My memories of that day are a little confused at best and a hazy blur of motion and unexplained actions at the worst. I can, at times, begin to recall certain moments within particular scenes. The most clear of these comes on the days when I venture down to the westernmost room of the extensive, labyrinthine wine cellars that burrowed their way under the house at least two hundred years before I ever set foot in it.
Incidentally, I call them the wine cellars for convenience more than anything. They had long since become a repository for all things forgotten, lost or unwanted. From the fine, delicate and beauteous to the coarse, sturdy and hideous, I found everything that could ever have hoped to hold my interest in this sprawling warren of treasure troves.
To this day, I've kept the tunnels in the best condition possible. I do this for historical reasons, of course, but I also get a certain joy out of igniting the spark of adventurer in our young and, often, not so young visitors.
Yes, here we are. The western cellar. This is one place where I don't strictly allow the public to enter. You might find it strange when you she it, but I don't particularly keep anything in here. Just what remains of the famous wine collection and the memories, if you count those too.
It was dark enough down here for my corner to be cool while the blazing sun played across the wine bottles stacked against the far wall. I could read by the reflected glimmers of red and green and I was only mildly disturbed at the constant back and forth above my head. The most important, or perhaps that's the most self-important guests were occupied on the lawn, in the thick of the party. The actors, my lot, were tending to hang back, sticking closer to the house and the shade. Some of us were running over our lines to the point where they stopped meaning anything and became the gibbering of a dozen actors, each on the verge of a breakdown.
It was always the same story at one of her parties. We were supposed to be the entertainment so we never thought we could join in while we were off-duty, as it were. She, naturally, was the star of both worlds but we could tell which one she preferred. We weren't her true friends whenever she was offered her role as lady of the manor.
So we were left to work ourselves into a blind panic whenever there wasn't at least one of us performing. Eventually I would feel the urge to hide myself away and let my comrades deal with it themselves. This way I could find my own last remaining shred of calm and focus on nurturing that back to full health along with my sanity. If I was lucky, they would usually sort each other out and I would be privileged enough to catch snatches of Shakespeare on the breeze.
The Haunted Cellar (Who's Afraid) by Seymour Joseph Guy
What I heard that afternoon was the constant excited gallop of children. My daughter was sure to be among them. If I concentrate, I can pick her voice out, trying to boom over the others even though they're all at least two years older than her. Some of us are simply born to show off. I remember our own childhood games were a bit more on the daring side. We concurred the dark, abandoned catacombs and claimed them for our own long before our peers had made it down the first step.
This band of ruffians was happy enough to scare each other away from the door. Only one of them was prepared to venture through the cellar door, ready to risk life and limb, and a mighty big telling off. She was the bravest and most beautiful of the lot. A princess among those upperclass urchins. She did not know it, but now she'd been given her chance to show off and she found nothing more, or less, frightening than her own father waiting to take her in his arms as she traversed that treacherous staircase down to the Dragon King's secret dungeon. Her treasure, after much rustling and rummaging around in the Dragon King's pockets, turned out to be a sticky, crumpled bag of sherbet lemons. It might have been a forgotten bag of sweets to me but she went away looking as proud and awed as if she'd retrieved the holy grail.
She passed a great friend of mine on her way back up and out of the cellar. He didn't know at that moment how important would become to me, or indeed how grateful I was for his fortuitous involvement with our little troupe's grand performance. All he was really concerned about at that time was his orders to fetch and carry as much wine as was needed.
I will tell you now that the rhythmic, hypnotic footfalls of this particular servant are a welcome change of pace in those quieting seconds as the children scurry off. He dims the burning light for all of a moment as he passes the by the small, high window above my head and, yes, this time he descends the stairs to refill his empty basket. The regularity of his visits down those worn, uneven steps is that of clockwork. I don't know if this pattern was dictated by the guests' unique ability to put away many a fine and rare vintage over the course of an afternoon or if this was his clever ploy to keep the table stocked in such a way as to deceive them into thinking they were far less drunk than they ought to be. In either case, it was clear that the party would never run dry in his capable hands.
He puts his wicker burden down in the exact centre of the cellar. I've measured this room several times, both out of boredom and, eventually, necessity. That summer, he placed that basket in that precise spot every time he was sent for wine. I admired his insistent accuracy, regardless of whether it was born out of habit or dogged obedience.
I nod to him when he sees me and he doffs his cap and mumbles 'Sir'. He bows his head for a long second and never takes his eyes from me. Every time we played through this routine, I was always 'Sir', his mistress's special guest. Her Horatio. Though, really, in truth - she was my Hamlet.
'Wait,' I say, as the man who thinks of himself as a servant makes for the rack of glinting bottles. I hold out an arm to stop him in his determined tracks.
'You can't do this, sir,' he pleads earnestly. 'You know I have to do this. You promised you wouldn't interfere with my work if I promised to play my part in your play. Now let me do this.'
And I remember, I tighten my arm around him. He doesn't struggle, he doesn't complain, though he does look at little impatient still. I tell him, 'I will, believe me, I will. I'll make my promise again. Please, just hear me out.'
I know what happens next. I spill my heart out to him. I tell him every little fear and worry about whats been going on all that time. I even make a brave attempt to rant about it. If my voice could work I would roar out that I may as well let that harlot Hamlet steal away my brave, innocent Ophelia after ten years of covertly poisoning her mind against me. It never would have worked - it never did work!
She would have gone with away with me in the end, if things hadn't gone the way they did in the end.
That sinister, tragic turn of events that you have doubtless come to question me about.
I'm fine. I'm fine. I'll be fine. Listen to me. I'm sorry, but I'm not really sure I can -