37. 23.iii - Thomas's Narration of the Story of Black Bess
He did not come in the dawning. He did not come at noon.
But out of the tawny sunset, before the rise of the moon - when the road was a gypsy’s ribbon, looping the purple moor - a red-coat troop came marching - marching, marching - England’s men came marching, up to the old inn-door. They said no word to the landlord. They drank his ale instead. And they gagged his daughter, and bound her, to the foot of her narrow bed. Two of them knelt by her window, with muskets at their side! There was death at every window - and pure hell at one dark window.
For Bess could see, through her casement, the road that he would ride.
They had tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest. They had bound a musket beside her, with the muzzle beneath her chest!
“Now, keep good watch!” they shouted and they kissed her.
She recalled the doomed 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!”
Bess twisted her hands behind her; but all the knots held tight. She writhed her hands until her fingers ran wet with sweat or blood. They stretched and strained in the darkness, and the hours crawled by like years. Until 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. And up, she stood up to attention, with the muzzle beneath her chest. 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 of her veins, in the moonlight, throbbed to her love’s refrain.
Had they heard it?
The horse-hoofs ringing clear?
In the distance?
Were they deaf that they did not hear?
Down the ribbon of moonlight, over the brow of the hill, a highwayman came riding - riding, riding - the red coats looked to their priming! She stood up, straight and still.
in the frosty silence!
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 musket, drenched with her own blood! Not till the dawn he heard it, and his face grew grey to hear: how Bess, the landlord’s daughter, had watched for her love in the moonlight and died in the darkness there.
Back, he spurred like a madman, shouting 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 on the highway,
Down like a dog on the highway!
And he lay in his blood on the highway, with a bunch of lace at his throat.