Homepage Link   The words, Short Stories, against a blue, green and black background.




 

The LADY OR THE TIGER

by Frank R. Stockton

In the very olden time, there lived a semi-barbaric king, whose
ideas, though somewhat polished and sharpened by the
progressiveness of distant Latin neighbors, were still large,
florid, and untrammelled, as became the half of him which was
barbaric. He was a man of exuberant fancy, and, withal, of an
authority so irresistible that, at his will, he turned his varied
fancies into facts. He was greatly given to self-communing, and
when he and himself agreed upon anything, the thing was done. When
every member of his domestic and political systems moved smoothly
in its appointed course, his nature was bland and genial; but
whenever there was a little hitch, and some of his orbs got out of
their orbits, he was blander and more genial still, for nothing
pleased him so much as to make the crooked straight, and crush
down uneven places.

Among the borrowed notions by which his barbarism had become
semified was that of the public arena, in which, by exhibitions of
manly and beastly valor, the minds of his subjects were refined
and cultured.

But even here the exuberant and barbaric fancy asserted itself.
The arena of the king was built, not to give the people an
opportunity of hearing the rhapsodies of dying gladiators, nor to
enable them to view the inevitable conclusion of a conflict
between religious opinions and hungry jaws, but for purposes far
better adapted to widen and develop the mental energies of the
people. This vast amphitheatre, with its encircling galleries, its
mysterious vaults, and its unseen passages, was an agent of poetic
justice, in which crime was punished, or virtue rewarded, by the
decrees of an impartial and incorruptible chance.

When a subject was accused of a crime of sufficient importance to
interest the king, public notice was given that on an appointed
day the fate of the accused person would be decided in the king's
arena--a structure which well deserved its name; for, although its
form and plan were borrowed from afar, its purpose emanated solely
from the brain of this man, who, every barleycorn a king, knew no
tradition to which he owed more allegiance than pleased his fancy,
and who ingrafted on every adopted form of human thought and
action the rich growth of his barbaric idealism.

When all the people had assembled in the galleries, and the king,
surrounded by his court, sat high up on his throne of royal state
on one side of the arena, he gave a signal, a door beneath him
opened, and the accused subject stepped out into the amphitheatre.
Directly opposite him, on the other side of the enclosed space,
were two doors, exactly alike and side by side. It was the duty
and the privilege of the person on trial to walk directly to these
doors and open one of them. He could open either door he pleased.
He was subject to no guidance or influence but that of the
aforementioned impartial and incorruptible chance. If he opened
the one, there came out of it a hungry tiger, the fiercest and
most cruel that could be procured, which immediately sprang upon
him, and tore him to pieces, as a punishment for his guilt. The
moment that the case of the criminal was thus decided, doleful
iron bells were clanged, great wails went up from the hired
mourners posted on the outer rim of the arena, and the vast
audience, with bowed heads and downcast hearts, wended slowly
their homeward way, mourning greatly that one so young and fair,
or so old and respected, should have merited so dire a fate.

But if the accused person opened the other door, there came forth
from it a lady, the most suitable to his years and station that
his Majesty could select among his fair subjects; and to this lady
he was immediately married, as a reward of his innocence. It
mattered not that he might already possess a wife and family, or
that his affections might be engaged upon an object of his own
selection. The king allowed no such subordinate arrangements to
interfere with his great scheme of retribution and reward. The
exercises, as in the other instance, took place immediately, and
in the arena. Another door opened beneath the king, and a priest,
followed by a band of choristers, and dancing maidens blowing
joyous airs on golden horns and treading an epithalamic measure,
advanced to where the pair stood side by side, and the wedding was
promptly and cheerily solemnized. Then the gay brass bells rang
forth their merry peals, the people shouted glad hurrahs, and the
innocent man, preceded by children strewing flowers on his path,
led his bride to his home.

