It would be impossible to express the shock which swept through that vast multitude. But their stunned silence almost instantly gave way to excited murmurs. Many of the guards, on the other hand, remained strangely quiet, and several glances were exchanged among them. Some of the bolder ones instinctively drew nearer to the pilgrim.
But Raoul gave them no heed. He cared little for the opinions of the crowd. In his heart, the long lost Lord of Crequy had proclaimed his identity to one person, and one person alone. Riveted and breathless, Raoul’s focus remained fixed upon his beloved wife.
The Lady Mahtilde was returning his gaze, her pale lips parted in open-mouthed astonishment. For what seemed an eternity, she just stood staring. In only a few moments, however, the initial shock had passed, and Raoul watched her raise a trembling hand to her face. While the pensive crowd yet watched and awaited her response - in the depths of his soul, Raoul silently moaned. He still knew his Mahtilde quiet well. And one look from her sad eyes told him all...
She did not know him.
After their initial surprise, however, the soldiers, seeing their lady’s downcast face, lost all patience. Evidently this cruel beggar had heard about the wedding, and no doubt had decided to play the part of the long-lost husband. Well! They would not allow her ladyship to be deceived by such a wretched fool. And while an indignant hum ran through the throng, many of the guards began barking at the beggar:
“How dare you, man!”
“Do you take us for fools?”
“You’ll pay for your insolence!”
Though the stranger remained unaffected, their threats aroused Mahtilde’s attention. Her eyes invariably, yet briefly, met the pilgrim’s. Raoul would have spoken, but Mahtilde lowered her face almost at once. Her somber breath had evidently quickened, and there were silent tears streaming down her cheeks.
“Is it possible,” she asked herself, “that after all these long and terrible years, Raoul yet lives?” She glanced back up at the wretched looking beggar. That such a miserable creature would even claim to be her loving lord! Without a sound, Mahtilde slowly wrung her hands.
“It cannot be. No! My Raoul is…gone.”
And it was impossible, cruel even, to expect such a hope from her. A decade was enough. Long enough, indeed, to play the part of a fool. For years she had refused to bury the past – in spite of friends, family and reality. And for years she had deprived her only son of a good and noble father. No. She was going to be married. Nothing could change that now.
Still eyeing the pilgrim, the Lady lowered her veil over her solemn face. Her resolve resounded in her silence as she deliberately turned away from the poor pathetic creature. There would be no more false hopes. At last, her heart would be still. And her dreams, so forcibly silenced, would lay obediently and forever dead… “They must!” Shutting her eyes, Mahtilde suddenly pressed her clasped hands against her lips.
“Dear God,” she prayed, as fresh tears rolled down her flushed cheeks, “will my heart not die in peace?”
Raoul however, grieved and dismayed by this rejection, would not accept her silence. Instantly, he called out to her:
"Look at me! Please!" His fervent entreaty caught the lady by surprise, and she turned back. Without thought or restraint, the desperate knight began to plead with his beloved - for prudence would no longer hold his heart in check.
"Despite so much misery,” he cried, “and the countless hardships which I have suffered, can you not recognize your faithful husband …” his eyes locking with hers, “once so dear to you?"
His every word burned with ardor, but these last darted out like fire from his forlorn heart. No impostor could even imagine the pain behind those words, much less imitate its passion.
Yet the audience of this tragic scene remained unmoved by his pleas. On the contrary, his striking performance served only to increase the suspicions of the crowd, and the anger of the soldiers. Itching for action, they tensely eyed their weeping Lady, who was clearly affected by the stranger’s drama.
“It cannot be true”. She told herself. “Raoul is dead! His men saw him die. How can this poor vagabond even claim such a thing?”
Gasping for air, Mahtilde laid a hand upon her heaving chest. If her love was indeed dead, why then was her heart breaking at this man’s words? “It cannot be.”
The Lord of Renty, hitherto silent, cast a pitiful glance at his bride-to-be. His watchful face grew hard. He knew not who this beggar was, but all this was certainly a cruel joke to play on a heart-rent widow. Slowly, the mounted lord turned towards his awaiting guards.
