It was the last straw. The music of a tin whistle, playing a lively reel, caught Marsmain’s ear. Below in the stable yard a small figure was dancing, bare feet twinkling, petticoats a-whirl. That dratted girl Maureen! A pretty piece, he remembered, a rarity at Castle Ballinmore where his mother had, and not without reason, always engaged plain, mature women-servants who stayed forever and distracted neither men nor masters. Egad, what an opportunity to vent his frustration of lust and rage. Swiftly as a cat stalking prey, he was down the stairs and out into the yard. Unaware of his approach, Hughy and Maureen were caught. The music ceased abruptly; Maureen smoothed her petticoats. Two or three figures lurking in the shadows melted away.
“Is this how you serve your mistress?” Marsmain enquired of Maureen. “Does it not occur to you that she may need you? Get inside at once! And you, my bold whistler, could be better occupied serving his lordship. I think we can find something useful for you to do.”
Although it was not Hughy’s job to wait on his masters, he was pressed into bringing up the best brandy to the dining table where they found Lord Ballinmore fast asleep where they had left him. Head on his arms, he sprawled over the table, mouth open, snoring. Nick shook him awake. It took some time.
“Gwennie, my sweet little Gwennie!” he kept muttering. “Say you'll marry me ..... say you'll come back.”
“That is enough!” Nick remonstrated sharply. “Wake up and see what a delicious piece I have brought for our delight. We shall have dancing.”
“Caroline?” Ballinmore muttered, reminded by the mention of music. “Music. How sweetly she plays the pianoforte.”
“Caroline has retired to bed. We have another musician. The tin whistle is better fitted to the reel. You shall see. Now, drink your brandy.”
It was plain the old man had had enough strong drink. He was at the stage when enough was only an appetiser. He gulped a huge mouthful from the too well filled goblet.
“Now my pretty pair, let us see what you can do,” Nick commanded, “what was that air you were playing?”
The look in his eyes was dangerous. Hughy dared make no demur. He whipped the tin whistle from his pocket and resumed the reel. Maureen hesitated.
“Dance, damn you, dance wench!” Nick roared.
She began tentatively. There was no joy in the movement, no swirling petticoats. Her bare feet seemed to tread on broken glass.
“Dance, trollop!” Nick urged, “dance the way you were dancing out there. None of your dainty, mincing steps. Let me see those petticoats fly. I have seen your ankles already. Let me see more ..... more, I say. And you, bog trotter, put some life in the music!”
Hughy could see his hand on the butt of his pistol, the murderous intent in his eye, the devil's lamp lighting in the old man's eyes. There were two of them, both handy with weapons. They wanted music and dancing and they wanted it their way. They would not be denied. He knew he was playing for his life ..... and for Maureen's life or honour. He played as though it was a life-or-death matter, louder, faster, more furious and the two men applauded and urged him on. Not that they were interested in his music. Their eyes were on Maureen, goading her to greater daring, by gestures forcing her to lift her skirts higher. A glimpse of shapely calf brought applause, the sight of a dimpled knee, a hoarse cheer, a swift gleam of pale thigh a guffaw of coarse laughter. Except for the intervals in which the glasses were replenished, there was no respite for the entertainers. The tin whistle dripped saliva; sweat rolled down Maureen’s cheeks damping her curls to draggled tails.
Ballinmore had slithered down in his chair. At any minute he would fall on the floor. There was an interval during which Hughy had to give a hand in resettling him. The goblets were replenished. Maureen moved as far back as she could, trying to escape notice. If only she could get behind the window curtain. But no; Marsmain summoned her again. With a wide sweep of his hands he cleared the table; there was a crash of glass as the vases of summer posies which Caroline had so daintily arranged, were flung to the floor. Water seeped over the carpet unheeded.
“On the table, hussy!” Marsmain commanded, “on the table, I say ..... at once and let us see your pretty pins.”
Hughy’s face reddened with anger, but what could he do? Maureen scrambled on the table and when, at a signal, the music began, she started to dance. Faster and faster went the music, swifter flew her feet, higher and higher as Marsmain bellowed. The two men leaned forward; she could feel their lustful eyes on her nakedness. Soon it was to be absolute. Ballinmore clutched at her red petticoat, held on till it gave way. Marsmain snatched her shawl, plucked her bodice strings.
“Now, my dainty, dance!” he shouted, “fling your legs up. You have nothing to hide I have not see before ..... and I'll see again, for egad, you’ll be mine this night. What say you, bog trotter?”
Hughy had paused, glaring at him with murder in his eyes. Marsmain’s hand found the pistol and withdrew it. With the weapon trained on him, Hughy must obey. Marsmain would shoot him like a rat. What could a dead rat do to save Maureen? He blushed for her shame. His heart swelled with rage. He would gladly have strangled Marsmain and his leering lordship of Ballinmore. He played the music of the dance and waited. Sooner or later one of these devils must succumb. They had drunk a great deal of brandy. He put his faith in the strong spirit, but it seemed to be working against him. Even the older man was suffused with a maniac strength. Or was it pure lust, for his hands were on Maureen, touching her at every opportunity. He dared not stop the music; as long as she danced she could elude the lecher grasp. The devil had taken over; this devil dance might go on forever. The room rang with the frenzy of music, the guffaws of ribald mirth, the vile remarks, the pitiful gasps of the desperate girl. Was there no ending forever and ever?
Crash! A sound of breaking glass. A heavy thud on the floor. Someone had hurled a great stone through the window ..... someone who could see only what a narrow slit in the curtain allowed. The music stopped. Marsmain leapt to his feet. In a few strides he was out of the room, across the hall, out on the terrace. Ballinmore grew pale and fell over in his chair, then slithered slowly to the floor and lay still. Nobody rushed to help him. Grabbing her clothing, Maureen fled and Hughy with her. She paused only long enough to cover herself decently. Then the two burst, pale-faced and wild-eyed into the random chatter of the servants' quarters. Nor paused long there to explain, for time would explain all that was necessary and now help was needed, and lights and cudgels.
There was a great furore of shouting and searching and flickering lanterns in the shrubberies that night. But nothing was found. The bat-like figure of old Ninny had melted into its own darkness. She had never been known to approach the south front of the house; she was never suspected. Two menservants carried his lordship up to bed. Poor man, he had taken too much brandy. It was not like the old days when he could carry it.
Maureen made a bundle of her spare clothing. She knew what she had escaped and she must make the best of her escaping. Weary as she was, she would have walked miles to get away from that nightmare of angry lust. She did not understand the anger, nor did she know why her beloved Miss Caroline had failed her when she needed her most. There was only one thing left of which she could be certain: Hughy loved her. They would meet again.
She got off more lightly than she feared. On the morrow Marsmain sent a message via the butler: her lady no longer required her services; she must leave at once. Hughy escorted her to the back entrance. They kissed and said “good-bye”. They had no option.