Alfred Noyes

The Ballad of Dick Turpin


The daylight moon looked quietly down
Through the gathering dusk on London town

A smock-frocked yokel hobbled along
By Newgate, humming a country song.

Chewing a straw, he stood to stare
At the proclamation posted there:

“Three hundred guineas on Turpins head,
Trap him alive or shoot him dead;
And a hundred more for his mate, Tom King.”

He crouched like a tiger about to spring.

Then he looked up, and he looked down;
And chuckling low, like a country clown,

Dick Turpin painfully hobbled away
In quest of his inn – “The Load of Hay”…

Alone in her stall, his mare, Black Bess,
Lifted her head in mute distress;

For five strange men had entered the yard
And looked at her long, and looked at her hard.

They went out, muttering under their breath;
And then – the dusk grew still as death.

But the velvet ears of the listening mare
Lifted and twitched. They were there – still there;

Hidden and waiting; for whom? And why?
The clock struck four, a set drew nigh.

It was King! Dick Turpins’ mate.
The black mare whinnied. Too late! Too late!

They rose like shadows out of the ground
And grappled him there, without a sound.

“Throttle him – quietly – choke him dead!
Or we lose this hawk for a jay, they said.”

They wrestled and heaved, five men to one;
And a yokel entered the yard, alone;

A smock-frocked yokel, hobbling slow;

But a fight is physic as all men know.

His age dropped off, he stood upright.
He leapt like a tiger into the fight.

Hand to hand, they fought in the dark;
For none could fire at a twisting mark.

Where he that shot at a foe might send
His pistol ball through the skull of a friend.

But “Shoot Dick, Shoot” gasped out Tom King
“Shoot! Or damn it we both shall swing!
Shoot and chance it!” Dick leapt back.

He drew. He fired. At the pistols crack
The wrestlers whirled. They scattered apart
And the bullet drilled through Tom King’s heart…

Dick Turpin dropped his smoking gun.
They had trapped him five men to one.

A gun in the hand of the crouching five.
They could take Dick Turpin now alive;

Take him and bind him and tell their tale
As a pot house boast, when they drank their ale.

He whistled, soft as a bird might call
And a head rope snapped in his birds dark stall.

He whistled, soft as a nightingale
He heard the swish of her swinging tail.

There was no way out that the five could see
To heaven or hell, but the Tyburn tree;

No door but death; and yet once more
He whistled, as though at a sweethearts door.

The five men laughed at him, trapped alive;
And – the door crashed open behind the five!

Out of the stable, a wave of thunder,
Swept Black Bess, and the five went under.

He leapt to the saddle, a hoof turned stone,
Flashed blue fire, and their prize was gone…


Away, through the ringing cobbled street, and out by the Northern Gate,
He rode that night, like a ghost in flight, from the dogs of his own fate.

By Crackskull Common, and Highgate Heath, he heard the chase behind;
But he rode to forget — forget — forget — the hounds of his own mind.

And cherry-black Bess on the Enfield Road flew light as a bird to her goal;
But her Rider carried a heavier load, in his own struggling soul.

He needed neither spur nor whip. He was borne on a darker gale.
He rode like a hurricane-hunted ship, with the doom-wind in her sail.

He rode for one impossible thing; that in the morning light
The towers of York might waken him — from London and last night.

He rode to prove himself another, and leave himself behind.
And the hunted self was like a cloud; but the hunter like the wind.

Neck and neck they rode together; that, in the day’s first gleam,
each might prove that the other self was but a mocking dream.

And the little sleeping villages, and the breathless country side
Woke to the drum of the ghostly hooves, but missed that ghostly ride.

The did not see, they did not hear as the ghostly hooves drew nigh,
The dark magnificent thief in the night that rode so subtly by.

They woke, they rushed to the way-side door, They saw what the midnight showed,—
A mare that came like a crested wave along the Great North Road.

A flying spark in the formless dark, a flash from the hoof-spurned stone,
And the lifted face of a man – that took the starlight and was gone.

The heard the sound of a pounding chase three hundred yards away
There were fourteen men in a stream of sweat and a plaster of Midland clay.

The starlight struck their pistol-butts as they passed in the clattering crowd
But the hunting wraith was away like the wind at the heels of the hunted cloud.

He rode by the walls of Nottingham, and over him as he went
Like ghosts across the Great North Road, the boughs of Sherwood bent.

By Bawtry, all the chase but one has dropped a league behind,
Yet, one rider haunted him, invisibly, as the wind.

And northward, like a blacker night, he saw the moors up-loom
And Don and Derwent sang to him, like memory in the gloom.

And northward, northward as he rode, and sweeter than a prayer
The voices of those hidden streams, the Trent, and Ouse and Aire;

Streams that could never slake his thirst. He heard them as they flowed.
But one dumb shadow haunted him along the Great North Road.

Till now, at dawn, the towers of York rose on the reddening sky.
And Bess went down between his knees, like a breaking wave to die.

He lay beside her in the ditch, he kissed her lovely head,
And a shadow passed him like the wind and left him with his dead.

He saw, but not that one as wakes, the city that he sought,
He had escaped from London town, but not from his own thought.

He strode up to the Mickle-gate, with none to say him nay.
And there he met his Other Self in the stranger light of day.

He strode up to the dreadful thing that in the gateway stood
And it stretched out a ghostly hand that the dawn had stained with blood.

It stood as in the gates of hell, with none to hear or see,
“Welcome,” it said, “Thou’st ridden well, and outstript all but me”.