This was the king's semi-barbaric method of administering justice.
Its perfect fairness is obvious. The criminal could not know out
of which door would come the lady. He opened either he pleased,
without having the slightest idea whether, in the next instant, he
was to be devoured or married. On some occasions the tiger came
out of one door, and on some out of the other. The decisions of
this tribunal were not only fair--they were positively
determinate. The accused person was instantly punished if he found
himself guilty, and if innocent he was rewarded on the spot,
whether he liked it or not. There was no escape from the judgments
of the king's arena.

The institution was a very popular one. When the people gathered
together on one of the great trial days, they never knew whether
they were to witness a bloody slaughter or a hilarious wedding.
This element of uncertainty lent an interest to the occasion which
it could not otherwise have attained. Thus the masses were
entertained and pleased, and the thinking part of the community
could bring no charge of unfairness against this plan; for did not
the accused person have the whole matter in his own hands?

This semi-barbaric king had a daughter as blooming as his most
florid fancies, and with a soul as fervent and imperious as his
own. As is usual in such cases, she was the apple of his eye, and
was loved by him above all humanity. Among his courtiers was a
young man of that fineness of blood and lowness of station common
to the conventional heroes of romance who love royal maidens. This
royal maiden was well satisfied with her lover, for he was
handsome and brave to a degree unsurpassed in all this kingdom,
and she loved him with an ardor that had enough of barbarism in it
to make it exceedingly warm and strong. This love affair moved on
happily for many months, until, one day, the king happened to
discover its existence. He did not hesitate nor waver in regard to
his duty in the premises. The youth was immediately cast into
prison, and a day was appointed for his trial in the king's arena.
This, of course, was an especially important occasion, and his
Majesty, as well as all the people, was greatly interested in the
workings and development of this trial. Never before had such a
case occurred--never before had a subject dared to love the
daughter of a king. In after years such things became commonplace
enough, but then they were, in no slight degree, novel and
startling.

The tiger cages of the kingdom were searched for the most savage
and relentless beasts, from which the fiercest monster might be
selected for the arena, and the ranks of maiden youth and beauty
throughout the land were carefully surveyed by competent judges,
in order that the young man might have a fitting bride in case
fate did not determine for him a different destiny. Of course,
everybody knew that the deed with which the accused was charged
had been done. He had loved the princess, and neither he, she, nor
any one else thought of denying the fact. But the king would not
think of allowing any fact of this kind to interfere with the
workings of the tribunal, in which he took such great delight and
satisfaction. No matter how the affair turned out, the youth would
be disposed of, and the king would take an aesthetic pleasure in
watching the course of events which would determine whether or not
the young man had done wrong in allowing himself to love the
princess.

The appointed day arrived. From far and near the people gathered,
and thronged the great galleries of the arena, while crowds,
unable to gain admittance, massed themselves against its outside
walls. The king and his court were in their places, opposite the
twin doors--those fateful portals, so terrible in their
similarity!

All was ready. The signal was given. A door beneath the royal
party opened, and the lover of the princess walked into the arena.
Tall, beautiful, fair, his appearance was greeted with a low hum
of admiration and anxiety. Half the audience had not known so
grand a youth had lived among them. No wonder the princess loved
him! What a terrible thing for him to be there!

As the youth advanced into the arena, he turned, as the custom
was, to bow to the king. But he did not think at all of that royal
personage; his eyes were fixed upon the princess, who sat to the
right of her father. Had it not been for the moiety of barbarism
in her nature, it is probable that lady would not have been there.
But her intense and fervid soul would not allow her to be absent
on an occasion in which she was so terribly interested. From the
moment that the decree had gone forth that her lover should decide
his fate in the king's arena, she had thought of nothing, night or
day, but this great event and the various subjects connected with
it. Possessed of more power, influence, and force of character
than any one who had ever before been interested in such a case,
she had done what no other person had done--she had possessed
herself of the secret of the doors. She knew in which of the two
rooms behind those doors stood the cage of the tiger, with its
open front and in which waited the lady. Through these thick
doors, heavily curtained with skins on the inside, it was
impossible that any noise or suggestion should come from within to
the person who should approach to raise the latch of one of them.
But gold, and the power of a woman's will, had brought the secret
to the princess.

