“Please do not weep like that, my love.” Her husband pleaded. “You act as if the world were to end.”
“Mine is!” the poor lady cried. “I cannot bear the thought of you leaving me. And there is no guarantee that you will ever return!”
“Of course, I will return,” his voice was strong and encouraging. “With victory, I promise you.”
The lady lowered her pale face. “And what if you are among those who pay for the victory with their life? Oh, Raoul, if you should die, I would not live. Why I’ll…” Tears broke forth anew at the mere contemplation of the dreadful thought.
Sir Raoul, the young Count of Crequy, France, looked helplessly at the trembling figure of his wife - The Lady Mahtilde. Her very name (in the medieval French known as Mahaut) meant strength in battle. And yet, no such courage seemed to fill her soul, and she wept for him as if he were already a defeated corpse! Did every Crusader receive such a desolate reaction? Was there always such a battle to be won before a war could be fought?
It was the year 1147 and the 2nd Crusade had already begun.
King Louis VII of France had just recently enrolled his country under the banner of the Crusader's Cross. In fact, it was due mainly to the influence and encouragement of St. Bernard of Clairvaux himself, that King Louis the Young heeded at length the call of God, voiced by Christ’s Vicar, Pope Eugene III, who had summoned all the Kings of Europe to take up arms in defense of their Faith.
It was in answer to this example and exhortation of his king, that the Lord Raoul of Crequy had enlisted himself into the Crusaders' ranks.
Though Sir Raoul was only thirty years of age, he was already regarded as a prominent member of the Crusaders. He was not, however, the only high ranking man in France who had undertaken this endeavor. Dukes and counts, barons and knights, all the young nobles assembled with their followers, and an army of eighty thousand men were soon to be on the move towards the Holy Land.
This particular knight was conspicuous as well by his illustrious name and noble origin, as by his handsome person and military air. His father, Gerard, Count of Ternoy, was still living. He had shone amid the army of Godfrey of Bouillon (an eminent leader and martyr of the first Crusade), and Sir Gerard's spirit seemed revived in his young son Raoul.
But the Lady of Crequy shared neither the sentiments of her husband nor his father. She had only been wedded to her dear lord for a blissful six months, and already she was to be bereft of him. Though her noble husband endeavored in vain to persuade her to consent to his departure, she simply could not bring herself to do so. With her head buried in her trembling hands she let fall the tears that Raoul knew would come. The poor knight was at a loss. He had told her every good consequence and reason that he could think of, and still she could only dread how she would miss him, especially if he should be killed.
Count Gerard had stood silent, quietly witnessing the sad discourse between the young married couple. His elderly heart was moved with pity for the lady, and yet his natural sympathies were more with his son. He could identify with and understand Raoul's desires and duties, and the pitiful plight that they had put him in.
All was quiet in the somber, stony bed chamber, except for the woman's heartbroken sobs. The old count stepped forward.
"My dear girl," he whispered softly, his dry voice cracking a little. Lady Mahtilde raised her tearstained face, as her father-in-law laid a kind hand upon her shoulder.
"When I was Raoul's age, I too joined the ranks of the Crusaders and fought in the Holy Wars. My own mother was sore at heart, but when I returned, victorious and covered with honors, both my parents were overjoyed beyond measure."
Lady Mahtilde said nothing, but she had also stopped weeping. Her father-in-law then took on a graver, yet gentle air.
"You must understand your husband's duty," urged Sir Gerard. "He does it, not heartlessly, but driven by his love - his love for God, for his Faith, for his country, and even for you." This seemed hard to believe, but the old Count insisted.
“Surely, lady, your husband could not see his king lead this expedition and remain behind. Is that the sort of lord and husband, you would wish to call your own? A man who shirks his duty and flees danger. Would you then wish him to remain safely home on this estate to reap nothing but shame and dishonor? ”
The room was still. Gravely still. The earnest questions put by the elderly knight received nothing but a sigh from the disconsolate Mahtilde. All remained silent, and the lovely lady of Crequey made no initiative to reply.
And yet, in his wife's silence, Lord Raoul permitted himself to hope. His father had spoken truly, and yet in light of his duties, Raoul could not bare the thought of leaving his beloved wife in such a state. With his eyes fixed upon her thoughtful expression, he watched her lower her head. Please, he prayed. Please, God fill her with your strength. You know I will not leave with peace or courage if she has none.
Count Gerard too was watching Lady Mahtilde's thoughtful face. Lowering his own eyes, he spoke his final and, in fact, most significant point:
"God wills it."
Raoul's eyes turned to his father. Hearing those three words, solemnly spoken by the aged Crusader, Raoul realized more keenly than ever, the significance of that phrase. "God Will's It!" - the marching order and battle cry of the Crusades - had been echoed by many a knight, pope, and even Saint. Dawning the garb of a Crusader meant that Raoul would be fighting not merely a patriotic battle for his country, but a holy war for God Himself.
The earnest thoughts of the young knight were gently but suddenly interrupted by a quiet whisper:
"God wills it."
