Quick: do you remember “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes? Yeah, me neither; I must have been asleep that semester in college. Well, apparently it’s a classic ballad about the tragedy of a bold young highwayman who risks it all – his future, his lovely serving-wench sweetheart, his very life – on one last heist. There’s plenty of rather forced rhyming, some melodramatic talk of love-knots and black eyes, and then a super-maudlin, depressing conclusion. Ah, the good old days, before the invention of the happy ending.
If you’re interested, the complete poem is included in the back of Kate Hawks’s Watch By Moonlight. But if you’re not already familiar with the story, I suggest you skip over it until afterward, because it’ll ruin the suspense.
Bess Whateley is an innkeeper’s daughter in a rural eighteenth-century English village. Still in her teens, Bess is grimly aware of the tedious, unremarkable life ahead of her: she’ll marry the sleazy, menacing Tim Groot, who will take over ownership of the inn, and she’ll work her hands to the bone six days a week while periodically squeezing out kids. Yikes. It’s a hard life, and Bess already knows she wants something more – she wants excitement, change, maybe even love. But nothing changes in the sleepy little town where she lives, and Bess suspects that she’ll eventually bow to the inevitable and accept a deadly dull country life.
Until, that is, the mysterious arrival of a handsome, pale stranger at the bar. He has the dress and manners of a gentleman, but remains oddly reserved, with only a few words and an intense gaze directed at Bess; when he retires, he leaves a generous tip for her, and a fresh bloodstain on the bar. What girl could resist such a thrilling apparition? Certainly not Bess, and she finds herself longing impatiently for his return.
Alas, things are never that easy. Jason Quick, the stranger, does indeed have eyes for Bess, and seems only too willing to take her away to start a new life elsewhere. But he’s burdened by a dark past – bankruptcy, political imprisonment, lost relatives – and seeks reparations from the corrupt upper classes by robbing them on the highways as the legendary Golden Fleecer. Will Jason put his past behind him, and allow the love of a good woman to guide him back to the straight and narrow? Or will his thirst for revenge and his furious greed spell his downfall? Only Alfred Noyes knows for sure.
Hawks is a solid if unspectacular writer; considering that she’s working within the boundaries imposed by the original poem, she does a decent job of embellishing the story and bringing the characters to life. Her protagonists are good people, but hardly flawless; they frequently do the wrong thing, though often for the right reason, and their occasional twinges of guilt don’t stop them from their larcenous, adulterous, even murderous behavior. Bess and Jason are idealistic young lovers, still naïve enough to believe that their luck will hold forever, and selfish enough to be willing to exploit others to realize their dream.
The prose is entertaining enough, with a well-sustained ominous mood hanging over the story from nearly the first page (as if bloody strangers showing up in sleepy country villages and making eyes at serving wenches ever boded well). The plot bogs down in the middle of the story, during Bess and Jason’s lukewarm courtship, though Hawks tries to liven things up with Jason’s pillow-talk reminiscences about his dark political past. Fortunately, the action soon gets going again for the climactic stagecoach robbery, with plenty of rain-slashed fields and hooves galloping down darkened country roads.
Never breathtaking but thoroughly readable, Watch By Moonlight is an interesting contemporary reworking of Noyes’s ballad, accessible enough to please readers who are unfamiliar with the original work. Not that I’m condoning sleeping through English class – but if you must, Hawks’s book is a good way to catch up on what you missed.