“Come... Come in!” the old count's voice echoed weakly through the stone room, “Come in, Mahtilde.”
At once, the door opened and the lady's silhouette silently glided towards the tall bed.
“You sent for me, Sir Gerard?” The young woman gently knelt beside him.
“I did,” the old man nodded, stretching out a shaky hand. The lady took it in her own.
“Oh your hands are like ice,” she whispered. “I will send for more firewood.” She called out for a servant as she went to rise. But she stopped midway, for the weak hand would not release its strong grasp.
“No,” the old count protested. Then after a few breaths, he added, “No, just stay with me a while.”
Mahtilde knelt back down. With her hand still in the count's, she squeezed it gently. Sir Gerard smiled faintly and weakly returned it. He said nothing though and for a while Lady Mahtilde just knelt by, quietly staring at his still face.
With his eyes still closed, the old man at length whispered, “I must apologize, Mahtilde.”
“My dear Gerard,” she said kindly, “You need not apologize for anything.”
“And yet I do,” his breathing was laboured. “Perhaps in more ways than one.” His eyes were open now and staring off into the darkness.
“Maybe…Maybe Raoul would have not gone,” he said dryly, “if I had not persuaded you to let him go.”
“But, sir!” Lady Mahtilde objected quickly. A brief moment passed however before the words came. Her mind raced back to that fateful day, of which every detail was enshrined in her heart. “Remember what you yourself told me?” She paused before answering the question herself. “God willed it.”
Though her father-in-law's face was covered in shadow, Mahtilde could hear the trembling in his voice.
“Yes,” he cried. “God willed it.” Clenching her hand suddenly, he whispered, “I believe it! I do.” The conviction in his voice betrayed the struggle within him.
“There is nothing more painful that God could have asked of me. He has taken the most precious things in my life. There is nothing.... nothing....”
Mahtilde shut her tearful eyes in prayer; not with thoughts of the mind, but with the wordless pleadings of the heart. Their effects came at once and the old count's quickened and laboured breaths became steadily calm. His grasp loosened and he put his hand to his eyes.
“Mahtilde,” he said at last. “I must still ask your forgiveness.”
“I refuse to accept it,” she said, weeping.
“No,” Sir Gerard shook his head. “Not for Raoul.” He turned and looked at her. “For myself, Mahtilde.”
With fresh tears, the lady ran her hand over the count's wrinkled brow.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“It is time, Mahtilde.” his voice was as steady as his gaze. “It is time to call the priest.”
“But Ger-, Gerard, the... the prie-,” Mahtilde choked back her tears, “He was here just this Sunday. You...you even went to Confession.”
The dying count nodded. “But it is time for the last Sacrament.”
“But you do not need Extreme Unction.” There was no authority in her voice, just desperation. “You are not going to die. You cannot.”
The old knight raised his trembling hand and gently stroked the lovely face beside him. “God wills it,” he whispered.
Mahtilde bit her lip. For a moment, those three words raged a silent battle within her. How could God expect her to accept this? Was not a dead husband enough? At length, though, her anxiety gave way to a sudden peace. And in the quiet of her heart, she silenced those questions with an act of faith. God wills what is best.
Unknowingly relieved by the fervent prayers of the count, Mahtilde resolutely rung the bedside bell.
A manservant, summoned from before by her cry for firewood, came in promptly to the bell’s call. Receiving the urgent order, he quickly departed with a solemn nod.
Mahtilde turned back to Sir Gerard. His eyes had shut, and his head was still. For a moment, the poor lady feared the worst. Taking hold of his thin shoulder, she was relieved to see his subtle, but regular breathing. She gratefully ran her hand down his arm, and the old man at once gently awoke from his sudden slumber. Smiling into the tearful eyes of his loving daughter-in-law, the count confessed his one regret.
“I only wish that I could have fulfilled the last desire of my dear son.” He took hold again of Mahtilde's slender hand. “That I could have cared for the widow he left behind, and… protected the one… whom I have cherished… as if she were my own child.”
Lady Mahtilde leaned forward as the count spoke, for each word grew steadily quieter. His tired eyes, heavy with grief, were gradually closing as sleep overtook him.
“It is for this, my dear,” Sir Gerard said softly, “that I beg... your forgiveness.”
Mahtilde watched the old man tenderly as his gray head slowly nodded forward. With her hand still clasped in his, she gently leaned him back against the pillow. Then with her free arm, the lady covered the sleeping count in his warm blankets.
Silently rising to her feet, young Mahtilde leaned forward and kissed the beloved old brow. The quiet squeeze she felt in her hand assured the lady that her parting words were heard.