Though keenly sensing this, Raoul would not take his eyes off of Mahtilde. He could not. She appeared ready to answer his plea, though stifled moans delayed her words.
“Blessed Mother, help her!” His fervent prayer remained silent within him, due to the rising murmurs of the angry crowd. If Mahtilde did not acknowledge him now, it would be too late… forever. And nearly every soul in Crequy would seek to avenge her grief. As it was, a single command would soon have him imprisoned as a lying fraud. Yet Raoul gave no thought to his danger. The sight of his wife’s bitter tears blinded him to everything else. But though he stood just a few steps away, he was once again powerless to protect her. There was nothing he could do.
“Please, Mary...” One moment longer and the poor knight would not be able to restrain himself. Even now, it took all the powers of his noble soul to master the ardent passions surging through him; to suppress his emotions, as he helplessly watched Mahtilde fall victim to her own.
Almost instinctively, Lady Mahtilde turned to the beggar. For the space of a single sigh, the two were locked in a searching, and yet heartrending gaze. In her eyes, Raoul caught a glimpse of the agony which had rent her soul for all those years, and it tore through his heart like a dagger.
Yet in this moment of sorrow, Raoul was inspired and touched with a consolation so powerful - it was a strength in his torments. For at last, his greatest fear was forever banished. Mahtilde did love him. And the violence of her grief was itself the greatest and truest testimony to the vehemence of her love.
Slowly, the Lady Mahtilde began to stutter amidst her tears. “I… I can hardly believe you. There’s - ” she choked back a sob. “There’s no proof… no proof that my Raoul is even alive.” With a muffled cry, she buried her face in her trembling hands, leaving Raoul speechless with dismay.
This was enough. Without even a word, the Lord of Renty signaled to his eager soldiers, who at once turned as one man on the ragged stranger.
Instinctively, Raoul stepped aside, but too late. The rough guards had seized upon him instantly and fiercely, as if expecting strong resistance. And they received some - though not all of what Raoul could give. For strength would not save him now and force could not win him Mahtilde. So it was with great restraint that the desperate beggar attempted to break free of their grasp. But the armed men would not yield, and Raoul suddenly understood: It was over.
“Virgin Mary…” His whisper was barely audible. After everything, could it truly end this way? “Please!” His eyes were riveted on his beloved, who in that instant suddenly raised her pale face.
“Wait!” Lady Mahtilde cried. The obedient soldiers were at once still, but without relinquishing their firm hold on Raoul.
“If you are my husband…” she clenched her trembling hands, “then answer me one question.”
A sudden hush fell upon the entire crowd, as all listened with curious attention. The Lord of Renty turned inquisitively towards his bride-to-be. Mahtilde could not possibly believe this miserable wretch of a beggar! The guards were themselves eyeing their Ladyship intently. Her pained face had grown strangely calm. There was something in her eye that revealed a certain strength; a peace, perhaps, in believing that she would at last answer this question... forever. With confident composure, Mahtilde faced the expectant stranger.
“The day on which you departed for the Holy Land…” She spoke slowly, cautiously almost, as she formulated her question. “Tell me - what did you do before you left me?"
The bright rays of the evening sun cast very still shadows of the vast and motionless crowd, wholly captivated by the extraordinary scene unfolding before them. Intrigued beyond words, it was as if none dared even to breathe. Every eye was turned in an incredulous stare upon the tattered, unkempt stranger. The soldiers too, with curious anticipation, had instinctively loosened their hold on him.
No heart, though, was as still as the one which beat within the lovely Lady of Crequy. Her every feature bespoke a fierce struggle between doubt and hope. With consuming focus, she stared at the tall man before her who calmly, though silently, was returning her gaze. To her mild surprise, instead of answering, a smile lit his weary face - and his bleeding hands clasped slowly near his heart.
