Never, in the history of Crequy, had the castle’s Great Hall been the scene of such a unique suspense. A tense excitement hung in the air. All eagerly anticipated Lord Raoul’s judgment upon his treacherous brother. Every guest seemed both pleased and proud to be present at this incredible moment. Their lord had returned. At long last, justice would have its day and the usurper would be dethroned.
But it was not enough to just be there. Many a seat was emptied as the more eager guests had discretely risen for a better view. They had so longed for this day… everyone wanted to see the wretched usurper in his defeat. Many of the remaining nobles tried with great difficulty to catch a glimpse of the humbled knight. Too many curious heads, though, were already staring and most of the guests had to be content with merely watching the tall, lordly figure of the solemn-faced crusader.
Sir Raoul, then, was the intent focus of the crowd, and they watched his expression closely. Sir Baudouin, on the other hand, dared not raise his face. Hope no longer had a place in his heart - his tormenting fears had distorted his mind. He was unable to find what he was so desperately searching for. The keen gaze of the crusader, on the other hand, had seen enough. And though he kept the crowd in brief suspense, the lord’s judgment had already been passed. The guests instinctively stiffened as they watched Raoul stretch an authoritative hand towards the culprit. Raoul’s grave face grew even more serious, and he turned his head to speak.
“Again, I say! Let it be known throughout these lands, that my judgment here is with God's Own authority and it shall not be defied." His strong voice rang out, as if summoning every soul there as a witness. "As the Lord of Crequy, then, and in full use of this power…” The crusader turned and laid his hand on the bowed head before him -
“… I forgive you, Baudouin.”
The solemn words echoed through the dense hall... giving way to a deafening silence. Nothing could have better or more loudly expressed the total shock of the crowd.
One by one people slowly returned to their seats, and the guests began to stir. Only a few, at first, dared to whisper to one another, and many curious looks were exchanged among the noble guests. Some looked instinctively at the Lord of Renty. The stunned knight glanced guiltily at the weapon in his hand. His dark eyes returned to Lord Raoul. He knew the crusader too well to believe this to be an ill-humored joke. Yet a certain doubt lingered in his heart.
Sir Renaud, still standing at the head table, turned dumbfounded towards his daughter Mahtilde. But she did not see him. Naturally, the lady's eyes were fixed upon her lord. The elderly father continued to stare at her, though, for there was an interesting expression upon her sweet face. There was something mysteriously calm, and even edifying, about it. The look lingered but a moment, for the lady soon turned and discretely beckoned to one of her maids.
While the entire hall was strongly, though silently, reacting to the unexpected pardon, the kneeling figure at Raoul's feet did not stir. Sir Baudouin did not doubt his brother’s words. But he did not believe them either. His stunned mind was void of all thought… and his heart of any emotion. In this daze, he heard the Lord of Crequy speak again.
“God allows all for a purpose, Baudouin. Even your evil.” Raoul’s clear voice was low. “Some graces can only be won at such a price. Not until eternity will we truly understand the priceless treasure that Our Lady has wrought from this tragedy. Remember this, Baudouin - whatever God heals becomes an even greater thing than what it was before its fall.”
Still kneeling, the knight instinctively raised his head to find that Sir Raoul was looking down at him. Sir Baudouin returned his gaze, staring thoughtfully into the crusader’s face. For a moment, the years seemed to fade away, and Baudouin recognized the young lord he had remembered from so long ago... Yet, in some way, he did not know him. Raoul had changed. The nobility of character that had endeared the crusader to all who knew him had intensified. God's love had ennobled what His grace had sanctified through years of innocent suffering.
Without a word of response, Sir Baudouin lowered his ashamed face. The lord’s chivalry was deeply humbling for the culprit, who now felt guilty at receiving this immense charity.
Sensing his fears, as well as the growing curiosity of the crowd, Lord Raoul stepped back and spoke loudly for all to hear.
“Rise now, Baudouin,” Raoul beckoned as he spoke. His tone had softened, “The past is forgotten. Join us, dear brother, in God’s good feast.”
Sir Baudouin obediently, though hesitantly, rose to his feet. With downcast eyes, his voice was barely above a whisper as he echoed Raoul’s own words: “You have the heart to call me ‘brother’?”
The uneasy question was followed by an awkward silence. Nervous at the delay, Baudouin hoped that his comment had passed unnoticed. A single glance, however, and he knew that Raoul had heard him. Not only that, but his silence was purposefully intended to get Baudouin’s attention. Yet even now, as they looked at one another, the lord made no effort to reply. The expression on his scarred face was serious, without being somber. There was a silent passion burning behind his deep eyes.
Then, in answer, the crusader simply held open a welcoming pair of arms. He had barely a moment before his younger brother rushed into them and was clasped in a fervent embrace.