“Be at peace, dear Gerard. You are already forgiven.” Her tears wetted his brow as she gave one last kiss. “Go with God... and my love.”
“Hold on there! Where do you think you are going in such a rush?” An angry Arab caught hold of the ragged slave running by.
“The master sent for me,” was the breathless reply.
“What for?” a nearby serving girl grunted.
“I do not know.”
“Not to write another ransom letter?” the Arab jabbed roughly at the tall man's arm and squinted up at his calm face. “The name's Raoul, isn't it?”
“Yes,” the knight answered, slowly releasing his arm from the Saracen’s grasp.
“Well you are crazy,” the slave girl spat out. “Crazy to think that someone is still looking for you. How many letters have you sent?”
Raoul just looked at her without a word. The blank expression on his face brought a smile to the Arab’s. “You talk too fast, little girl” He laughed. Then, waving jeeringly at Raoul, he said, “our French lord cannot understand you.”
The child joined in the laughter, and Raoul, who was able to pick up most of what the man had said, smiled good naturedly. It was true. Several months amidst the Saracens had given him a rough understanding of their language, but not a fluent one. Taking advantage of this merriment at his expense, the young knight quickly slipped away.
“Oh go on!” the man cried after him. “Send another letter for help. Perhaps you are too expensive!”
But their laughter faded rapidly behind him, as Raoul hurried into his master's house. Making his way through the various rooms and passing servants, the tall Frenchman came at last to the stout Saracen who owned him. Fanning himself, the short man waved for Raoul to approach. As he did so, the nearby guard made sure the tall slave kept his distance.
“You sent for me?” Raoul bowed. A gray haired slave, whose task it was to interpret, glanced sullenly at the Frenchman. Raoul had spoken in simple Syriac.
“Yes.” His master sighed at the heat. “It is about your ransom.”
The old slave quickly translated the answer into French before the knight could answer it.
“You have a response?” For a moment, hope shone in Raoul’s eyes.
“No,” the Saracen frowned, “There has been no answer.” Raoul attempted to hide his disappointment, as his master continued.
“And that is just it. It has been many months since we settled down safely here in Syria. But despite the fact that you have sent just as many letters to plea for your ransom, and we have received nothing.” He swatted emphatically at a fly settled on his chair. He waited for the translator to finish, before adding thoughtfully:
“I sometimes wonder if your friends want you back? Perhaps your king does not really care for a lost Crusader.”
Raoul stiffened at the suggestion. “I assure you, sir,” he said firmly, “My countrymen will free me.”
“And if not?” the Saracen asked. “They haven’t so far.”
“These things can take time,” Raoul began to explain, with the old slave repeating his every word in Syriac. “The war itself has presented many obstacles, I am sure, in their ransoming me. And if they have come for me, they may have gotten lost in their search. Personal matters and losses may also have a more urgent demand on their attention, before they can at length deliver me.”
“That all may very well be true,” the stout man fanned himself impatiently. “But in the meanwhile, what? You must have sent them enough letters for several prisoners. And I for one, am not going to waste my time waiting.”
Raoul did not dare ask him what he meant. But he did not need to. His master gestured to one of his higher servants.
“I will not waste my investment any further. Until you hear from me otherwise,” he said, looking at the waiting servant, “I want this French slave to be more productive. Send him to work in my fields. He can spend his time tending to my flocks.”
“Yes, my lord” the man nodded. He took hold of Raoul’s arm, but the knight hesitated.
“Master…?” Raoul had not fully understood what had been said.
“You can wait for your friends while watching my sheep,” the Saracen master explained. Then at the sight of the slave’s crestfallen face, he became impatient. “You are not the only one who would like to see the ransom paid! I would rather have 200 pieces of gold in my pocket than a French lord as an incompetent shepherd of my flocks! But if you are going to be of any use to me, there is no use in waiting for your ransom.”
When the old man went to translate, he said simply “You are a slave, my lord. Time to work like one.”
Raoul had caught some of what his master had said. And before the servant could take him away, the poor knight dropped to his knees before the stout Muslim.
“Please sir” Raoul pleaded in broken Syriac, “Let me send one more ransom note.”
The servant went to pull the slave to his feet, but when he saw his master’s raised hand, he slowly let him go. Still looking at Raoul, the Arab asked with a smile:
“What? Do you think they have not read the other letters? What of all those you have already sent?” His tone was calm, and there was a hint - just a touch - of pity.
“Please.” the knight persisted humbly, “I know they will hear me.”
