The Lady, or the Tiger?
Frank R. Stockton
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 untrammeled, 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
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 amphitheater, 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
amphitheater. Directly opposite him, on the other side of the
inclosed 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
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 the 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, and 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, that lay 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.
And 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, as in his soul he knew
she would succeed.
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
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 myself up as the one person
able to answer it. And so I leave it with all of you: Which came
out of the opened door,--the lady, or the tiger?
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