The Lord of Renty, not too far off, stared in silence. By now the multitude of guests had seated themselves, and were engaged in many a hushed and excited conversation. Surprised, although not necessarily disappointed, the lord sheathed his sword. With furrowed eyebrows he gazed at the two brothers.
He could only clearly see Baudouin, who was blocking Raoul. Even at that, the younger knight’s face was buried in the crusader’s shoulder, and the lord could not see it. But he could tell that Baudouin was trembling though, and his keen eye noticed Raoul tighten his reassuring grasp.
The Lord of Renty frowned. He was weary of his friend’s love and trust being betrayed. He could imagine the sacrifice it was to forgive Baudouin’s treacheries. The lord only wished that, for once, Raoul would be the one to receive… instead of give.
These thoughts had rested only briefly in his mind, when his eye caught sight of the crusader. The two knights had moved slightly, and the Lord of Renty could now clearly see Raoul’s face. That was all that he needed. Instinctively, and almost despite himself, the Lord of Renty’s scowl broke into a grateful smile.
Lord Raoul was happy. There was no doubt of it. Everything about the crusader emitted such an incredible joy that the Lord of Renty could not even imagine it. But he did not need to. He knew enough now to be at peace. It was only in this act of charity and forgiveness that Raoul’s love could find its fulfillment … and its sweet ‘revenge’. With a humble bow, the Lord of Renty returned content to his seat.
Sir Renaud, too, was moved by his son-in-law’s behavior. He watched now with a certain pride as Lord Raoul led the forgiven brother up to the head table. It was only as the two knights approached that the old count realized why his daughter had summoned the maidservant. Anticipating her noble husband’s charity, the Lady Mahtilde had discretely set an extra place at the family table… for Sir Baudouin.
Raoul noticed his wife’s foresight, and saw in it her silent support. He said nothing, but the look on his grateful face was, to Mahtilde, more precious than the highest praise. She returned his smile, and happily watched as he took the plate and goblet for Sir Baudouin and set them down near his own. Gesturing for his brother, Lord Raoul motioned for him to sit. Sir Baudouin gently rubbed his damp eyes and grinned. His place was nothing less than at the lord’s own side. No longer fearful, the knight humbly and gratefully obeyed.
The crowd looked on with proud and eager faces as the Lord of Crequy resumed his place at the head of the Banquet Hall. Turning to his lady beside him, Raoul took hold of her small hand and gently raised it aloft. At this sign, the hall resounded with a triumphant cheer. Words cannot express the immense joy that radiated from the noble couple. It flooded the room like a torrent of peace and of love. Everyone could feel it. And everyone knew… the greatest celebration in all of Crequy was only just beginning!
And it would not end there. In the classic style of the French, even the official festivities were carried on for days to follow. These 'fêtes', as they are called, opened the castle of Crequy to all. People who came from far and near to see the long-lost Count Raoul, and to hear the wondrous tale, knew that they would be welcome and well received.
It was during this time of excitement and celebration when, one day, a flushed and breathless woodsman came hurrying into the castle.
“I have to see the Lord Raoul!” he exclaimed eagerly, “I must speak with him!”
“Peace, my friend!” Sir Renaud approached the newcomer. “My lord is busy at the moment. He and his brother are currently entertaining the Lord of Renty and some other noble guests.”
“But, he must come with me to the forest!” the man insisted. “There is something that he has to see!”
“What is it?”
The peasant turned quickly at this sound of a woman’s voice. It was the Lady Mahtilde.
“Is something wrong?” she asked kindly. There was no anxiety in her eyes, and her gentle presence gave the anxious man confidence.
Bowing humbly, he answered “No, my lady. I simply bring news of the most interesting and extraordinary nature!”
“News! Is it good news?”
The exuberant question came from the little master of the castle, Raoul’s son Baudouin. But the self-proclaimed messenger was reluctant to share his tale with any other than the lord himself. Even with that, the woodsman seemed eager that Sir Raoul should accompany him to the forest. Young Baudouin turned excitedly towards his mother.
“Shall I get father?” he grinned. With a smile, Mahtilde laid a calm and restraining hand on the boy’s shoulder. She looked over towards her father. The old man’s expression was thoughtful, but indecisive. With a single nod, Sir Renaud silently deferred to the lady’s decision. Turning back to the messenger, Mahtilde addressed her son’s request.
“Thank you, Baudouin. But that will not be necessary,” she said. Then, with a graceful gesture, she beckoned to the peasant. “Follow me, my good man. You may speak with Lord Raoul.”
Thus accompanied by her ladyship, the visitor was brought into the Great Hall. With a grateful bow to Sir Raoul, he apologized for his intrusion on the festivities. The long-lost Lord of Crequy nodded graciously.
