Of what crime was the young man accused?
The young man was not accused of a specific crime. The king sentenced him to the ordeal in the arena because he was a lowly commoner who was having a torrid love affair with the king's daughter. The king was an autocratic ruler and could sentence anybody to the ordeal if he wanted to do so, and he was angered by the audacity of any commoner making love to his daughter.
Never before had such a case occurred; never before had a subject dared to love the daughter of the king.
Since such a case had never occurred before, there was no written law about it on the books. The king arbitrarily made it a crime, as he was entitled to do.
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.
There was no such thing as a defense attorney in those days or in that kingdom. The question of guilt or innocence would be decided by what happened in the arena.
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 story was originally published in The Century in 1882, and to this day readers have continued to wonder what happened to the princess's handsome lover. His fate seems to have been determined by the princess herself. Was she more strongly motivated by love or by jealousy? The lover obviously trusted her implicitly--but was he in for a big surprise when he opened the door she indicated?