During the course of their conversation, the knight and peasant had remained quite stationary. But now, Raoul was slowly and solemnly accompanying the woodcutter back through the forest, as the latter went to retrieve his fallen hatchet, still lying from his hurried and unexpected flight.
Silent and thoughtful, Raoul found himself battling an entirely different host of anxieties than those he had just been facing. He could hardly believe it. How rapidly his life was changing in just a matter of minutes. Who would think that coming home would be such a crisis?
Sensing a distinct disturbance in his tall companion, the unknowing peasant attempted to raise his spirits.
“Now, you know something?” the woodcutter grinned kindly. “The countess Mahtilde is a most charitable soul. And the Lord of Renty is equally gracious. I understand that all will be welcome at the castle today for the grand fete – the magnificent party!” Bending towards his ax, he glanced casually at the knight, but disappointment continued to reign supreme upon the sullen face of his companion.
More puzzled than perturbed, the woodsman endeavored to convince Raoul that this wedding posed a great opportunity! “… And not only for our gentle lady,” the peasant continued, “but for everyone! It is tradition, of sorts, for the pious nobles to not simply receive, but to give on such occasions as this. And I am sure, my poor man, that if you will, you may receive some alms at this celebrated event.”
Raoul, however, maintained a cautious though polite silence at the well-intentioned remark. Undaunted, the woodcutter swung his hatchet over his shoulder.
“Come now!” he offered. “Let me show you the way out of this forest,” he gestured with his hand. “And I can take you as far as the castle gate.”
A moment passed while the expectant woodsman awaited a response. Then, with quiet reserve, the smiling lord gave his peasant a simple and grateful nod. Pleased to have at last brought some cheer to the stranger’s face, the woodcutter, still shouldering his heavy ax, proudly headed off through the maze of trees.
His short strides were swift, and the knight found himself hurrying to keep up. Raoul’s steps were somewhat distracted, though, as the scenery of his homeland became increasingly more familiar to him. The astonished noble was surprised at how much he recognized it all. But what rekindled the fire in the exile’s heart was the first glimpse of the towering turrets, soaring majestically over the humble village. Once in sight of the Castle of Crequy, Raoul’s pace quickened.
At last, with a gracious smile and a cheery nod, the woodcutter unknowingly returned his long-lost lord to his castle and home.
“Godspeed to you, my friend,” the peasant waved. Raoul returned both grin and gesture, thanking him for his kind help.
“And God bless you, my good man,” the knight called out. He watched him a moment before turning to the castle. Yes, his kind deed would not be forgotten.
Hastening towards the lowered drawbridge, Lord Raoul was almost breathless with excitement, and nearly bursting with joy. Imagine the look on Mahtilde’s dear face! After all of these years! What an amazing and incredible surprise! His confident step faltered though, as the thought of her marrying another sharply reoccurred to his mind.
Well the Blessed Virgin has saved me just in time, hasn’t She? He was walking now across the lowered bridge over the moat. His doubts, however, were not so easily dismissed. Was he sure that Mahtilde would be glad to see him?
The thought so disarmed him that, for a moment, he stood still. The next moment however, he was shaking his head.
Oh, what are you thinking, Raoul? he gently reproved himself. Of course she will! Why else do you think God has returned you here?
Dispelling his ridiculous fears, the knight hurried on toward his own beloved gate. Somehow it was even more wonderful than he had imagined! Why it seemed -
But his eager thoughts were abruptly scattered by a startling and commanding voice.
“Stop! Hold on there!”
It was the castle guards - two of which were swiftly, and somewhat angrily, approaching the newcomer.
“Yes?” Raoul kept a respectful but firm tone. The two men had drawn their weapons.
“What are you doing here? What do you want?” one snapped gruffly. The other sentry, a thin man with a piercing gaze, eyed the tall stranger suspiciously.
“Where did you come from? And how came you to be in such a wretched state?” he inquired disdainfully. Raoul glanced instinctively at his rags.
“What is it then?” the first soldier gave a thoughtful twist to his mustache, “Are you some prisoner escaped from slavery?” The short fellow cocked his round head and stared.
Raoul looked from one to the other. I must appear the most miserable beggar, he thought wearily. But if I tell them who I really am, they will laugh me to scorn. His eyes turned to their poised spears… Or do worse.
“Well, come on!” the skinny guard demanded impatiently, “Name your purpose!”
“Speak up man! What business have you here!?”
