"What I like in a good author isn't what he says, but what he whispers."
-Logan Pearsall Smith
The Lady, or the Tiger
In the olden days of the Roman Empire, there lived an emperor who was half-civilized. When one of his subjects was accused of a major crime, public notice was given, and on the appointed day, the fate of the accused person would be decided in the emperor's arena.
When all the people had assembled in the galleries, the emperor, surrounded by his court, sat on his throne and gave the signal. A door beneath him opened and the accused person stepped into the arena. 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 those doors and open one of them. He could open either door; he was subject to no influence but that of chance. If he opened one, out came a hungry tiger, the fiercest and cruelest that could be gotten, which immediately sprang upon him and tore him to pieces. At that awful moment sorrowful bells were clanged, great wails went up from the hired mourners and the audience, with bowed heads and downcast hearts, walked slowly home, mourning greatly that one so young and fair, or so old and respected should have met so terrible a fate.
But if the accused person opened the other door, there came forth from it a lady, the most suitable to his years that his majesty could select. To this lady he was immediately married. It mattered not that he might already have a wife and family, or that he might have a sweetheart. The emperor allowed no such thing to interfere with his great scheme of punishment or reward. The marriage, as in the other instance, took place immediately in the arena. A third door would open beneath the emperor, and the priest, followed by a band of singers and dancing maidens, playing joyful notes on golden horns, advanced to where the pair stood, side-by-side, and the wedding was promptly and cheerfully held. Then the brass bells rang forth with their merry peals, the people shouted glad hurrahs, and the innocent man, preceded by the flower girls, led his bride home.
La Perfectly Swell
This was the emperor's half-civilized method of delivering justice. Its perfect fairness was obvious. The accused could not know out of which door the lady would exit. He opened the one he pleased, without the slightest idea whether, in the next instant, he would be devoured or married. On some occasions the tiger came out of one door, and on some, the other. The decisions of this court were not only firm, they were self-determined. 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.
The institution was a very popular one. When people gathered 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 that it could not have otherwise attained. Thus the masses were entertained and pleased, and the smarter element of the community could bring no charge of unfairness against his plan, for did not the accused person have the whole matter in his hand?
Now this semi-barbaric emperor had a beautiful daughter with a soul as passionate as his own. She was the apple of his eye, and was loved by him above all humanity.
"The ear of jealousy heareth all things."
-Wisdom of Solomon
And among his subjects was a young soldier of that fineness of blood and lowness of occupation common to conventional heroes of romance who loved royal maidens. This royal maiden was very satisfied with her lover for he was handsome and brave to a degree unsurpassed in the entire empire. And she loved him with a passion that was exceedingly warm and strong. The love affair moved on happily for many months until one day the emperor discovered it. He did not hesitate in regard to his duty. The youth was immediately cast into prison. He would stand trial in the emperor's arena!
This, of course, was an especially important occasion, and his majesty, as well as all the people, was greatly interested in the development of the trial. Never before had such a case occurred. Never before had a subject dared to love the daughter of an emperor. In later years such things were common but back then they were startling.
The tiger cages of the empire were searched for the most savage and relentless beasts, from which the fiercest monster might be selected. The ranks of maidens throughout the land were carefully surveyed by competent judges, in order to find a fitting bride, in case fate did not determine for the youth a different destiny. Of course, everybody knew that the deed, which the accused was charged, had been done. He had loved the princess and neither he, she, nor anyone else thought of denying it the fact. But the emperor would not think of allowing anything to interfere with the workings of the court. No matter how the trial turned out, the youth would be disposed of, and the emperor would take great pleasure in watching the course of events.
The appointed day arrived. From far and near the people gathered and thronged the great galleries of the arena. Those unable to gain admittance massed themselves against its outside walls. The emperor and his court were in their places, opposite the twin doors, those fateful entrances, so terrible in their sameness.
All was ready. The signal was given. A door beneath the royal party opened and the lover of the princess strode into the arena. A gasp arose from the crowd. Tall, handsome, fair, his appearance was greeted with a hum of admiration and anxiety. Half the audience was unaware that 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 to bow to the emperor. But he did not think of that royal person at all. His eyes were fixed upon the princess who sat to the right of her father. Had it not been for the wildness of her nature it is probable that she would not have been there. But her intense soul would not allow her to be absent. From the moment that the decree had gone forth that her lover should decide his fate in the emperor's arena, she had thought of nothing else, day or night. Possessed of more power, influence and force of character than anyone else, she had done what no other person was able to do - she had discovered the secret of the doors! She knew in which of the two rooms stood the cage of the tiger, and in which waited the lady. Through these thick doors it was impossible that any noise should come forth from within to the person who approached to raise the latch. And not only did she know in which room the lady stood, ready to emerge, all blushing and radiant, should her door be opened -she also knew the lady! It was Theresa, one of the fairest and loveliest ladies of the court, who had been selected as a reward for the accused youth, should he be proved innocent of the crime of loving one so far above him. And how the princess hated her! Often she had seen, or imagined that she had seen, this fair creature throwing glances of admiration upon her lover, and sometimes she thought these glances were noticed and even returned. Now and then she had seen them talking together. It was only for a moment or two but much can be said in a brief space. It may have been on the most unimportant topics, but how was she to know? 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 in her veins, transmitted through long lines of semi-barbaric ancestors, she hated the woman who blushed and trembled behind that silent door!
When her lover turned and looked at her and his eyes met hers, he saw by the power of quick perception, which is given to those who love each other, that she knew behind which door crouched the tiger, and behind which stood the lady. He had expected her to know. He understood her nature and his soul was assured that she would never rest until she had discovered the secret, hidden before all other onlookers, even the emperor. The only hope for the youth was based upon the success of the princess in discovering the key to this mystery. And the moment he looked upon her he saw that 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 had 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 rested upon the cushioned railing beside her. She raised her hand and made a slight, quick movement to 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, walked across the empty space. Every heart stopped beating, every breath was held, every eye was fixed 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 lady come out, or did the tiger? The more we reflect upon this question, the harder it is to answer, for it involves a study of the human heart, which leads us through evil mazes of passion, out of which it is difficult to find our way. Think of it, dear reader, not as if the decision depended upon you, but upon the spirited, half-civilized 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, had she started in wild terror and covered her face with her hands as she thought of her lover opening the door on the other side, where waited the fangs of the hungry tiger! But how much oftener had she seen him at the other door. How in her nightmares had she gnashed her teeth and torn her hair when she saw his look of 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 cheeks and sparkling eyes. When she had seen him lead her forth, his whole frame alive with the joy of recovered life, and heard the glad shouts from the crowd 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 as she had seen them walk away, upon their path of flowers, followed by the tremendous shouts of the crowd, 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 the afterlife? 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 not one to be lightly considered and it is not for me 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?