|This story and introduction was scanned from
Great Short Stories of the World, compiled by
Barrett H. Clark & Maxim Lieber. Spring Books, n.d., pp. 285-288.
ARTHUR SCHNITZLER, born in Vienna in 1862, was one of the most
distinguished figures in Austrian literature, and a dramatist and fiction
writer of international renown. His delicately written and finely conceived
short stories are among the very best of their kind. The Triple Warning
is a philosophical and metaphysical parable related in the author's best
and most brilliant style. The present version is translated especially
for this collection by Barrett H. Clark, from the volume Masks and Miracles.
THE TRIPLE WARNING
IN the morning mist, shot through
with the blue of the heavens, a youth was making his way toward the beckoning
mountaIns. His heart thrilled to the rhythmical beat of all the world.
Without a care or worry he went on for hours over the level country when,
on reaching the edge of a forest, a voice rang out, sounding at once near
at hand and far-off, and very mysterious:
"Go not through this forest, youth,
unless thou wouldst commit murder."
The youth stood still in astonishment,
looked in every direction, and seeing nowhere any sign of a living being,
concluded that it was a spirit that had addressed him. But his innate courage
would not  permit him to heed the strange call, and reducing his gait
only a little, he proceeded on his way without misgiving, his senses keenly
alert, in order that he might be prepared for a meeting with the unknown
enemy that had warned him. But he met no one, nor heard any suspicious
sound as, unchallenged, he emerged out of the deep shadows of the trees
into the open. Under the last wide boughs he sank down for a short rest,
allowing his eyes to wander out across a wide meadow toward the mountains,
from among which one peak rose aloft, naked and sharply outlined. This
was his ultimate goal.
But scarcely had he arisen again
when for the second time the mysterious voice was heard, sounding at once
near at hand and far-off, mysteriously, but more earnestly than before:
5 "Go not through
this meadow, youth, unless thou wouldst bring ruin to thy Fatherland."
The youth's pride this time forbade
his taking heed; he even smiled at the rigmarole, which was delivered with
the air as of one concealing something very important, and hurried on,
not knowing whether impatience or unrest hastened his steps. The damp mist
of evening descended upon the plain as he at last stood facing the rocky
wall below his goal. Hardly had he set foot upon the bare surface of the
stone, when the voice rang out again, near at hand and far-off, mysteriously,
but more threateningly than before:
"No farther, youth, else wilt
thou suffer death."
The youth laughed loudly and,
without haste or hesitation, went on his way. And the less clear the ascending
path became, the more did his chest expand, and finally on the bravely
conquered peak his head was illumined by the last light of day.
"Here I am!" he called out in
a tone of triumph. "If this was a test, O good or evil spirit, then have
I won! No murder weighs on my conscience, unharmed slumbers my Fatherland
below, and I still live. Whosoever thou art, I am stronger than thou, for
I did not believe thee, and I did right."
10 Whereupon came a great
sound as of thunder from the mountain sides, and at the same time exceeding
close at hand:
"Youth, thou errest!" And the
overpowering weight of the words felled the wanderer. He stretched himself
out on the edge of rock as though he intended to rest there, and with an
ironical curl of the lips he said half to himself:
"So it appears that I have committed
murder without knowing it!"
"Thy careless foot has crushed
a worm," the answer thundered back. And the youth answered with indifference:
"I see: neither a good nor an
evil spirit spoke to me, but a spirit with a sense of humor. I was not
aware that such hovered about among us mortals." 
15 And again the voice
resounded in the fading twilight of the heights:
"Art thou then no longer the same
youth whose heart only this morning thrilled to the rhythmical beat of
all the world? Is thy soul so dead that thou art untouched by the happiness
and sorrow of even a worm?"
"Is that thy meaning?" replied
the youth, wrinkling his forehead. "In that event am I a hundred -- a thousand
times guilty, like other mortals, whose careless steps have innocently
destroyed tiny creatures without number."
"Against this particular thing
wast thou warned. Dost thou know to what purpose this worm was destined
in the eternal scheme of things?"
