The Grey Lady

The sun was setting red and glorious over the fairy tale towers of Inveraray Castle. It had been a warm, bright day, and after the ordeal of two hours' bus travel in a stuffy, crowded, rickety vehicle my eyes and lungs had feasted on the fresh sea air of Loch Fyne and the rich greens of century-old beeches, oaks and lime trees. I have heard people refer to Inveraray Castle as "kitschy", but I have always been as enamoured of its playful little citadels and baronial style extravagancies as Sir Walter Scott had been over a hundred years ago. The building is set in its stately surroundings like a gem on green velvet, displaying a calm, peaceful charm during daylight, with its cattle grazing all over the estate and the carefully kept grounds blending in harmoniously with the lush growth of nature around them – especially when seen from the tower, Dùn na Cuaiche, with the castle dwarfed into a miniature dolls' house – , and exuding an aura of mystery at night, when yellow lights glimmer here and there in one of the numerous windows in the castle's sable bulk and bats are flitting round the finely wrought cast-iron gates, the dark, gnarled trees framing even darker shadows and the bright moon casting silver ripples on the river.

This was the third time I had been here, and already I felt like visiting an old friend, or even a childhood home filled with happy and strange memories, some of which kept teasing and eluding my mind like a fairy child following behind, only visible from the corner of your eye, vanishing as soon as you fully turn around.

On this visit I had omitted the ghastly chambers of Inveraray Jail, rife with disease, crime and suffering, in favour of seeing once more the castle's interiors. On such occasions I usually get bored and tired quite easily, and the furniture and furnishings of such frilly and over-ornate periods as Baroque or Regency, in fact any period but the Middle Ages, generally fail to capture my interest. Portraits, however, have always been a source of inspiration to my imagination. Here you have human lives, traits of character pinned down in eyes – eyes haughty and imperious; spoiled and indulgent; shy, confused and frightened; proud, suffering, defiant. Many a difficult fate, handed down to posterity in shorthand, in secret writing, in blanks between the brush strokes, now only to be guessed at by visitors in a fleeting moment, between a cup of tea and a stroll through the park. That frail little girl, dressed in soft bluebell colours, with her fine blonde hair and German-sounding name – what made her eyes so fearful, her look so insecure and vulnerable? Had she been ripped from her mother's protection at a tender age to be married off to some foreign lord in a strange country, neither of which she had ever seen before? Or that Byronic hero down in the gallery: which tragic love story, which hurt, either given or received, might lurk in the depths of his dark, brooding eyes? Often, having studied the portraits in a castle, I have tried to track down these people's histories, but seldom to much effect.

Now, as I walked briskly down the hill from Dùn na Cuaiche towards the footbridge over the river Aray, it was one portrait that was foremost on my mind, that of Lady Catherine Campbell. Everything about that eighteenth-century painting seemed dark and mysterious, not only the wind-swept heath and mountain landscape the artist had chosen as a background, but also the pale, fragile yet somehow strong form of the lady herself in her rich red dress, her sable hair, the open, evenly proportioned, sad features of her face, but most of all her eyes. These were of a dark grey blue, such as the ocean on a stormy, overcast day, when ships are sunk and shores are flooded. These eyes spoke of great passion, but just as much of suffering and pain.

Something in her face must have impressed me immensely, for now, on the bridge, as I bent down to examine a spider's web filling the space between two buttresses of the parapet, I thought for a split second that the fine threads, clearly visible in the light of the setting sun, formed a face. Fine strands of spidery, silvery hair moved lightly in the breeze where they should have been fastened to the stone, fragments of sky between the woven silk formed an open mouth and eyes, a bluish-red nothingness my gaze could not find a hold on. A sigh hovered in the air. It must have been me.

I shook my head and turned to the other side of the bridge where another alcove similar to the one I had just left had been used by dozens of lovers over the past years not only to sit in, but also to commemorate their names. "H loves S" … "Sean and Moira" … "I love Michael" … a few half-weathered hearts. I remembered with a smile the occasions when I myself had added names to that collection, and tried to trace their remnants in the hard, grey seat. I proceeded further to the balustrade along the bridge and tried to decipher as many inscriptions as possible, partly to get my mind off that portrait. "I woz ere" (very meaningful) … "C.S. and G.M." … the F-word (who on earth did that in such a place?!) … two stylised faces, one smiling, the other rather grisly (I smiled) … "The Grey Lady" … The Grey Lady? I started and retraced my steps for a closer look. The carving was different from the others, deeper, more weathered yet more accurate, and the script was older, more ornate, such as might have been used centuries ago. Ha ha, I thought, someone wanted to be funny. Of course I had read about the different ghosts at Inveraray, and that there was supposed to be a Grey Lady haunting the castle grounds, though, in contrast to the harper in the library or the unfortunate servant boy haunting the castle, her story could not be found in any of the sources. Well, I was not sure what to think of it anyway, this whole ghost business I mean.

