This is a chapter of King Arthur and His Knights by Blanche Winder.
One spring morning, the sun rose, bright and beautiful, over the high towers of Camelot. The birds were among the apple bloom; the mayblossoms were their heads among the long grass. Camelot was hung with banners and flags, and its pathways were arched with rainbows of flowers. Magnificent tapestries adorned the walls; fresh rushes, mixed with garlands, covered the stone floors. Everybody was running about with silver dishes and golden goblets, with cakes and fruit and honey and wine; for King Arthur’s wedding day was close at hand, and Guinevere was on her way to Camelot with a train of ladies-in-waiting and a bodyguard of knights, bringing the round table that had been made by Merlin.
At this round table, as you know, the young king had taken his knightly vow. How glad he was to think that it was to stand under the roof of Camelot, and that, sitting all about it, his fellow knights would join in his wedding breakfast. He stood with Merlin in the great gateway of his royal castle, dressed in armor that shone like gold. All about him were his faithful courtiers waiting to greet the strangers who were coming from the court of Leodogran. The great company of the Round Table was to be completed today. Many knights had made the vow in times gone by; some had been killed in battle. But today, the day before Arthur’s wedding, every seat was to be filled.
This was the king’s purpose, as he waited at the entrance of his castle in his armor of gold. Presently, from the distance, came the murmur of a crowd, the tramping of horses’ feet, and the roll of wheels. Over the hills towards Camelot poured the glittering procession of the royal bride banners waving, and minstrels singing stirring and noble songs. It was a magnificent sight.
King Arthur’s heart was beating fast with excitement and joy as the procession came right up to the big castle gates. He moved forward and bent very, very low. For, on the leading horse, he saw his lovely lady, Guinevere, riding in royal dignity. Close behind her rode her pages. Then came her ladies-in-waiting, each with a handsome knight in attendance. In the very midst of the procession marched a tall old man in white, crowned with mistletoe, and singing songs to the sound of a harp which he held in his hands; while a number of men followed just behind, carrying the round table!
King Arthur stepped forward and lifted Guinevere from her horse. Who knows what he did not whisper to her before he set her on the ground? Then he took her hand and led her forward, across the courtyard, between rows and rows of smiling, bowing attendants, right into the castle of Camelot, with the knights and ladies, who had come with her from her father’s court, walking two-and-two behind.
A beautiful throne had been set high on a dais for the princess, and Arthur led her up to it and saw her seat herself before he turned to welcome the noble company who followed. He bowed over the hands of the fair ladies, and all the knights bent, with stately courtesy, in greeting. The round table was brought in and put in the very middle of the hall. Arthur drew near and watched, while his servants placed the seats about it, and, when they had set as many as it would hold, the king called to all the knights who belonged to the Fellowship of the Round Table to gather around. From among the brilliant company in the hall, a hundred knights stepped forward, all of whom had come with Princess Guinevere from the court of her father, King Leodogran. As they approached the round table, Arthur counted them over, one by one. When the hundred were complete, the king bowed to them once more. Then he turned to Merlin, who again stood beside him. Merlin took a roll of parchment from his pocket and began to read from it aloud.
He was reading the names of those among Arthur’s own knights who had, for their courage and their goodness, their truth, charity, and uprightness, been considered worthy to join the noble Fellowship of the Round Table. Some were old and scarred with battle; some were middle-aged; some were quite young, keen, and vigorous to fight for honor and for the king. When the names rang down the hall they stepped forward, one by one. Bowing to Princess Guinevere as they passed the high dais, and to King Arthur, as they reached him where he stood, they joined the hundred knights from the court of King Leodogran. Then the chief butler came forward with a great jeweled goblet in his hand, followed by two pages carrying golden jugs. The knights and the king took their seats at the table; the goblet was filled, and, passing the jeweled cup from hand to hand, everybody drank to the fellowship of knights good and brave and true — the great Fellowship of the Round Table.
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All this time Guinevere watched, smiling and gracious, from her throne on the high dais. The knights looked at each other and at the king, as they drank from the glittering cup; but they all rose to their feet and looked towards their future queen, on her throne in the midst of them, as, at a sign from Arthur, their voices rang out, loud and glad and brave, in the words of the great vow.
The sound died away, and it was now the princess Guinevere’s turn to rise to her feet, sweet and fair and royal among them all. How proud and happy the king must have felt when he saw his lady standing among these bright and starry gentlemen, accepting their promise of chivalry with so delicate a grace! She curtseyed very low to them all and waved her pretty white hands. Then she sat down again among her ladies, and, one by one, the knights of the round table stepped forward, and, kneeling on one knee before Arthur, took the oath of loyalty to the king.
Merlin stood by, his roll of parchment, folded neatly up again, in his hand. As each knight made his vow the wizard bent his grave wise head. But all the time he was looking at the round table. He seemed as if in a dream.
Then, while he looked at the round table, he saw a mysterious thing happen. On all the seats that were placed about it, letters of gold began to appear. They looked as if they were being written by invisible fingers holding an invisible pen. As Merlin watched, these letters grew bigger and brighter. The old magician moved forward to read them the more clearly; and when he stood quite close to the table, the wonder on his face changed into great gladness.
For what do you think had been written, in each seat, by the invisible fingers that held the invisible pen? Why, the name of the knight who had just risen from it to do homage to King Arthur, chief of them all. It was a sure sign to Merlin that the round table had been made, by his own hands, for these very knights, and that their names were written also about the silver table which had been lost to men. He called to the king and to the knights to come and read. They all gathered around, amazed, and spelled out the letters of their names, and then they took their places, shoulder to shoulder. But, even as they did so, they saw that every seat was not yet filled. Two of them, one on Arthur’s right hand, the other on his left, were still empty and unnamed.
Then King Arthur was very grieved and disappointed, for he had hoped that today the Fellowship of the Round Table would be quite complete. But Merlin had, all at once, seen into the future, and he knew the secret of those two empty seats. He laid his hand on the king’s shoulder and consoled him.
“Be patient,” said the magician, “be patient! In one empty seat you will very soon see somebody whom you know and admire already. In the other, the Seat Perilous, no knight may sit today, nor tomorrow, nor for many years to come. Look! See what is written there instead of a name!”
Arthur looked and lo! he saw letters appear about the second empty seat, written, not in gold, but in flame! He read the words, marveling:
“I am the Seat Perilous.”
Even as he finished reading the words, they faded away. But all the knights had seen the letters of flame. And, right down the court, ran the murmur of words.
“That empty seat is the Seat Perilous, and no knight may sit in it today, nor tomorrow, nor for many years to come!”