Denise Dietz, Mary Ellen Johnson (Historical fiction)
The Highwayman's Daughter by by Anne Avery (Historical Romance)

Recommended similar titles:
The Birth of Blue Satan by Patricia Wynn (Historical Mystery)
The Robber Bridegroom by Eudora Welty (Classic Literature)
Vixen in Velvet by Fern Michaels (Historical Romance)
The Highwayman (Irish Eyes Romance Series) by Anne Kelleher (Historical Romance)

Recommended Websites
About Alfred Noyes
Some of his work

Watch by Moonlight by Kate Hawks
William Morrow & Co - June 2001
ISBN: 038081465X - Hardcover - 224 pages - US $24.00
Historical Fiction / England - 1763

Reviewed by Brenda Weeaks,
Buy a Copy

Historical novelist Kate Hawks brings to readers a second novel. In Watch by Moonlight, Ms. Hawks takes on a daring deed when she brings to life British poet Alfred Noyes's The Highwayman. Being aware of the poem was only part of the reason I became so engrossed in reading the tale. The other was her ability to bring 18th century England to life, warts and all. The characters are intriguing, romantic, emotional, and most of all realistic; all part of an exceptionally poignant tale that kept me still throughout the night.

Bess works for her parents at the King's Shilling, a tavern. Her glances stray constantly to the door, not in hopes of another customer, but of a prince to rescue her from a never-ending existence, which deadens her spirit more with each passing day. One night, it finally happens. Jason, a stranger from London, arrives. When their eyes meet, they know their futures are entwined. After Jason and Bess's first meeting, the reader is taken back to where Jason's path took a tragic twist when his father, a printer, is put in debtor's prison. All Jason knew is lost. He works hard to gain it all back, but fate's dominating rule has other plans. Jason ends up at Kings Shilling trying to gain passage to America, with ill-gotten gains, and wants to take Bess with him.

Don't expect a white washed, bodice-ripper here. True the relationship of the main characters is a major part of the story, but without the existences and events of the others - Jason's father, the actors, Owen the pickpocket, the King's soldiers, Bess's parents, the rejected suitor, scorned lover, Abel the teacher, etc. - there would be no story. Watch by Moonlight is a genuine historical novel.

If you are already aware of the poem's ending you will most likely wonder, as I did, if Ms. Hawks stays true to Noyes work or sentimentally goes in the other direction. For that answer, you will have to read it yourself.

The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes, Charles Keeping (Illustrator)
A wonderfully, illustrated version of The Highwayman.
Click on the book to buy a copy.


The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes


THE wind was a torrent of darkness upon the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight looping 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, and a bunch of lace at his chin;
He'd a coat of the claret velvet, and breeches of fine doe-skin.
They fitted with never a wrinkle; his boots were up to his thigh!
And he rode with a jeweled twinkle--
His rapier hilt a-twinkle--
His pistol butts a-twinkle, under the jeweled 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 landlord's black-eyed daughter--
Bess, the landlord's daughter--
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

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 black-eyed daughter;
Dumb as a dog he listened, and he heard the robber say:

"One kiss, my bonny sweetheart; I'm after a prize tonight,
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 stood upright in the stirrups; he scarce could reach her hand,
But she loosened her hair in the casement! His face burnt like a brand
As the sweet black waves of perfume came tumbling o'er his breast,
Then he kissed its waves in the moonlight
(O sweet black waves in the moonlight!),
And he tugged at his reins in the moonlight, and galloped away to the west.


He did not come in the dawning; 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 over the purple moor,
The redcoat troops 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,
But they gagged his daughter and bound her to the foot of her narrow bed.
Two of them knelt at her casement, with muskets by their side;
There was Death at every window,
And Hell at one dark window,
For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.

They had bound her up at attention, with many a sniggering jest!
They had tied a rifle beside her, with the barrel beneath her breast!
"Now keep good watch!" and they kissed her. She heard the dead man say,
"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 the knots held good!
She writhed her hands till her fingers were wet with sweat or blood!
They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years,
Till, 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;
Up, she stood up at attention, with the barrel 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 tlot! Had they heard it? The horse-hooves, ringing clear;
Tlot tlot, tlot tlot, in the distance! Were they deaf that they did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill,
The highwayman came 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, he spurred to the West; he did not know who stood
Bowed, with her head o'er the casement, drenched in her own red blood!
Not till the dawn did he hear it, and his face grew grey to hear
How Bess, the landlord's daughter,
The landlord's black-eyed daughter,
Had watched for her love in the moonlight, and died in the darkness there.

Back, he spurred like a madman, shrieking a curse to the sky,
With the white road smoking behind him and his rapier brandished high!
Blood-red were his spurs in the golden noon, wine-red was his velvet coat
When they shot him down in the highway,
Down like a dog in the highway,
And he lay in his blood in the highway, with the bunch of lace at his throat.

And still on 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 gypsy's ribbon looping the purple moor,
The highwayman comes riding--
The 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 landlord's black-eyed daughter--
Bess, the landlord's daughter--
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.

2001 Past Columns


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