The knight casually wiped the dust from his face, “I come,” Raoul began slowly, “from the east. I am a pilgrim from the Holy Land,” his words took on a solemn, and even commanding tone. “And I must see the Lady of Crequy on a matter of the greatest importance!”
His fervent appeal, however, was met only by a harsh and disbelieving laugh.
“What?” the soldiers bellowed, “you think a man in your condition may enter the castle?”
“Urgent business indeed!” the little guard scoffed. “You’ll receive your share of alms with the rest.”
“And besides,” the other added, “No one can speak with her Ladyship today. Even now she is being clothed in her wedding garments.”
“So be off with you now!” the sentinel threateningly waved his spear at him, and Raoul stepped back. For a moment he eyed the two of them, but then quietly turned away. Opposition would be quite useless.
“Go on!” they jeered, “And don’t let us catch you bothering anyone else!”
“Go and wait by the side of the road,” the lean guard shouted after him. “You can get a glimpse of her Ladyship later when she passes by. So go take your place with everybody else."
“Do you hear, beggar?”
“Important matters… Ha!”
Their mocking laughter was little more than wind to the bewildered knight’s ears. What was he to do?
Obediently, the lord stumbled away from his own castle, and stood waiting just beyond the drawbridge. Not too close though, for an occasional glance at the guards showed Raoul that he was still under their surveillance.
“There is nothing I can do then… ” he sighed, “…but wait.” And so he did.
But what a painful wait it was.
The knight strained to appear calm and at ease, but a hurricane of thoughts and emotions was raging within him.
“Be at peace, Raoul. Be at peace,” he whispered, putting a hand to his flushed face. “The good God and His sweet Mother have not brought you this far for nothing.” Yet as he prayed, doubt gnawed at him. He could not shake off his fears. His experiences that morning - first with the woodcutter, and then repeated by the guards, had left him very ill at ease. What if Mahtilde did not recognize him? Ten years was a long time to tax anyone’s memory under ordinary circumstances… much less these…
“Oh…” Raoul moaned a sigh. “Holy Virgin, please help her remember me.”
Then his darker fear returned. What if Mahtilde did not want him back? The poor lord’s heart sank like a millstone. After all... what had become of his letters for ransom? And if somehow Mahtilde believed him to be lost forever… did she care? After all… what were her plans and where was she going now? …to the neighboring abbey to be married. What if…
The Crusader gazed anxiously at the castle. What if this is what Mahtilde really wants? Suddenly, the terrible thought that she would be disappointed to find him alive became a dreadful possibility.
Oh what have I done? Faint traces of guilt overshadowed the knight’s worried face. Before God, he and Mahtilde were still married – and she could not wed another. But if, after ten years, he had lost her love…
“Blessed Mother…” Raoul instinctively, almost unknowingly, called out to his Protectress. And faint though it was, the inspiration was swift in coming.
“The woodsman!” The lord’s eyes lit up with hope, “He said that Mahtilde was acting only for the interests of our son. And until now, Mahtilde has refused a marriage. Although… was she driven more by duty or desire?”
At length, Raoul slowly shook his head, as a sudden grace made him smile. “If it was not for You, Holy Virgin Mary, I would not be here.” His eyes were still set on his home. “I trust that You will help me… and her."
The French lord suddenly realized that he was staring at his castle. The guards’ watchful gaze still held him under tight scrutiny, so Raoul blinked idly in feigned thoughtlessness. Casually turning away, a shadow flickered in the knight's hopeful eyes.
"Oh please,” he sighed, “Please let Mahtilde recognize me.”
As time passed, the number of bystanders gathered about the pathway steadily increased, as more and more of Crequy’s inhabitants assembled before the castle gate. The quiet country air was gradually filled with a buzzing hum; yes, the time had come and an excited and mirthful chatter prevailed among the excited throng. And as the people arrived, the lonely and wild-looking beggar found himself imperceptibly pushed to the outer fringes of the crowd. Although absorbed in his own thoughts, snippets of nearby conversations nevertheless penetrated his pensive mind.
"Oh, I thought this day would never come," one woman sighed happily. Her companions were quick to agree.
“And I do believe it’s what she wants.”
“It’s what’s best, really,” one of the men chimed in.
“The poor lady Mahtilde,” an elder woman shook her head sympathetically, “She deserves it. She’s been so patient.”
“And after waiting all of these years!” A tactless young lady was not so gentle in her opinion. Her comment was quickly followed by a milder one.