But Raoul was speaking, or rather his soul was. Speechless with awe and gratitude, his first thoughts were of another Lady, one to Whom he owed once more his heartfelt thanks. Suddenly realizing Her answer to his prayer, adequate words of gratitude failed him. And from the depths of his soul, Raoul unknowingly offered a prayer of the greatest eloquence and power: a single, simple, incredibly sincere act of love.
The next moment, the hushed suspense was broken.
“On that day, ten years ago, before we parted ” Raoul slowly raised his face as he spoke, “I took from you your wedding ring and broke it in two.” The crowd looked instinctively towards Mahtilde, expecting some response. But the trembling lady stood silent, her wide eyes fixed upon the pilgrim steadily approaching her.
“I left you one half of the ring,” he continued, “and took the other with me. And…” His strong voice faltered slightly as he glanced down at his hands. He was standing right before her now. “And I have preserved it as a pledge of my love. Here it is.”
Reaching out, Raoul gently placed the well-worn pouch in the lady’s open hands. She had been listening intently, hanging on his every word. Gazing now at the tattered and frayed little bag, Mahtilde slowly, almost listlessly, emptied it into her palm. The next moment, she was staring at what she instantly recognized as the remaining half of her wedding ring.
As if in a daze, the lady silently traced her finger along the broken jewelry. The sight of this long-protected treasure touched something deep within her. That part of her - that half - which had for so long had lain dead, was now awakening. Clasping the ring firmly in her hand, she suddenly felt surging within her the unknown sensation and return of life. It was an imperceptible heavenly light - flooding her soul and mending her heart which, for the first time in ten years, was again whole.
Her stunned gaze rose up from the ring and rested upon its ragged, bloody owner. In that moment of illuminating grace, the years seemed to melt away, and she saw past the scars and beyond the sorrow which shrouded him.
And it was then, with a look forever after burned and treasured in Raoul’s memory, that Mahtilde finally knew him. The shock remained; but the doubt had vanished, obliterated by indescribable joy.
Without further thought or hesitation, the lady instantly cast herself into the beggar’s ready arms.
"You are, indeed, my beloved husband!” Mahtilde exclaimed, amidst fresh but sweeter tears. “You are my dear lord!"
The awestruck crowd looked on, moved with the deepest emotion. The fetters of despair had been broken, and the flood of Mahtilde’s anguished love came pouring forth. Raoul was alive! He was here, safe in her arms. For ten years she had known it, and for ten years she had waited. Now her heart, so often rebuked for its foolish hopes, was at last rewarded for its unconquerable faith. And it lavished the full force of its insatiable love upon her beloved.
Among the bystanders, however, there were those unmoved by the reunion. Not far off, the Lord of Renty watched the couple with a certain incredulity. He had known Raoul quite well, back when the latter reigned as Count of Crequy. For nearly a decade, he mourned for Raoul’s death as his own kin. Yet now that this stranger was depriving him of a long-sought wife, a struggle arose within the Lord of Renty’s heart between his loyalty and friendship to Raoul, and his love for the countess.
“He certainly possesses the form and size of Raoul,” he thought, “but that does not make him Raoul de Crequy. And I, for one, do not recognize him."
The lord was cautious and wise enough, though, to keep his doubts to himself. But his reserved silence spoke loudly to his uncertain soldiers - who stood torn between disbelief, wonder, and a ready obedience to his command.
The balance between their doubt and belief was suddenly swayed by the assertion of another and influential witness - Mahtilde’s father.
Sir Renaud had been intently following the amazing discourse between the beggar and his daughter. Passing through the guards, he drew nearer now to the joyful couple and saw plainly the stranger in question.
"I see now the features of my lost son-in-law!” The count of Craon had raised his voice for all to hear. Raoul turned towards him at these words, and the elderly lord looked warmly at the younger. “Although,” Sir Renaud nodded softly, “suffering has somewhat altered them.” Turning again to the crowd he proclaimed, “When we see him dressed as is befitting his noble rank, I think you all will recognize in him your long-lost lord!"
