Illustrator Charles Keeping had a dark side, always just beneath the surface of his work. Compare the work he did in “Joseph’s Yard” with “The Highwayman”, the famous poem by Alfred Noyes. The Highwayman is a satisfyingly Gothic love story of a highwayman and “Bess the landlords red lipped daughter”. You can read (or listen to) the poem here. The poem has a urgent rhythm that drives it along – its the kind of poem you feel compelled to read out loud:
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.
The illustrations have a much darker vision, closer to the work he did on “The Golden Shadow” and “The God Beneath The Sea“. He works with dark brown ink, almost black, scrawled and splattered on the page. I love the way he draws horses. Apparently he grew up next door to London’s cart horse stables and spent hours watching the horses through the fence. Its shows. And here is the highwayman himself:
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 jeweled twinkle,
His pistol butts a-twinkle,
His rapier hilt a-twinkle, under the jeweled sky.
The highway man rides to meet his love – the landlords “black eyed daughter” plaiting a dark red love knot in her long black hair:
He tells her that he is after a prize tonight and that he will be back “though hell should bar the way”. But they are betrayed by Tim the osler, who is secretly in love with Bess. A crowd of soldiers arrive at the Inn and set up an ambush:
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 at 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 tied her up to attention, with many a sniggering jest;
They had bound a musket 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!”
I suppose they tied her up with that musket beneath her breast to intimidate her? I am not sure. In any case, Bess realises that this is her one chance to warn her lover. She writhes in her bonds until at last:
Till, now, on the stroke of midnight,
Cold, on the stroke of midnight,
The tip of one finger touched it! The trigger at last was hers!
After many long hours she hears the sound of horses hooves drawing near and she realises that the highwayman has returned:
Tlot-tlot; tlot-tlot! Had they heard it? The horse-hoofs 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 red-coats 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.
The sound of the shot warns her lover, and he escapes, not realising what the sound meant. But later when he hears the story of how Bess had sacrificed her life to warn him, he goes mad with grief:
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 i’ 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 the bunch of lace at his throat.
The last two verses tells a ghost story. The first two verses are repeate and the ghostly lovers meet again. And the illustrations are repeated as well, but inverted:
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,
A highwayman comes 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 landlord’s black-eyed daughter,
Bess, the landlord’s daughter,
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
And on the back cover of the book, the lover’s embrace:
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like:
- writer/illustrator Charles Keeping: Joseph’s Yard
- Writer / Illustrator Mervyn Peake: Drawing a vivid darkness
- A Rivalry of Wizards – a collection of my favourite wizards, complete with pictures and quotes