“Well her Ladyship has certainly paid her respects to the dead.”
There were several solemn nods, and a stout man proudly declared “And now at last something shall be done!”
“Yes! No thanks to her wretched brother-in-law!’ the first woman fumed, and a general murmur ran through her companions. “Lord of Crequy! I daresay he won’t be attending the wedding.”
“I should think not,” they agreed. “Now that justice shall prevail…”
And as the chatter continued, no one seemed to notice the intent looking beggar nearby. Raoul could not help but feel a certain uneasiness, or at least an awkwardness, while his family’s affairs were the common talk of the gathered peasants. Try as he might, the poor lord could not ignore their gossip, and for once he was glad that his true identity remained unknown. Patiently and silently, he resigned himself to the long and lonely wait… where the minutes passed like hours… as he listened, watched and prayed.
At long last, the clear and joyful blast of a trumpet pierced the air. A loud, bustling commotion ensued; and the distinct, heavy creaking of the large gate being pushed open echoed through the causeway.
Instinctively, the crowd pressed forward and yet made way at the same time. Raoul’s head still peered above most, and all of his anxious thoughts were temporarily silenced by this long awaited moment.
Slowly, the solemn and elaborate procession came forth. Headed by the finely attired Lord of Renty, a company of guards accompanied the noble convoy, of which Sir Renaud and his young grandson Baudoin took part.
But just as Raoul could make out another horse coming through the gate, the excited throng suddenly sent up a joyful cheer. Several people pressed forward eagerly, jostling Raoul and sending him stumbling back. The air resounded with ‘hurrahs!’, and the astute knight presumed upon their recipient. But, despite his tall stature, Raoul was having difficulty seeing past the enthusiastic crowd.
“Excuse me,” he pleaded earnestly to his seemingly deaf companions. “Please excuse me. I just need to – ”
“Long live the Lady of Crequy!”
Several voices rang out and the jubilant multitude pressed forward all the more. But almost immediately the trumpets sounded once again; and authoritative, exultant soldiers bellowed above the din “Make way! Make way for her Ladyship!” To Raoul’s relief, the crowd respectfully obeyed. In the commotion, the heads parted…
And then he saw her.
It was no dream. There was Mahtilde. His Mahtilde. Not even a hundred yards away, astride an elegant decorated mare.
The tense knight unconsciously breathed forth a deep sigh… for all of his hopes and longings of ten endless years seemed suddenly realized in that single moment. For it was not until his eyes fell at last upon his precious Mahtilde that Raoul was truly, finally home!
But was it the same Mahtilde? Clearly, time had aged his young wife. Yet there was something more… a change that he could remotely sense, but which his uneasy heart could not as yet understand.
Adorned though she was for her wedding, there was a melancholy in the lady’s beauty. Riding through her joyful people, she remained silent to their buoyant cheers.
And while many in the crowd astutely noted the attentive glances she cast on the young boy following distantly behind her, the poor knight’s attention was riveted solely upon his wife. Instinctively, his bruised and battered soul reached out for hers. But when it detected only a strange and stone-like stillness, Raoul gazed searchingly for the lady’s solemn face. And though she was steadily approaching nearer, her downcast eyes made it difficult to catch a glimpse beneath her veil.
The knight, looking more like a beggar than a lord, slowly began making his way through the crowd. He had little success though, for their eager focus could not be broken, and most ignored him. But Raoul hardly noticed. He could not take his eyes off of the somber figure that was his wife. Breathless, one question alone gnawed at him. The long and painful years had indeed taken their toll on Mahtilde… but how far? Would he really know her?
An exuberant “Long live our noble lady!” rang out from the crowd, not far from Raoul. Several others excitedly echoed the cry when they observed that the decorated mare was slowing down. Barely halting her steed, the lovely lady waved her hand at the cheering peasants. And as she turned, with a kind and gracious nod, Raoul caught a clear yet brief glimpse of her pale face before she moved on.
That one look … and all of his clamoring doubts and fears vanished forever. For in all the world, Raoul was sure of one thing…
He loved her.
And by God grace, he had remained faithful to that love. Time and torture had only enflamed his ardor. For unknowingly, in his long, hard exile, the Crusader’s lonely heart had been ennobled and purified by True Love’s only source – the Divine and Infinite Love of God.
And doubt has no place in a lover’s heart. For Love will love, not counting the costs… or consequences. It seeks no reward. And in its selfless ardor… it conquers.
