And since he no longer knew exactly what he already owed, he bet two thousand again

From Arthur Schnitzler’s Spiel im Morgengrauen – rendered in my edition as Night Games (Night Games and Other Stories and Novellas, trans. Margret Schaefer) but see bottom for comments on that choice. The extract is very long but Schnitzler is so very readable and then this – plus maybe Dostoevsky’s The Gambler, though it’s been too long to remember clearly is the only story I know of that convincingly hits what must be the feel of a gambling frenzied brown out:


Willi was of two minds. If they stopped now, nothing more could happen to him, and that was good. At the same time he felt an uncontrollable, truly fiendish urge to continue playing, to conjure a few more, no, all of the remaining crisp thousand-gulden bills out of the consul’s wallet into his own. That would be a hoard with which he could make his fortune! It didn’t always have to be baccarat-there were also the horse races at Freudenau and the Trabrennplatz, and there were also fine casinos such as the one at Monte Carlo on the seacoast-with beautiful women from Paris…
…..

“The whole bank!” Willi suddenly proposed, and was frightened at his own words-at the very tone of his voice. Have I lost my mind? he wondered. The consul uncovered a nine, and Willi was fifteen hundred gulden the poorer. Remembering Flegmann’s system, Willi now put down a ridiculously small sum, fifty gulden-and won. How stupid! he thought. I could have won the whole amount back at once! Why was I so cowardly’?

“The bank, again!”

He lost.

“The bank, once more!”

The consul appeared to hesitate.

“What has come over you, Kasda!” cried the regiment doctor.

Willi laughed and felt an intoxication rise into his head. Was it the cognac that was dulling his reason? Evidently. Of course he had made a mistake, not in his wildest dreams had he intended to risk a thousand or two thousand on a single bet.

“Excuse me, Consul, I really meant-“

The consul did not let him finish. In an amiable tone he said, “If you didn’t know how much money was in the bank, of course I will take your retraction into consideration.”

“What do you mean, retraction into consideration, Consul?” Willi found himself saying. “A bet is a bet.”

Was it really he who was speaking? His words? His voice? If he were to lose, it would be all over with the new military cape, the new sword belt, the dinners in attractive female company. He would have left only the thousand earmarked for that swindler Bogner-and he himself would be the same poor devil that he had been two hours ago.

Wordlessly, the consul uncovered his card. Nine. No one uttered the number out loud, yet it resounded loudly throughout the room like the echo of a ghost. Willi felt a strange moisture on his brow. Damn, that was quick! Well, at any rate, he still had a thousand gulden lying in front of him, maybe a few more. He didn’t want to count them-that would bring bad luck. In any case, he was still considerably richer than he had been when he had stepped off the train today at noon. Today at noon? And, after all, nothing was forcing him to risk the whole thousand at once. He could begin again with a hundred or two hundred, using Flegmann’s system. Only there was so little time left-hardly twenty minutes. There was silence all around.

“Lieutenant?” the consul began inquiringly.

“Ah-yes,” Willi laughed, and folded the thousand-gulden bill together.

“Half, Consul,” he said.

“Five hundred?”

Willi nodded. The others also placed bets, but merely out of formality. An end-of-the-game atmosphere was already settling over them. First Lieutenant Wimmer was standing up with his coat over his shoulders. Tugut was leaning over the billiard table. The consul uncovered his card.

“Eight.” And half of Willi’s thousand was gone. He shook his head as though something were amiss.

“The rest,” he said, and thought to himself: I’m really quite calm. He uncovered his cards slowly. Eight. The consul had to buy a card. Nine. And the five hundred was gone, the thousand was gone. Everything was gone! Everything? No. He still had the hundred and twenty gulden with which he had come, more or less. Funny, suddenly he was once more the same poor devil he had been before. And outdoors the birds sang … as they had before … when he could have gone to Monte Carlo. Well, it was a pity, but now he really had to stop. He certainly couldn’t risk the few gulden that he still had … he had to stop, though there was still a quarter of an hour left to play. What bad luck! In a quarter of an hour he could win five thousand gulden as easily as he had just lost them!
…..

But the consul casually thrust a few bills to him across the table, seemingly without counting them. “Please help yourself,” he said. Tugut cleared his throat audibly. Wimmer warned, “I’d stop if I were you, Kasda.”

Willi hesitated.

“I don’t wish to persuade you in any way, Lieutenant,” said Schnabel. He still held his hand spread lightly over the money.

At that Willi hastily grasped the bills, then acted as if he wanted to count them.

“It’s fifteen hundred,” said the consul. “You can depend upon it, Lieutenant. Do you want a card?”

Willi laughed: “What else?”

“Your bet, Lieutenant?”

“Oh, not all of it!” cried Willi, his head clearing. “The poor have to be economical. One thousand to begin with.”

He uncovered, imitating the consul’s customary exaggerated slowness. Willi had to buy a card, and added a three of spades to his four of diamonds. The consul also uncovered; he, too, held a seven.

“I’d stop,” warned First Lieutenant Wimmer again, and now his words sounded almost like a command. And the regiment doctor added, “Now, when you are just about even.”

Just about even! Willi thought. He calls that “just about even!” A quarter of an hour ago I was a well-to-do young man; now I’m a beggar, and he calls that “even”! Should I tell them the story of Bogner? Maybe then they would understand.

New cards lay in front of him. Seven. No, he didn’t want to buy a card. But the consul didn’t even ask him; he simply uncovered an eight. A thousand lost! buzzed in Willi’s brain. But I’ll win it back! And if I don’t, it won’t make any difference. I can no more pay back a thousand than I can pay back two thousand. It’s all the same now! Ten minutes is still time enough. I could even win back the four or five thousand I had before.