All was quiet in the stuffy room, save for the buzzing flies and the thoughtful tap of the Saracen’s fan. The slave and master remained in a silent stare for what seemed an uncomfortable length of time to the others waiting around them. At length, the stout Saracen nodded abruptly.
“Very well, you may send another.” He spoke in French and Raoul, in gratitude, promptly took hold of his dark hand and kissed it.
“We will see what happens,” the Saracen mumbled as Raoul rose to his feet. “I will be even happier than you should your friends respond.” He added, and then motioned for the Frenchman to be taken away. “It is possible…” the little Arab muttered, “It is possible…”
Soon thereafter, the Lord of Crequy found himself out in the wide fields of Syria. He squinted up at the sun, or rather the cloudless sky. His faith and heart told him that somewhere up there, Someone was looking back down at him.
A distant call brought the knight’s eyes back to earth. Quickly approaching him was another slave, driving a herd of sheep. It was his master’s first shepherd. With a quiet sigh, Raoul stepped out to meet him. In his care of the flocks, Raoul would be answering to this first shepherd – whose task had been promoted to watch the master’s cattle.
“It is really not too difficult,” the man said at the end of his instructions. “More tedious than challenging.” Handing Raoul the staff, he added, “if you have any trouble, you can find me over there somewhere,” he waved vaguely out over the fields. “Just look for the cows.”
The Frenchman nodded, and silently watched the Arabian head back to his herds. And for the first time in a long while, Raoul was all alone. Though, not really. He grinned at the noisy animals around him. The sheep are here. His smile slowly faded though, as he looked back up towards the sky.
He just stared for while, saying nothing – unaware that his soul was engaged in one of the deepest forms of prayer.
Dear God, I know that you see me. Blessed Lady, I know that you hear me. What am I doing here? What is it You want me to do? Why is it that my friends have not come for me? Is my faith weak? Or are You testing it?
My brothers… Raoul’s his gaze turned once more to the heavens. “Oh Godfrey and Rodger,” he said aloud. “Look down with pity on your older brother. Did God take from me the martyr’s crown so as to clasp my hands in fetters? Have I survived you only to end my days as a Syrian slave?”
His only answer was the simple bleating of the sheep. The young lord looked down to find several of them crowded around his feet. With a sigh, Raoul turned to his staff, leaning against the tree.
“If this is Your will, dear God.” He took hold of the shepherd’s rod. “So be it.” Another sigh escaped him as he looked out over his flock. Yet no sooner had he spoke, then a soft breeze swept across his face.
“But I will keep praying!” Raoul cried out suddenly, invigorated by the silent reply. “I know You want me to. I will continue to hope, my Lord, in Your mercy. I know that You will heed my cries for help. Even if…” he added sadly, “You are the only One who does so.”
He thought now of all the ransom letters that had gone unanswered. But this trial of abandonment was not due to the disloyalty of his friends. Grieved as he was by this belief, Raoul had neither resentment nor bitterness. And he resigned himself to the exile that their apparent negligence had reduced him.
But the simple truth was one that the poor knight would never have imagined. Despite the countless letters he had penned for his ransom, not one of them ever reached his king or country.
And so, the Lord of Crequy stood day after day in the fields of Syria, hourly praying for his deliverance. And all this while, he little suspected that his death was universally believed by the entire French army and grievously accepted by the whole of Crequy.
Not only, in fact, did his poor provinces mourn the loss of their Lord, but their sorrow was doubled at the soon to follow death of his noble father – the count Sir Gerard of Ternoy.
All throughout the town, people talked of the terrible tragedies plaguing the castle. And everyone wondered what would become of the Lady Mahtilde.
“She may take ill herself any day now after so dreadful a blow! They say she does naught but weep day and night. She may follow the old man to the tomb.”
So the speculations went. But as the lady Mahtilde stood staring at the freshly chiseled tombstone of her dear father-in-law, she was tempted to envy his lot.
“Let me go with you,” she had pleaded to the dying count. “Let me leave this miserable earth behind!” And in her heart, the answer given in life came echoing back – “God gave you a son - Raoul’s child,” Sir Gerard had told her. “Trust in Him, for this is His will for you.”
I will not lose Faith in You, Lord. But neither will I fail to implore Your mercy. Oh, my beloved Lady! The lonely exile clasped his hands in a fervent plea. I beg you to deliver me from this captivity. Please bring me back to the arms of my dear family. Think of the joy with which you held your infant Son, and have pity on these father’s hands that have yet to embrace their own dear child.
Lowering his eyes, Raoul sank against a nearby tree and let his staff fall aside. His heart yearned for freedom and grew heavy at the prospect of a delayed ransom. His mind went back to the home he had left behind, dwelling especially on his wife and son. His thoughts fell also on his dear father and brother Baudouin.