“It is no intrusion. Please…continue…” a smile slowly emerged on Raoul’s face. He recognized the peasant. It was the woodsman - the very same who had found Lord Raoul when the crusader was first wandering the forests of Crequy after his miraculous rescue.
The woodcutter acknowledged Raoul’s smile with an even larger grin. Once more, the peasant thanked the nobles for their indulgent patience with his disruption. There was no cause for worry though, for the guests were in no way annoyed. On the contrary, many seemed pleased to be part of this interesting interview and to hear the news this woodsman bore. Above all, they were intrigued by his mysterious request. All eyes were on the Lord of Crequy, who was listening with an intent focus. At length, Raoul arose from his chair.
“I will come,” he nodded at the peasant. “Lead me to the forest.”
With approving and excited whispers, the many nobles watched the lord and his family follow the messenger. Some of the more curious guests and closer friends also joined them.
As they made their way through the dense woods, Raoul slowly began to recognize his surroundings. He had been in this place not long ago. Each tree and shrub was now bringing back the memories of that fateful day: the day when he had been brought back to Crequy. He was near now to where he had awoken.
“My lord!” the woodsman’s voice cried out. “Over here!”
Sir Raoul looked up from his thoughts. His pace quickened towards his guide, who was waving at him in the near distance. Then a smile flashed across the lord’s face. This was not the first time the woodcutter had served as his guide. Only this time, Raoul was not the beggar he had once been.
The retinue of family and friends from the castle were not far behind him as the lord hastened past a cluster of trees. Coming around the bend, Raoul’s eyes instantly fell upon the object of the hunt.
“There, Lord Raoul,” the peasant excitedly pointed with an air of authority. “Do you see them?”
The crusader nodded. There was an interesting expression on his intent face.
“Indeed.” He answered. “I do.”
The woodsman was pleased. “You recognize them then, my lord? I had hoped so. You can imagine my surprise, I’m sure. But when I realized that this is so near where we first met… ” Raoul glanced up with a grin. The woodcutter too smiled at the memory. “Well, I felt you should see for yourself.”
The lord turned back with a nod. “You did well, my friend.”
“But what is it?” Sir Baudouin asked, coming up. The others had joined them now and were crowding around. All looked toward the objects in question. But the crusader made no answer. He only stared in silence. There, nearly hidden by the tall grass, was a large twisted clump of iron.
“Chains?” whispered the Lord of Renty. He peered down at the cold metal. “What are those doing here?”
Mahtilde was standing now by her husband’s side. Softly taking hold of his arm, she looked searchingly at his thoughtful face.
“Where did they come from?” the lady asked, half expecting the answer. The lord's deep eyes remained still. His mind was over a thousand miles away.
At these words, a mix between fear and awe swept through the small group. Some excitedly stared now at the clump of metal as if at a miraculous sign. For lying there before them was yet further and physical proof of Our Lady's wondrous and powerful intercession. To others, the blood-stained iron brought the crusader's sad story to life. Seeing the actual chains that had imprisoned their tortured lord filled them with even greater compassion.
... Or, for some, contrition. Sir Baudouin almost winced at the frightful things, more out of remorse than anything else. He looked towards Raoul with even kinder eyes. Studying the quiet expression on the lord's scarred face, his pity turned to admiration. And, for perhaps the first time, Sir Baudouin thanked God for blessing him with the noble example and precious gift of his brother.
The somber stillness was broken by the surprising, though sweet, sound of Raoul's young son.
“Are those your chains then, father? The ones that held you captive in the tower for all of those years?”
There was a tone in the boy's sad voice that bespoke his tender feelings. The lad had been proud, in his own young way, to hear the tales of Lord Raoul's bravery and courage. The sight of these iron bonds though - used to afflict and torture his dear father - brought a stark reality of pain to the loving child.
Little Baudouin's question, however, got a strong reaction from his angered grandfather. The elderly count had been silently suppressing his justified indignation and disgust at the guilty chains. And at the sound of his poor grandchild's sorrow, Sir Renaud did not hesitate to share his thoughts.
“How terrible, Raoul!” Sir Renaud cried. “Oh, we shall remove those beastly things at once. We shall dispose of those horrors!”
The old knight's feelings were echoed by many approving nods and murmurs from his companions. One voice, however, rose in disagreement... Raoul's.
“No, my friends!” His firm correction was strangely touched with emotion. “You do not understand.”
Everyone watched the tall lord step towards the heavy chains and lift them from the ground. Passing them through his scarred hands, the crusader carefully eyed the rusted and bloody metal. He knew it so well. Every link was filled with countless pains, hopes and memories. A smile came to the lord's scarred face, and he gently brought the instrument of torture to his lips.