Not only did she know in which room stood the lady, ready to
emerge, all blushing and radiant, should her door be opened, but
she knew who the lady was. It was one of the fairest and loveliest
of the damsels of the court who had been selected as the reward of
the accused youth, should he be proved innocent of the crime of
aspiring to one so far above him; and the princess hated her.
Often had she seen, or imagined that she had seen, this fair
creature throwing glances of admiration upon the person of her
lover, and sometimes she thought these glances were perceived and
even returned. Now and then she had seen them talking together. It
was but for a moment or two, but much can be said in a brief
space. It may have been on most unimportant topics, but how could
she know that? The girl was lovely, but she had dared to raise her
eyes to the loved one of the princess, and, with all the intensity
of the savage blood transmitted to her through long lines of
wholly barbaric ancestors, she hated the woman who blushed and
trembled behind that silent door.

When her lover turned and looked at her, and his eye met hers as
she sat there paler and whiter than any one in the vast ocean of
anxious faces about her, he saw, by that power of quick perception
which is given to those whose souls are one, that she knew behind
which door crouched the tiger, and behind which stood the lady. He
had expected her to know it. He understood her nature, and his
soul was assured that she would never rest until she had made
plain to herself this thing, hidden to all other lookers-on, even
to the king. The only hope for the youth in which there was any
element of certainty was based upon the success of the princess in
discovering this mystery, and the moment he looked upon her, he
saw she had succeeded.

Then it was that his quick and anxious glance asked the question,
"Which?" It was as plain to her as if he shouted it from where he
stood. There was not an instant to be lost. The question was asked
in a flash; it must be answered in another.

Her right arm lay on the cushioned parapet before her. She raised
her hand, and made a slight, quick movement toward the right. No
one but her lover saw her. Every eye but his was fixed on the man
in the arena.

He turned, and with a firm and rapid step he walked across the
empty space. Every heart stopped beating, every breath was held,
every eye was fixed immovably upon that man. Without the slightest
hesitation, he went to the door on the right, and opened it.

Now, the point of the story is this: Did the tiger come out of
that door, or did the lady?

The more we reflect upon this question, the harder it is to
answer. It involves a study of the human heart which leads us
through devious mazes of passion, out of which it is difficult to
find our way. Think of it, fair reader, not as if the decision of
the question depended upon yourself, but upon that hot-blooded,
semi-barbaric princess, her soul at a white heat beneath the
combined fires of despair and jealousy. She had lost him, but who
should have him?

How often, in her waking hours and in her dreams, had she started
in wild horror and covered her face with her hands as she thought
of her lover opening the door on the other side of which waited
the cruel fangs of the tiger!

But how much oftener had she seen him at the other door! How in
her grievous reveries had she gnashed her teeth and torn her hair
when she saw his start of rapturous delight as he opened the door
of the lady! How her soul had burned in agony when she had seen
him rush to meet that woman, with her flushing cheek and sparkling
eye of triumph; when she had seen him lead her forth, his whole
frame kindled with the joy of recovered life; when she had heard
the glad shouts from the multitude, and the wild ringing of the
happy bells; when she had seen the priest, with his joyous
followers, advance to the couple, and make them man and wife
before her very eyes; and when she had seen them walk away
together upon their path of flowers, followed by the tremendous
shouts of the hilarious multitude, in which her one despairing
shriek was lost and drowned!

Would it not be better for him to die at once, and go to wait for
her in the blessed regions of semi-barbaric futurity?

And yet, that awful tiger, those shrieks, that blood!

Her decision had been indicated in an instant, but it had been
made after days and nights of anguished deliberation. She had
known she would be asked, she had decided what she would answer,
and, without the slightest hesitation, she had moved her hand to
the right.

The question of her decision is one not to be lightly considered,
and it is not for me to presume to set up myself as the one person
able to answer it. So I leave it with all of you: Which came out
of the opened door--the lady or the tiger?


Short Stories Online
Main Homepage: Poems About Life
Nature Poetry and the Human World

You are welcome to send me an email at
letters at kensanes.com
Copyright 2010-2013 Ken Sanes