I looked over the bridge into the gurgling river below, and as several times before, I felt the strange fascination of water. What would happen if I jumped from this bridge, I thought. The water was not deep, but it looked dark and menacing in this place, and the drop was sheer. Would it kill me? Would I shatter on the rocky river bed? What if I fell through these spaces, between these beautiful little fairy tale pillars, clutching in vain at frail spider webs, plummeting into the deep void, falling, falling into the endless spider web of black, frothing water waiting below?

I chided myself for these thoughts and proceeded over the bridge, turned to the right and descended to that idyllic little path beside the river. I was halfway down before I noticed that I had not gone towards the castle and back to the hostel as intended, but had entered the Lady's Walk, as it has been named. Well, I might just as well take this way and then return to Inveraray town along the street. There should not be that many cars around at this time of day.

I breathed in the fresh evening air and listened to birdsong, the rustle of the wind in the leaves and the murmuring of the river. On the opposite side, the castle was outlined dark and bulky against the sky. What a difference twilight makes, I thought. This afternoon I had felt peaceful and happy in this very same spot, and now I was restless, if not a bit frightened. Something moved in a tree behind me, and a second later a crow flew up with a flapping sound. I noticed I had held my breath and exhaled slowly. The air was dense, or at any rate I found it difficult to breathe. Perhaps I was getting a cold. I should have put on my jumper on that hill top.

"I am sick of this water, sick of these shadows."

Why did I think that? I had been so happy to be here again, and I had always loved this river.

"Sick of these memories."

These memories? This place held some of the most beautiful memories of my life!

"This is where we used to meet. This is where I died."

My thoughts were upsetting me tonight. They seemed to be out of control. I decided to go back to the bridge and return to the hostel via the castle road. Somehow I did not like this river at night.

The sun had set by now, and a pale, full moon filled the sky. It bathed the tree trunks in a cold silver light. I shivered. The air was very still. It took me some minutes to notice what was missing: there was no birdsong any more. I could not recall when it had stopped.

"I could not live with him. I could not live without him."

Why did these memories crop up now? I did not know which of the tragic love stories of my past my subconscious was digging up right now, but I did not want to be reminded of any of them, morose as I was feeling already. I shook my head and quickened my pace.

The river was blue, dark blue, almost as deep as the ocean. It was singing of death in the darkness, a wet, cold, bottomless grave. Not now, I thought, not at night, I would not get lost in its depth. I turned to go. The path ahead was blue, deep sea blue, blue ripples among the trees, blue pools forming in front of me, blue eyes, dark grey blue, staring at me in the darkness.

I could not move. I could not think. All I knew was that there, ahead of me in the twilight, Lady Catherine Campbell's eyes were blocking my path.

Her grey gown blended with the tree trunks, glistened in the moonlight here and there, transparent like spider webs against the undergrowth. Her dark hair moved lightly in the breeze, one with the leaves and branches. Her feet were lost in the shadows, her hands, her face mere reflections of pale, stray rays of moonlight. But her eyes, restlessly rippling like the river – they could not be mistaken. They held mine, dark and bottomless, hollow and piercing, empty yet brimming with pain, heavy with guilt, weary with the curse of countless years.

"I took his dagger," she said in my mind. "Here below the bridge. His dagger for my heart."

There were tears in the night air between us. I do not know if they were hers or mine. There were tears in the river beside us. I knew there were tears in the sky.

"There is forgiveness, you know," I finally said hoarsely. "Someone died for all our transgressions. You can ask him and be released."

A gust of wind ruffled the tree tops. I closed my eyes.

I do not know how long I stood there, in silent prayer, before I crossed the bridge and walked back to the hostel.

---

Since, I have been to Inveraray several times. I have walked by the river at twilight, my heartbeat quickening with every rustle in the leaves. But I have never seen nor heard anything extraordinary again. Nothing but the slow murmuring of the river and now and then a bird in one of the mighty beeches. But every time I wander that path, my thoughts return to that one night. And I wonder why it is so quiet now, why the river seems so peaceful; and still I always ask myself whether, as I arrived back at the bridge that night, I awoke from a dream of half an hour – or she from a nightmare of centuries.