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 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 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
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 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 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
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 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?