“My lady, you have returned.” A maidservant hurried up to greet her. “And I see the little master enjoyed the air?”
“It put him to sleep,” Mahtilde nodded, and gently handed the precious bundle to the maiden. “He can finish his nap in his cradle.”
“Very good, Madam,” the girl replied softly. She had taken but a few steps, though, when she turned around with a sudden thought.
“Oh, I nearly forgot,” the maid exclaimed quietly. “Sir Baudouin was looking for you. He is waiting in the Master’s room.”
Mahtilde looked curiously at the servant girl. “Sir Gerard’s chamber?”
“No, my lady,” came the humble reply, “Lord Raoul’s.”
Puzzled somewhat at the girl’s answer, the lady of the castle made for what used to be her husband’s bedroom. To her mild surprise, she found it just as her maid had said. Baudouin was sitting at a large table, with several papers before him. Catching the sound of his approaching sister-in-law, the young man rose to his feet.
“Ah, Mahtilde, good of you to come. Please,” he gestured towards a chair, “sit down.” The woman took a step forward.
“You wanted to see me?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said, sitting back down, “There is a matter we need to discuss.”
“But why your brother’s room?” she asked, looking around. Baudouin smiled.
“It better suites the issues at hand.”
“A matter of inheritance,” he said, shuffling the papers. “My father’s death has left many things to be put in order.”
“Oh, Baudouin,” the lady held out a compassionate hand. “We have just buried the dead, let us leave the matter until later,” she said, gently approaching the table.
“No, it is not my father’s estate that needs attention.” The young knight raised his head. “It is Raoul’s.”
Mahtilde simply returned his gaze for a moment and said nothing. “I am afraid I don’t understand,” she said, genuinely confused.
“I did not imagine that you would.” A mild grin played upon his thin face. Then with a superior tone, he endeavored to explain, “My father has just died, leaving me as his only surviving son and heir. In turn,” he continued, staring down at the table, “the estates and provinces of Crequy and Fressin by rights have passed on to me.”
The lady shook her head. “The lordship passed to Raoul,” she calmly corrected.
“And he is dead” Baudouin said simply.
“He had a son.” Her mild tones were marked with uneasiness.
“An infant,” the knight laughed sarcastically.
Mahtilde involuntarily stepped back. “Baudouin, you know full well that the law demands – ”
“- that a House should fall to ruins at the whims of a witless widow?” The smile had fled from his face, and his words rang out with defiance.
The noblewoman looked at him in astonishment, her voice filled with a certain abhorrence. “You would hide your greed behind my grief?”
“Think what you like,” the young man shrugged. “You always have. But I know my duty.”
Mahtilde just stood staring, as if she did not recognize the man who stood before her.
“What would your father say?” she said aloud. Her brother-in-law laughed at the thought.
“I can only imagine,” was the disdainful reply.
“Have you no respect for the dead?” Mahtilde cried. But Baudouin was wearied with arguing.
“I am not going to waste words with you. I have explained the situation and there is nothing further to discuss.”
“Or rather, nothing you have the courage to discuss.” The initial shock having passed, the words came out like a challenge.
“Your lack of virtue makes little impression upon me, Mahtilde. I expected trouble from you. Nothing more.” He sat back down in Raoul’s chair. “You will not easily relinquish your life of luxury.”
“Do you think I care of luxury?” Mahtilde cried, thrusting her hands upon the table. “Do you think anything in this wretched world holds any attraction for me?”
“You are a living corpse,” was the dull reply. “Crequy deserves a lord.”
“It has one.” Mahtilde answered emphatically.
“Ah yes,” he smiled, “My phantom brother.” There was a taunting look in his eye. “The Lord Raoul who never died. Poor Mahtilde. I have heard of your fanciful dreams.”
“I was speaking of his son,” said the noble lady, her face set as stone.
“If he is so lordly let him defend and claim the title himself. Do you think you can take from me my heritage? Who will stop me? “
For the first time, it dawned on the young widow how defenseless her position really was. Militarily speaking, Baudouin had the sufficient force to assert his claim. His blood was legitimate in the Crequy house, and he would indeed have been its lord, had not his elder brother left behind an infant son. With many of Raoul’s knights and squires having joined him on the Crusade, the lady Mahtilde had no armed resistance under her command, and the house of Crequy lay vulnerable to a usurper.
“Baudouin, please,” Mahtilde entreated him, “Think of your father. Think of Raoul. They loved you so. Though they be dead or gone, do you think your actions are hidden from them? Or from God?” She looked searchingly at his face. But his eyes were hard and his tone was firm.
