Matthew thought it was extremely kind of Lady Edith to show him round the county so enthusiastically. Based in Manchester which was a relatively modern city, he had not experienced very many ancient churches except in books and he found visiting them genuinely interesting. Lady Edith did not seem terribly enthusiastic herself but she had a guidebook and really, it was extremely kind of her to give up her Saturdays for him like this.
This week they were driving out to St. Mary's in Lower Brangthorpe, about five miles away from Downton. The church was one of the oldest examples of Romanesque archicture in the county and Matthew was very curious to see it. Apparently it had some very interesting carvings.
They stopped outside a small chapel made of cool, grey stone with a semi-circular apse situated in a neatly tended graveyard and Matthew helped Edith out of the car. The chauffeur was enjoined to wait and they entered the graveyard by a small metal gate at the bottom of a path. Matthew stood on the spot and looked around him. The tiny village, hamlet really, of Lower Brangthorpe seemed deserted this Saturday afternoon with no sound except for the breeze in the willow trees by the graveyard wall, the odd caw of a rook, and the crunch of Edith's shoes on the gravel. It was almost magically peaceful.
"This place is very, very ancient," he said, speaking quietly even though they were not yet inside.
"Saint Mary's dates from the Norman period," said Edith in a matter-of-fact way from the porch. "The tower was rebuilt in the seventeenth century when the bells had to be replaced but the main body of the church is original."
The spell was broken for the moment.
"Fascinating!" replied Matthew, taking a few steps back to get a good look at the tower.
"And if you come over here, you can see a carving of Mary herself at the entrance," continued Edith.
With one more look at the tower, Matthew joined Edith and she pointed out a figure carved into a stone pillar on the left side of the door. It was clearly of a woman and she clutched a baby to her chest. The details were eroded but even so Matthew thought that the face was unusually fierce compared to other representations of the Virgin that he had seen.
"Look at her! Why does she look like that, do you think?"
"Like what?" said Edith, who was leafing through her guidebook.
Like your sister, Matthew wanted to say. Instead he replied, "So defensive, as if she was the guardian of the church itself, not merely its patron saint."
Edith joined him in looked at the statue, tilting her head to one side. "I never noticed that before! How clever of you to see something like that, Mr. Crawley! But the book doesn't say anything about the figure, except that it's very old and exceptionally well preserved."
"We hardly needed a book to tell us that!" He grinned at her and then, finding that she was standing rather too close to him for comfort, presumably to get a good view of the figure, stepped away to look at the carvings on the other side of the door.
"Here's another one, though less well preserved. Is this Mary too?"
This figure did not have a baby that he could tell and the arms and lower body were very indistinct. But even so, Matthew thought that the face was the same as the Virgin on the other side, but infinitely sadder. Or perhaps he was making it up.
"'The figure on the right of the entrance is also thought to represent Mary after the death of Christ'," read out Edith.
Matthew did not really see how such deductions could be made from the material given but had to admit the description fitted.
"Shall we go inside now?" continued Edith. Matthew nodded his consent and removed his hat, and she lifted the heavy latch and pushed open the wooden door. It groaned as it opened and she only opened it wide enough for the two of them to pass through.
The width of the church made the interior seem larger that it had promised to be from the outside. Matthew descended a few stone steps, noticing how they sagged in the centre from centuries of wear and immediately trod on a broken tile. It made a sharp cracking sound and he stepped quickly aside, as his eyes adjusted to the darker light.
"Come and look at the font!" cried Edith. She had already moved across the back of the church.
Matthew hesitated. He had noticed that they were not alone. At the furthest end of the second pew from the altar was sitting a woman with head bent in prayer or thought. She had not looked round but Matthew would have recognized the back of that glossy head of chestnut hair across more than a dimly lit chapel.
He moved slowly down the aisle and into the second pew. Only now did she look up, see who it was and then face the front without speaking.
"May I?" asked Matthew, indicating the space next to her. She made no negative response so he sat down and stared forwards as well. The altar was an incongruously modern eighteenth century affair with an even more modern altar cloth supporting a plain and unremarkable wooden cross.
"I did not expect to find you here, Lady Mary," he said eventually in an undertone.
"No? You, on the other hand, are very predictable, Mr. Crawley."
"Am I? How so?" He turned towards her with a curious smile, but only got her profile.
"As Edith has taken it upon herself to be your guide to our country then it was only to be expected that you would end up here eventually."
"I suppose that's true enough! But why are you here?"
She turned to look directly at him then and, as always happened when she did that, his eyes were drawn to hers as if by a magnetic charge and for a split second he forgot to breathe. It was an exhilerating and intoxicating feeling and one he was too weak to check, though in the back of his mind he thought he probably ought to try.
"This is one of the few places where I know I shall be quite alone." She returned her gaze to the front.
"Then I must apologise for intruding on your solitude," replied Matthew, wondering at her. She had been so withdrawn and different somehow for the last couple of weeks, since the unfortunate demise of that slimy Turkish diplomat (or whatever he'd been) in fact. Matthew was no fool. Mr. Pamuk had held no appeal for him but he certainly had for the ladies and for Mary in particular. Matthew could hardly blame her for falling for his attractions, not when it meant his discovery of her capability for such strong and lasting passions. On the other hand, he might not have felt so charitably had the poor man still been alive and oiling his way round Downton and into Mary's good graces.