Gazing upon the passing lady, the veil was lifted from his eyes... or rather, from his heart. For beneath all the festive bridal elegance and somber pale complexion, Raoul saw only his Mahtilde - that young loving wife he had left so long ago, whose gentle heart had nearly broken with grief at the mere thought of their parting.
He had promised her that he would return. And by the mercy of God and the hand of Blessed Mary, His Mother, he had. But to what? To stand by in silence as she ignorantly married another?
Raoul firmly shook his head as his eyes flashed once more with a fire that time and tribulation had nearly extinguished. The face of his true love had rekindled within his noble heart a strength that he had all but forgotten. In the face of the impossible, his great love for his wife enflamed his resolve. Heaven had miraculously sustained, protected and brought him this far. He would not stop now!
Mastering his emotions, Raoul broke out from amidst the crowd and headed towards Mahtilde's horse. Several alert eyes were quick to spot him, but the nimble lord was already by his wife’s side, grasping her mare’s reins.
Instantly a cry arose from the armed guards, as the festive procession came to a grinding halt.
"How dare you!"
“Keep your distance!”
"What is the meaning of this?"
For a moment, confusion reigned – as all responded with great shock, indignation, and no slight irritation at this unexpected and untimely interruption. And in that instant of chaos, Raoul seized his only opportunity.
"Noble Lady!" He cried out, reaching for her horse. "I come from the East. And I bring news of the Lord of Crequy, who has endured a captivity of ten years."
Stunned by such a strange and incredible announcement, the Lady Mahtilde instantly dismounted from her horse. The soldiers, on the other hand, had immediately descended upon the tall beggar. Swarmed by a host of commands and threats, Raoul was compelled to back away.
“You scoundrel!” they snapped angrily. “We warned you!”
“We said no trouble!”
The concerns, however, of the men-at-arms lay more with the displeasure of the Lord of Renty, who had turned back towards the commotion. With abrupt and humble nods, the guards apologized for the disturbance.
“Please forgive us, my lord.”
“It won’t happen again, we can assure you.”
“Yes, we’ll take care of this fool.”
These last comments were accompanied by several fierce glances at Raoul, who they attempted to drive away from the procession. What impudence! So this was his important business, was it? News of the Lord of Crequy! Not only was his outrageous claim absurd, but it was a most embarrassing one to make at a wedding procession.
But the lady had remained standing by her steed, her wide eyes professing her desire that the beggar remain. Observing her interest, the attendants reluctantly retreated somewhat from the intruder. They kept, however, a near, cautious and ready distance.
Her initial shock having passed, the Lady Mahtilde heaved a silent sigh… or rather a moan. The impossible claim served only as a brutal knife in her forlorn heart - a heart which had finally laid to rest its tender dreams. Years of anxious, doleful dreams had at length yielded to reason. And now this…
“God is simply asking one last sacrifice of me,” Mahtilde dryly told herself, “before the wound is sealed forever. “
With great composure and final resignation, the lady looked calmly and earnestly at the pathetic creature standing before her.
“Alas, I fear your report is incorrect,” she sighed, her weary tone betraying a bitter disappointment. Yet there was a resolution in her voice; that of a woman who, after a decade of valiant combat, had finally yielded to an impossible fight.
“My lord fell,” she continued to the ragged stranger, “together with his two brothers, many noblemen, and their squires. He was leading them on in the cause of Christ when… death took him. ” Her sad eyes momentarily wandered at the thought. Looking back towards the pilgrim, she sorrowfully shook her veiled head, “All who accompanied him perished, with the exception of seven who escaped by flight."
The crowd, close and pressing around this strange discourse, murmured in sympathy at the lady’s words. Many stared angrily at the ignorant stranger who had so thoughtlessly pained their mistress and marred her wedding. The soldiers, too, only awaited their lady’s command or a look from her mounted bridegroom to send this insolent beggar taking to his heels.
But the ‘pilgrim’ neither apologized nor retreated. His earnest eyes were strangely fixed upon those of the lady. There was a hesitant, almost pensive, air about him. Keenly aware of the scene he was creating, as well as the situation he was facing, he strove to focus his racing mind. The decisive moments were quick to pass though, and a calm, yet ardent look soon came over his scarred face. And through the still, anticipating silence of the crowd, his voice echoed like a ringing trumpet.
"Raoul of Crequy did not perish, noble lady," declared the tattered pilgrim. Then, in a tone as tender as it was powerful, he exclaimed:
“Behold him! He stands now before you."