Night Games is the first story in the collection Night Games and Other Stories and Novellas. The collection was published in 2002 by Ivan R. Dee and was translated by Margret Schaefer. The short story was originally published in 1926 as Spiel im Morgengrauen. It begins with Lieutenant Wilhelm Kasda being awoken one Sunday morning by his orderly to announce that Wilhelm (or Willi as he is known throughout the story) has a visitor. His visitor is an old acquaintance, Otto von Bogner, a man who had once been an officer as well but who had to resign after running up some debts at a casino that he couldn’t honour. Von Bogner now works as a cashier in the office of an electrical installation company and has ‘borrowed’ some money from the company only to discover that on Monday the office is due to be audited by the company headquarters; he needs some money fast, about a thousand gulden. But Willi is living in straitened circumstances and only has about a hundred gulden himself. Bogner suggests that Willa approach his uncle Robert but he dismisses the idea as he no longer has any contact with him. Bogner suggests some other people that Willa could approach but he is uneasy about asking anyone for money. Instead he suggests that as he was intending to visit Baden that evening to indulge in a game of baccarat that he would use his hundred gulden to see if he could win the money for his old friend. Meanwhile Bogner still has a few gulden of his own and he intends to go to the races to see if he can win the money himself.
Well, I guess we half-know how the story is going to proceed from this point; Willa arrives at Baden and although he feels like being distracted by the Kessner sisters he ends up at the gaming table. He’s cautious at first and then becomes bolder. Before long he has a thousand gulden and exits from the table with the intention of visiting the Kressners for dinner only to discover that they have left already. He’s now at a loose end.
The Kessners might have left word for him with the housemaid! Well, he had no intention of forcing himself on them. He really didn’t need to do that. But what to do? Return to Vienna right away? That would perhaps be best. How would it be just to leave the decision to fate?
Willa goes for a walk in the evening air, but as we suspected he finds himself drawn back to the café and the gaming table. And he loses his money, right? Well, yes and no, he wins, then has a losing streak, then a winning streak, so that when he is due to catch the last train back to Vienna he has over two thousand gulden in his pocket.
Although there is a certain inevitability about the story, Schnitzler has a lot of fun playing with us; we’re expecting things to go badly but things keep turning out fine for Willa. This story reminded me of one of my favourite short stories, stickman’s laughter by Nelson Algren. In both stories the protagonist is initially reluctant to gamble their money, they’re cautious but end up with sizeable winnings, they walk away with the knowledge that they could end the evening in the black; but circumstances draw them back, they don’t want to, but fate seems to draw them back to the table, their winnings increase but as the evening proceeds they get sucked in so that they can no longer escape.
Willi is lent the use of a coach so that he can get to the railway station.
Still, the horses maintained a good clip, and in five minutes they were at the station. But at precisely the same moment the train, which had arrived just a minute earlier, began to move from the gate in the station above. Willi leaped from the carriage, started after the brightly lit coaches as they moved slowly and heavily forward across the viaduct, heard the whistle of the locomotive fade into the night air, shook his head, and didn’t quite know whether he was angry or pleased.
Oh well, back to the baccarat table.
I won’t divulge any more of the story—at this point we’re about a third of the way through it. Although it’s a bit predictable at times I found that Schnitzler took us to places we weren’t expecting. In the end it’s a fun story, rather in the style of Maupassant, and one well worth reading. I shall look forward to the rest of the stories in this collection, although some I have read previously.