“I have no cause for shame.” He said, looking away from her. Then, with a haughty air, “And I did not summon you for a lecture. My mind is set. There is nothing you - What on earth!”
To his surprise and repulsion, Baudouin suddenly found his sister-in-law collapsed and kneeling at his feet.
“Please, Baudouin,” she pleaded, “Please! I am begging you not to go through with this. I… I know you are upset,” she said, tears forming in her eyes. “I assure you that I shall forget everything that has passed between us if you quit your resolve. Do not do this, I beseech you! For the sake of the family, if not for your own sake… or for God’s.”
Baudouin rose from the chair, removing Mahtilde’s support. Thrown off balance, the woman caught hold of her brother-in-law’s cloak, interrupting her fall. Moments passed, as the two were locked in a fixed gaze. Then, slowly… deliberately, the young man took hold of the lady’s wrist and pulled it from his garment.
“Poor, pitiful Mahtilde.” He smiled down at her. “It will not work. You are wasting your time and your tears.” With a thrust, he released her arm. Stepping away, he waved his hand and called out, “Guard!”
Suddenly, Mahtilde noticed for the first time a man-at-arms, standing out of sight, now emerging from the shadows. It was one of Baudouin’s soldiers.
“The lady is finished here,” Baudouin said, gesturing towards Mahtilde. “Show her to her room.”
Without a word, the guard approached and stood beside the kneeling figure. The rough mercenary would have caught her by the shoulder, had not the lady raised an authoritative hand as she lifted herself from the ground.
Once standing, however, she made no move to leave. As if to warn her, the soldier set his spear threateningly between her and Baudouin. All were silent.
“Goodbye Mahtilde,” Baudouin said at last. He attempted to maintain a commanding air, but Mahtilde’s dramatic appeals had shaken his pride.
Without a sound, Mahtilde simply turned and headed for the door. As though she had gotten the last word, her brother-in-law called out scornfully.
“Poor Mahtilde!” He shook his head in pity. “I am not one to be swayed by your grief or charms.” He watched her unbroken and graceful steps continue for the door. Mortified at her fortitude, and with a cruelty to which his greed had reduced him, Baudouin sent out a final stab.
“I am not so easily seduced! I am not Raoul.”
His words struck like a knife, and the lady’s stride faltered. With her hand upon the door handle, she halted. Slowly she looked back, a single tear streaming down her solemn face.
“True.” Her calm voice rang out with a powerful dignity. “Raoul was a noble man.”
The knight’s gaze became a bitter glare. “Get out!” he threatened. “Crequy is mine. And you cannot stop me.”
Unjust though they were, Sir Baudouin’s words were true. For the Lady Mahtilde and her infant son were indeed powerless to prevent this youngest brother of the Crequy family from seizing lordship and dominion over its lands.
Though in her heart, Mahtilde sought nothing for herself - she grieved at the thought that her child, Raoul’s son, should suffer this injustice. But, despite her hopes, help would not be soon in coming. For she had no living relatives who could assert and defend her son’s rights. Except for her Father – Sir Renaud, the count of Craon. But he was an aged, though powerful, noble in far off Brittany, nearly 300 miles away. When news reached Count Renaud of the injustice done to his grandson, he wrote at once to his daughter.
With eager hands, Mahtilde tore open her father’s letter. His consoling words were welcomed by her mournful soul. But he had little assistance to offer. Pained to see his widowed daughter so afflicted and unprotected, Sir Renaud advised her to a particular solution.
“The Lord of Renty,” he wrote “is a good and worthy friend of your late husband’s family. He will, I am sure, defend your son Baudouin’s rights, if he could call this child his own. I recommend that you heal and protect yourself by offering your hand in marriage to this noble man. He is, I am aware, very anxious for your welfare and has told me …”
But Mahtilde had stopped reading and the letter involuntarily fell from her lifeless hands.
“Dear God,” she cried. “What is this? They want me to marry. Is that what You really want?”
Without a thought, she reached for a jeweled box beside her bed, and solemnly set it on her lap. Gently opening it, she took out the precious token it enshrined - her half of the wedding ring.
Fingering the small jewelry in her hand, fresh tears fell from her eyes. “They want a father for my son.”
A cry other than her own caught the mother’s ear and she turned to the little baby in the cradle beside her. Tenderly taking her son into her arms, Mahtilde slowly hushed and rocked him. Happy and secure, little Baudouin’s tears dried, as his mother’s wetted his face.
“Oh, my son,” she wept, pressing him to her heart. “You have a father.”