“Lieutenant?” asked the consul.

The words echoed through the room, for everyone was quiet, absolutely quiet. Will no one now say, “I’d stop if I were you?” No, thought Willi, no one has the audacity. They know it would be stupid for me to stop now. But what should he bet now? He had only a few hundred gulden lying in front of him. Suddenly there were more. The consul had pushed two thousand more his way.

“Help yourself, Lieutenant.”

Indeed, he helped himself. He put down fifteen hundred and won. Now he could pay back his debt and still have something left over. He felt a hand on his shoulder. “Kasda,” said First Lieutenant Wimmer behind him. “No more!” His voice sounded hard, almost severe. But I’m not on duty now, thought Willi, and I can do what I want with my money and my life! And he bet again, bet only a modest thousand gulden and uncovered the card he had been dealt. Schnabel took his time, playing with deadly slowness, as though they had all the time in the world. There was still time, indeed; no one was going to force them to stop playing at 2:3o a.m. The last time they had played until 5:30. The last time … that beautiful, distant time. Why were they all standing around him? It was as if in a dream. Ah, they were all more agitated than he was. Even Fraulein Rihoscheck, who was standing across from him, a straw hat with a red band on her well-waved hair, had curiously shining eyes. He smiled at her. She had a face like a tragic queen, though she was little better than a chorus girl. The consul uncovered his cards. A queen. Ha, Queen Rihoscheck and a nine of spades! That damned spade!-it always brought him bad luck. And the thousand wandered over to the consul. But what did it matter? He still had something left. Or was he already completely ruined? He hadn’t the slightest … Suddenly there were a few more thousand in front of him. A noble man, that consul. To be sure, he was certain he would get them back. An officer, after all, had to pay his gambling debts. Someone like Elrief remained an Elrief in any case, but an officer, unless he was named Bogner …

“Two thousand, Herr Consul!”

“Two thousand?”

“Indeed, Consul!”

He didn’t buy a card; he held with his seven. The consul had to buy. This time he didn’t bother with ceremony; he was in a hurry, and he added an eight-an eight of spades-to his one, and that made nine. No doubt about it. The eight would have been enough by itself. And the two thousand wandered back to the consul-and then immediately back to Willi. Or was it more? Three or four thousand? Better not to look at all, that would bring bad luck. The consul wouldn’t cheat him, and in any case the others were all standing around and watching closely. And since he no longer knew exactly what he already owed, he bet two thousand again. The four of spades. Yes, he was forced to buy at that. Six. The six of spades. So that made one too many! The consul didn’t even have to make an effort, and he had only a three … and the two thousand wandered over to the consul again-and then immediately back. It was ridiculous! Forward and back, forward and back. The church tower clock struck again-the half-hour. But evidently no one had heard. The consul dealt the cards calmly. Everyone was standing around, all the men; only the regiment doctor had left. Yes, Willi had noticed how, a little while ago, he had shaken his head angrily and had mumbled something between his teeth. Evidently he couldn’t bear to see how Lieutenant Kasda was playing for his life. How could a doctor have such weak nerves!

And again new cards lay in front of him. He bet-how much exactly he didn’t know. A handful of bills. This was a new way to tempt fate. Eight. Now his luck had to change.

It did not. The consul uncovered a nine, looked around at the group, and then pushed the cards away. Willi opened his eyes wide. “Well, Consul?” But the consul lifted his finger and pointed outdoors, “It has just struck the half hour, Lieutenant.”

“What,” cried Willi, pretending to be astonished. “Couldn’t we give it another quarter of an hour?”

He looked around the circle as though he sought approval. Everyone was silent. Herr Elrief looked away, very aristocratically, and lit a cigarette; Wimmer bit his lips; Greising whistled nervously, almost soundlessly; and the theatre manager remarked somewhat rudely, as though it were trivial, “The lieutenant has really had bad luck today!”

The consul stood up and called for the waiter-as though it had been a night like any other.

To the title (with plot SPOILERS) – Spiel im Morgengrauen has two acts, the gambling and the aftermath in which Willi, with only a day for deadline, tries obtaining the money, first from an uncle and later from that uncle’s wife, Leopoldine, a former (one-night) lover he’d not thought of since. She demurs but promises a later messenger with an answer. She herself comes and, without saying anything of the money, seemingly allows herself to be kept for dinner and finally for the night. In the morning Willi wakes to her dressed and leaving. He at last says something of the money – to which she replies by giving him 1000 gulden (not 1/10 of what he needed) as payment for his services, reminding him that it’s far more than the 10 he’d left her – unasked and insultingly – all those years before. He’s too angry to respond but realizes in sequence that she’d loved him, that he’d never felt loved like that since, and that he really was the evening before selling himself in hope of the money. Since she’s left as he worked through these conclusions, he also assumes she was only interested in him for the revenge. We cut forward a bit and he’s found dead of a self-inflicted bullet to the head. Shortly after his uncle shows up with the money Leopoldine had all along arranged to have sent.

Spiel im Morgengrauen is literally ‘game (singular) at dawn.’ Night Games misses the indeterminacy Schnitzler seeds in the title – where he leaves open whether the focal game is, as first appears, Willi’s gambling that ends at dawn or, as I firmly think, the sequence that plays out with Leopoldine the following morning at dawn (and stretches back several years). ‘Games’ blandly suggests equal importance for both and ‘night’ focuses the reader more on the moment of activity (gambling/sex) than on what really matters – the time of its consequence and reckoning (loss in various senses).

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