With sunken head the youth made
20 "Since I neither knew
nor could know that, thou must humbly confess that in my wandering through
the forest I have committed precisely the one of many possible murders
that it was thy will to prevent. But how I have contrived in my way over
the fields to bring ruin to my Fatherland, I am really most curious to
"Sawest thou, youth, the bright-colored
butterfly," came the whispered answer, "that fluttered once to the right
"Many butterflies did I see, as
well as the one thou mentionest."
"Many butterflies! Ah, many did
the breath from thy lips drive far from their way; but the one I speak
of was driven off to the east, winging its way far and wide until it flew
over the golden fence that encloses the royal park. From that butterfly
will be born the caterpillar which next year, one hot summer afternoon,
will crawl over the white neck of the young queen, awakening her so suddenly
from her sleep that her heart will stand still in her breast, and the fruit
of her womb languish and die. Thus the king's brother will inherit the
kingdom instead of the rightful heir, whom thou wilt have cheated of his
life; vicious, malicious, and cruel, he will so rule as to bring his people
to despair, madness, and finally, in a frantic effort to save himself,
he will plunge his country into a terrible war, and thus bring thy dear
Fatherland to ruin. And on no one but thou rests the blame for all this,
thou whose breath drove the colored butterfly eastwards across the meadow
until it flew over the golden fence of the king's park."
The youth shrugged his shoulders:
25 "How, O invisible spirit,
can I deny that all this that thou prophesiest will come to pass, since
on earth one thing always follows from another, and often the most terrible
events are caused by the most trivial things, and the most trivial events
by the most terrible things? And why should I believe this particular prophecy,
since the other, threatening me with death should I mount these steps,
has not come to pass?"
"He who mounts those steps," rang
out the terrible voice, "must turn back and descend them, if he wishes
to mix with mankind again. Hast thou pondered that?" 
The youth stopped suddenly and
for a moment it seemed as though he would take the safe path downwards,
but fearing the impenetrable night that encircled him, he clearly perceived
that for so hazardous an enterprise he would require the light of day,
and in order to make sure that he would have all his wits at his command
on the morrow, he lay down again on the narrow ledge, longing ardently
for the sleep that strengthens. As he lay there motionless, his thoughts
keeping him awake, he opened his tired eyelids, while anxious shudders
ran through his heart and veins. The dizzy precipice was ever before his
eyes: that way lay the only road back to life. He who until then had been
always sure of his path, now felt in his soul a doubt he had never before
experienced, that deepened and caused him ever greater agony, until he
could no longer bear it. He therefore decided rather to attempt forthwith
what could not be avoided than to await the light in a torment of incertitude.
Again he arose, ready for the venture without the blessed light of day,
to conquer with faltering steps the dangerous path. But hardly had he set
foot into the darkness when he realized as though condemned by an irrevocable
judgment, that his fate was to be fulfilled without delay. He called out
into the emptiness in anger and sorrow:
"O Invisible Spirit, who hast
three times warned me and whom I have thrice refused to believe, O Spirit
to whom I now bow down as to one stronger than I, tell me, ere thou destroyest
me, who thou art?"
Again the voice rang out, stiflingly
close at hand and immeasurably far away:
30 "No mortal hath yet known
me. Many names have I: the superstitious call me Destiny, fools call me
Luck, and the pious call me God. To those who deem themselves wise I am
that Power which was in the Beginning and continues without end through
"Then I curse thee in this my
last moment," shouted the youth with the bitterness of death in his heart.
"If thou art indeed the Power that was in the Beginning and continues without
end through all Eternity, then was it fated that all should happen as it
did -- that I should go through the forest and commit murder, that I should
cross the meadow and bring ruin upon my Fatherland, that I should climb
this rock and here find death -- all this despite thy warning. But why
was I condemned to hear thee speak to me thrice, if thy warning was not
to help me? And why, oh, irony of ironies! must I in this my last moment
whimper my feeble question to thee?"
An answer was made to the youth,
stern and terrible, in a peal of mysterious laughter that echoed to the
utmost confines of the invisible heavens. As he tried to catch the words
the earth moved and sank from under his feet. He fell, deeper than a million
bottomless pits, amid all the lurking nights of time, that have been and
will be, from the Beginning to the End of all things.