Dear God, I have so much to be grateful for. This quiet prayer had barely left his heart, when Raoul turned to see Mahtilde approaching him. Her eyes met his, but their gaze went so much deeper. Searching her soul, the crusader sought to share his joy. He wanted her to understand what was so difficult to explain.
"You see, my Mahaut - my strength," the lord whispered her beautiful French name to intone its full and ancient meaning. "My love, I don't ever want to forget."
By now, the lady had placed her hand upon her husband's arm. At these words, Mahtilde laid her head upon his strong shoulder and breathed a heartfelt sigh. But it was not of grief or fear. It was a sigh that unburdens a heart overwhelmed with bliss. Closing her eyes, Mahtilde's sweet voice rang with the courage and confidence that filled her soul.
"And we never will, Raoul," she whispered back.
The Lord of Crequy looked down at the still figure of his wife. His serious face broke into a smile when he felt a tiny tug against the chains. He glanced over at his other side. There was his little Baudouin, standing firm with his little fist confidently clasping the hard metal. With a solemn, yet joyful, expression, the boy turned up towards his father and mother. Though separated by time and distance, they had suffered so much together - as a family.
Raoul looked again at the chains. The very pain they had once caused him was now replaced with an inexpressible joy! With boundless gratitude, the crusader raised his eyes to Heaven.
Oh Mary, my Queen! My sweet Protectress! How can I ever thank You? Everything I thought I had lost forever- I now possess again - and even more! He gazed once more at all of his loved ones around him. You have given us all so much...
It was becoming clearer to him now. All of it. Everything which they had endured for so long - it had all had a purpose... a goal for each of them and for all of them. And the good... all of the good that God had bestowed on the lord and his family had not been in spite of their sorrows, but because of them - and through them. Every trial had been the reward for a cross faithfully carried. Though painful at the time, Raoul could understand now why. Innocent suffering not only purifies love - it proves it. And every victory won merited for them even higher rewards and graces from the generous hands of Our Lady.
Raoul looked again… to far beyond the forest's sky. He did not even try to form words of thanks. He knew that none would come. How could they? What could ever fittingly or accurately express the feelings of his heart? Raoul was confident, though, that his dear Queen understood his heart nonetheless. That She knew his gratitude. He only hoped, suddenly, that this joy he felt did not diminish his love for Her. Seeing now how his suffering had been crucial in God's loving plan, the humble crusader wished that this happiness too could somehow increase his love.
Then, in answer to his unspoken prayer, a sudden peace - such as he had never felt before - filled the knight's heart. In that precious moment, Raoul heard - or rather felt - Our Lady's loving response echo through his soul.
“God wills it.”
For the rest of their blessed lives, Sir Raoul, his Lady Mahtilde and their ever growing family enjoyed a deep and special love for our Blessed Mother, never forgetting the miraculous graces that had changed them forever. As for his prison chains, the Lord of Crequy immediately arranged for a monastery to be built in that same forest - in memory of the miracle. But with that, his gratitude could not be satisfied, and he was not at peace until he had ensured the prosperity of the monastic home by richly endowing it. His generousity still did not end there and in further thanks to his Heavenly Protectress, Lord Raoul went on to make many generous gifts and alms to the other neighboring chapels of our Blessed Lady.
Yet most importantly, the crusader kept the flame of Divine Love forever burning in his heart. It shone like a beacon to all around him - especially to his children. Young Baudouin and the rest of his new brothers and sisters, one of whom was named in memory of their martyred uncle Godfrey, were raised with the blessed example of this Faith. For Raoul and Mahtilde lived their lives as every Catholic should - in the knowledge that this earth is not our final abode. Our Eternal Home lies above us. And it was undoubtedly with great rejoicing that the family of the house of Crequy was forever reunited in the everlasting Kingdom of Heaven.
It is of this author’s opinion that this heroic crusader was nothing less than a Saint. And it is with the most earnest encouragement that all are invited to invoke and pray to this unknown noble. Raoul's incredible story has been retold for the express and single purpose for which he lived his life: to give honor and glory to Almighty God and the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Yet the tale of the Lord of Crequy is meant to achieve an even greater end - to increase our gratitude and love for God and His Mother. Let us honor this humble crusader by thanking Heaven for what They have given him - and for what They have given us. We too are called to cherish and defend the True Faith. We too must persevere with confidence and hope in our dark trials. We too were created to give God our all - that, in giving all, we may receive All!
Let us take this story to heart then - that, by his example and intercession, this noble knight may help raise up a host of selfless loving souls for Christ. Entrusting ourselves to Mary like Raoul did, we will be led and guided by Her Immaculate Heart - until we join his ranks at last with the blessed in Heaven.
God wills it!