Raoul turned. The voice was his wife's, though he scarcely recognized it. It was strong. Her weeping and trembling tone had been replaced by a steady calmness. Slowly, she raised her sorrowful face from her hands. With her eyes still downcast, Lady Mahtilde said:
"God wills it... And so will I. I have no intention or desire to go against what He wants." She paused, idly pulling back a loose strand of hair. "I know He only would ask what is best. And so no matter how - " Her voice trembled, and she caught herself. Raoul stepped forward, his hand outstretched to her, but she did not see him. "And so,” she continued. “No matter how hard it may be for me, I give my consent."
Speaking quickly, lest she changed her mind, Lady Mahtilde finished and looked up just as Lord Raoul approached her. Her eyes met his, and smiling through her tears, she said:
"Go with God."
By now though, the young lord had already caught her up into his arms, pressing her head against his grateful heart.
Count Gerard looked on, smiling. Then, with a modest nod, he quietly took his leave; hearing as he did so, the gentle tones of the weeping lady:
"Go with God.. and my love and prayers."
All too quickly did the precious days pass, and before long the dreaded moment had come when Sir Raoul and his fellow Crusaders were to leave. Also joining him were his own two brothers, Roger and Godfrey, with twenty-seven squires following in their company.
As was permissibly custom, the Lady of Crequy and the aged Count Gerard accompanied the knights to their place of departure. But when the terrible moment of separation arrived, the lady, despite her resignation, could not refrain from weeping bitterly.
Lord Raoul, keenly pained to see her suffer from such grief, took her by the hand.
"Mahtilde,..." he ventured softly.
"Oh Raoul, I cannot bear it," she wept inconsolably.
"Do not ask me to stay," Raoul interjected quickly, his voice as helpless as her own.
"No I could not. I gave my word, that you may keep yours." Her words were strong, but her tone was heartbreaking. "I could bear it perhaps, if I knew somehow you would return. That you would be safe. But even then..." her words trailed off as the tears returned. "Is it weak of me to love you so?"
Though her husband displayed no demonstrative grief, the Lady Mahtilde would little have guessed the sorrow that was wrenching his heart. The nobility of soul that young Raoul was blessed with - in no way deprived him of the tender emotions that courage and valor seem to suppress. And it was, in fact, his compassion that wrought the greater agony in his heart, than any battle wound or terror could inflict.
Audibly, Sir Raoul sighed and, inwardly, he prayed.
"My love," he said at last. "My Mahtilde." He gently took her other hand, preventing her from covering her eyes, which perforce put a pause to her tears.
"My Mahtilde," he said "If you are to be my Mahaut - my strength in battle - you must open your heart to the courage I know God will pour into your soul. But you must ask... and let Him."
The lady said nothing. Sir Raoul, looking down at her hands, took a gentle hold of her wedding ring. Lady Mahtilde watched him as he slowly removed the precious jewelry from her finger and then, to her mild confusion, broke it in half.
Keeping one part himself, he returned the other half to her. Holding his piece of the ring with one hand, and with the other, grasping the hand of his dear spouse, Sir Raoul looked deep into her eyes.
"This half of the ring, " he said " which was blessed at our marriage, I will always keep as a true and loyal husband. And when I return from my pilgrimage I will give you back this pledge of my constancy.” His voice was so strong and confident, and yet burning with such emotion, that the Lady Mahtilde felt he was leaving also one half of his heart. She felt at last, though her eyes streamed with tears, that God’s strength would stay with her, while His voice called her husband.
Still holding her hand, Sir Raoul led her to his father, and besought him to love and cherish her as his own daughter. Sir Gerard would never have refused this request of his good son, and promised to care for her. The old count then took the weeping lady into his own arms and embraced her. Then, Sir Raoul knelt before him, saying:
"Dear sir, and father, that my days may be blessed and happy, give my your blessing; and may your good desires and fruitful prayers accompany me on my journey."
Spreading his aged hands over the brow of his noble son, the loving father invoked the blessing of God upon him.
"Almighty Lord," said he, " bless my son in this war, which he undertakes in Your Holy Name." He paused a moment, in which only the braying of horses and tears of the lady could be heard. Sir Raoul did not rise though, for his father, with renewed and inspired fervor, continued his blessing:
"And you, dearest Virgin Mary, our Sovereign Lady, be his guardian! Protect him from danger, and bring him back without blemish to his native land."
After thus blessing Sir Raoul, Sir Gerard also blessed his other sons, and embraced them. He similarly bid farewell to the squires who accompanied them.
The Crusaders then turned and leapt on their horses. All waited. A melancholy and yet anticipatory silence hung in the air.
This was soon broken by the clear ringing of clarions and trumpets which announced the time had come. With a last look at his beloved wife and father, Sir Raoul raised his sword and signaled the men. Immediately, the troop of knights and horses set forth on their way, preceded by a herald who bore the standard of the cross.
“Never," say the ballads of the day, "was seen such a host of noble, gentle, and valiant youths."
They rode hard, for the main army was in advance by several day's march. God's speed was with them though, and Lord Raoul and his companions soon had joined the others.