In Frank Stockton’s story “The Lady, Or the Tiger?,” an accused man is brought into an arena and must choose between two doors. Behind one is a lady, who will be his. Behind the other is a tiger. The plot is complicated by the fact that the protagonist’s crime is having loved the king’s daughter, the story’s protagonist. She sits next to the king.
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.
Her accused lover looks to her for guidance.
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.
The story concludes as the narrator puts the question to his readers.
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?
Frank Stockton — “The Lady, Or the Tiger?”
The story leaves us in the shadow of the ending, though the ending is unsure. The story is freighted with heartbreak, but which type of heartbreak will befall the princess, the death of her lover or his marriage to her rival?
A more certain fate awaits Constantin, the condemned man in J. G. Ballard’s short story “End Game.” Constantin has been convicted of a crime and sentenced to death, but in this society, death sentences are carried out at an unspecified time. Constantine lives in a sequestered community with his executioner (his ‘supervisor’), Malek. The spend their days together. When Constantin falls briefly sick, Malek helps him recover. They play chess. Constantine learns that Malek knows the precise moment at which he is to carry out Constantine’s execution, though Malek will not divulge this information to Constantine, who must go on living never knowing which breath will be his last.
Drawing the lapels of the dressing gown around his chest, Constantin studied the board with a desultory eye. He noticed that Malek’s move appeared to be the first bad one he had made in all their games together, but he felt too tired to make the most of his opportunity. His brief speech to Malek, confirming all he believed, now left nothing more to be said. From now on whatever happened was up to Malek.
He turned in his chair and, to his surprise, saw the supervisor standing in the doorway, wearing his long gray overcaot.
“Malex—?” For a moment Constantin felt his heart gallop, and then controlled himself. “Malek, you’ve agreed at last, you’re going to take me to the Department?”
Malek shook his head, his eyes staring somberly at Contantin.
“Not exactly. I thought we might look at the garden, Mr. Constantin. A breath of fresh air, it will do you good.”
“Of course, Malek, it’s kind of you.” Constantin rose a little unsteadily to his feet, and tightened the cord of his dressing gown. “Pardon my wild hopes.” He tried to smile to Malek, but the supervisor sttod impassively by the door, hands in his overcoat pockets, his eyes lowered fractionally from Constantin’s face.
They went out onto the veranda toward the French windows. Outside the colde morning air whirled in frantic circles around the small stone yard, the leaves spiraling upward into the dark sky. To Constantin there seemed little point in going out into the garden, but Malek stood behind him, one hand on the latch.
“Malek.” Something made him turn and face the supervisor. “You do understand what I mean, when I say I am absolutely innocent. I know that.”
“Of course, Mr. Constantin.” The supervisor’s face was relaxed and almost genial. “I understand. When you know you are innocent, then you are guilty.”
His hand opened the veranda door onto the whirling leaves.
—The conclusion of "End Game" by J. G. Ballard
Note the sense of a crescendo interrupted. It suggests both Constantin’s death and the length of each second between now and that fateful moment.
Thank you for reading.