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.


       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 [286] 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." [287] 
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 answer:
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 learn."
       "Sawest thou, youth, the bright-colored butterfly," came the whispered answer, "that fluttered once to the right of thee?"
       "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?" [288]
       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 all Eternity."
       "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.