A deafening cheer resounded from the throng. Mahtilde, who had been eagerly watching her father, turned excitedly back to Raoul. She gently raised her hand to his scarred cheeks when something caught her mother’s eye. It was the sight of a young, curious, timid face cautiously approaching. Upon hearing that his father yet lived, little Baudouin, now ten years old, had silently slipped between the soldiers to catch a better look. He became somewhat hesitant though, and grew nervous and bashful at the odd sight of the beautiful lady and filthy beggar that were his parents. His mother, however, as soon as she saw him, joyfully took hold of his small hand.
“Oh my dear son!” she cried, drawing him closer, “It is your father! Come and show him how much you love him.”
Raoul watched the young boy stand shyly beside Mahtilde. At his mother’s words, Baudouin’s eyes turned obediently towards the knight. And for the first time in their lives, father and son beheld one another. The child’s uneasy stare gradually became a steady gaze. For there was something in the stranger’s deep eyes that the boy recognized at once. It was love - and such a love that no words could ever express. Quickly releasing his mother’s hand, Baudouin surprised both parents by impulsively throwing himself into his father’s wounded arms. Raoul caught him at once and fervently pressed him against his heart.
Standing there, beside his dear wife and embracing his young son, Lord Raoul thought he would surely die of joy. In awe of God’s generosity and that of His dear Mother Mary, Raoul covered the face of his son with sweet tears of thankful happiness. All the countless hours of torture and years of slavery seemed as nothing compared to this bliss. To the humble and grateful knight, this reward far exceeded all of his trials.
By now, Baudouin had locked his arms around his father’s neck; totally fearless, if not oblivious, of Raoul’s coarse and even frightful appearance. Leaning back a moment, the boy looked closely at the knight. Then with the candor and simplicity that only a child can possess, he eagerly told his father, "It was for you then that my dear mamma wept so often!” His thin voice was nearly shouting above the excited crowd. Raoul glanced at Mahtilde with aroused compassion. Baudouin solemnly nodded his head, “She always told me again and again, 'We have lost everything, my son, in losing your father, my beloved husband.' "
At length, Lord Raoul was triumphantly escorted back to his own castle, amidst a cheering throng and accompanied by his dear family.
At least… most of his family. Peering from an open window high in the castle, Raoul’s younger brother, Sir Baudouin, nervously watched the approaching procession. Though absent from the occasion, the knight had heard the excitement and wondered as to its cause. Anxious at his own dread, Sir Baudouin strained to calm himself. But in all his darkest dreams, the young usurper could never have imagined the incredible turn of events that day.
As the large gates rumbled open, he glanced down into the courtyard. Horror gripped his cowardly heart as he recognized - despite the filth, rags and blood - his eldest brother, Lord Raoul.
Stumbling away from the window, Sir Baudouin’s blood went cold. A thousand frightful thoughts ran through his mind – each one revolving around the memories of the past. When his aged father Gerard had died from sudden grief, nothing had prevented Baudouin from seizing the lands of Crequy. With ease and freedom, he stole the title from its rightful infant heir and proclaimed himself Lord of Crequy. For years hence, the thieving lord enjoyed his reign without opposition. Not once did he doubt his rule would endure, for the sole challenge to his unjust claim remained his little nephew and namesake - the young and only son of his long dead brother. At least, until now....
“Raoul is alive?” The knight spoke aloud to himself, but he was hardly listening. His mind already anticipated the inevitable moment when his crimes would be discovered, and he himself confronted by the true Lord of Crequy.
All at once, though, his fearful face grew hard.
“And what difference will it make?” he scowled. Did Raoul think he could just lie in hiding for ten years, then suddenly return from the dead and steal his lordship? The vagrant crusader had no right to reclaim his long-lost title! Or at least… he had not the power…
The knight peered back out over the window’s edge.
“I won’t let him! I still have control – and the means to enforce it.” He glanced back towards his armed guards by his door. The fear in Sir Baudouin’s eyes was all but gone, replaced now with a cold confidence.
“I will not be so easily defeated.”