"I don't understand you, Mary!" exclaimed Edith crossly, coming up to them now. "You don't go to church on Sunday and yet here you are on a Saturday five miles away from Downton! How did you get here anyway?"
Mary stood up in such a way that her exasperation was obvious. "I walked." She left the pew at the other side. Matthew stood and followed her. "Walked? All of five miles?"
"Yes, all of five miles! Does that surprise you, Mr. Crawley?"
"You are constantly surprising me, Lady Mary," he replied honestly. "But you must drive back with us."
"Thank you, but I would much rather walk."
Edith joined them at the back of the chapel. "Yes, Mary loves to walk, don't you, Mary?"
"In that case," said Matthew firmly, oblivious to any tensions save his strong feeling that it would be out of the question for Lady Mary to return the way she came, "we shall return on foot as well. I absolutely insist on it."
Mary said nothing but assessed him with cool appraisal. Matthew was happy to stare back and did not break eye contact.
Edith threw up her hands in defeat and walked away, with a parting shot of, "I do wish you'd look at the font though, Mr. Crawley! There's an entire paragraph about it!"
Mary looked down and bit her lip to conceal amusement. "Has Edith shown you the green man yet?"
"The green man? No. What is it?"
"Edith, really, you bring Mr. Crawley to Saint Mary's and you don't show him the green man! Come, Mr. Crawley, it's at the top of this column. Look!"
She pointed to the capital and Matthew saw an extraordinary carving of a man's face surrounded by vegetation. It was as delicately portrayed as the Marys in the porch and its expression seemed to Matthew to combine suffering and endurance with a kind of nobility. What was most strange about it however was the fact that all the leaves and tendrils that surrounded the face and wrapped round the top of the column were issuing from its open mouth.
"Good grief, it's incredible! But what is it?"
"The green man," said Mary, "is a relatively common sight in churches but what it represents is hard to say. It seems to be a pagan symbol in origin, of fertility perhaps, certainly of rebirth. You can see how it came to be adopted into the church."
Matthew nodded and walked round the column to see the entire design. "A pagan symbol intruding in a Christian church! What does your book say about that, Lady Edith?"
"I really do not see the point in looking; you seem to prefer listening to whatever Mary says."
Matthew frowned. "I have found your insights very helpful, Lady Edith. I hope you do not think that-"
"I believe I shall return in the car," she interrupted proudly. "I have no intention of walking five miles!"
She left, closing the door behind her with a final click. The church seemed incredibly silent after her departure and a moment later, Matthew could hear the sound of the car departing.
"Poor Edith!" said Mary ruefully. "She does try!"
Matthew felt that he had done something wrong but was not sure what. "I hope she is not offended with me. I fear she misunderstood. I have no intentions towards her-"
"Yes, I remember your intentions towards us! You made them very clear."
Matthew had nothing to say to that. She should not have overheard his unguarded words to his mother before he had even met her and it was his constant wish that he could take them back.
He walked back to the front of the column and studied the enigmatic face of the green man. Mary stood besides him and he glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes every few seconds. She was as inscrutable as the carving. Was she angry with him? Was she sad? Did she feel nothing at all? He could not make her out.
Eventually she spoke in her usual level, cultured voice. "To the pagans of course, Christianity was the intruder, not the other way round. The church came along and wiped out almost all the traces of the previous religions and now nobody follows the old faith or even knows much about it. It seems awfully sad somehow."
"But such is the way of the world, Lady Mary. Change must come, whether we like it or not. You would not have us dancing around Stonehedge at the midsummer solstice now, would you?"
"No, of course not. All turned out for the best, but I doubt the druids would have found that much consolation at the time."
Matthew lightly touched her elbow. "They might have found consolation in seeing their green man sitting at the heart of God's house, looking down on His congregation."
"A compromise. I see."
She looked down at where he still held her arm and then raised her eyes to his face. The vulnerabilty Matthew saw there made him wish to hold her by more than a mere four fingers on her elbow, to take her in his arms and clutch her to him and keep her there until he could assure her that she was safe and would never be vulnerable again. The desire to do just that washed over him with a force that was as unexpected as it was powerful and before he knew what he was doing, his hand had shifted with a light carress from her elbow to clasp her upper arm. He could not speak; a lump was in his throat. For a second he thought she swayed towards him but the moment was soon over. She stepped back and broke easily from him.
"We should return to Downton now, Mr. Crawley. I assume you want to return before dusk!" She walked briskly towards the entrance, rubbing her upper arms as she went as if cold.
Matthew followed her. "Of course, Lady Mary."
She stopped on the top to draw on her gloves. "Thank you."
She suddenly smiled at him rather mischievously, an expression he had never seen directed at him before. "Perhaps you will surprise me yet!" She spun round on the spot and lifted the latch.
Matthew was entranced.