The Fear Motif

The Fear Motif  (1909) 
by Ethel Watts Mumford

Extracted from The Black Cat, Apr 1909

The passing figures in the glass dimmed and blurred, and at last, concentrated into a single care-worn face, deep lined by haggard suffering.... A moment more brought the realization that the pathetic vision was no creature of the imagination, but a reflection from the real world of the dusty thoroughfare outside. A man was sitting on the edge of the veranda, looking in. His was the face reflected in the glass. He did not see the mirror that revealed him; he was, indeed, utterly unconscious of all save the music....

The Fear Motif [1]


CHUZENJI the beautiful is a placid sheet of water enclosed by volcanic mountains, whose slopes are firm and pure in line, like master strokes from a giant brush.

Sumner Boyd had been attracted by the quaint fishing village, whose balconies overhang the lake—the old temple, with its mossy steps and giant gate—the odd little boats, with their naked rowers, and the stately sampans that sailed gravely by. He decided to spend a summer there, lonely though it would undoubtedly be. In the spring he engaged a bungalow fronting the high road, backing toward the water, and bounded to left and right by ample gardens. Here he set up his household gods. He even went to the extreme of bringing up a piano—a tough, weather-proof little upright. It had to be transported by oxen from the railway at Nikko. And great was the amusement of his friends at the venture, greater yet the wonder of servants and town folk when it was unpacked. It was set up in the main room, which opened toward the road. Above it and to right and left Boyd hung three mirrors, reflecting what passed behind him while he played. He had not struck a dozen chords before many auditors gathered, and, as he did not appear to observe them, gave themselves free rein. They evidently thought the performance absurd; they grimaced and laughed, frankly expressing their judgments of the uncouth din.

But whatever they may have felt, the instrument was a comfort to its owner. When Boyd's friends came to console him in his solitude, the little mirrors would reflect emotions far different from the laughter and derision of the Japanese. Often it was an old song or a time-worn hymn he was asked for; then, as he played or sang he saw many a look of homesickness—many a smile, half tears, in the betraying mirrors.

One summer afternoon—during the great pilgrimage to Nantai San, Nikko's holy mountain—Boyd sat at his instrument, intently curious over the shifting visions in the mirrors. Past the door and upward led the road upon which trooped the pilgrims, with mushroom hats, white robes, staffs, bare, dusty ankles and sandal-shod feet. They passed in groups and singly—sad and merry, old and young—in endless procession.

Unconsciously he began to play the Pilgrim Chorus from Tannhaüser, though the joyous, happy band outside was far from embodying the grief-worn spirits of Wagner's opera. Though half conscious of the incongruity, even of the absurdity, of the music in this scene, he kept on with the theme, becoming more and more rapt as it developed. The passing figures in the glass dimmed and blurred, and at last, concentrated into a single care-worn face, deep lined by haggard suffering—a face prematurely old, lit with desperate eagerness. A moment more brought the realization that the pathetic vision was no creature of the imagination, but a reflection from the real world of the dusty thoroughfare outside.

A man was sitting on the edge of the veranda, looking in. His was the face reflected in the glass. He did not see the mirror that revealed him; he was, indeed, utterly unconscious of all save the music. His dress was that of the poorest native; but no native would have been affected by that song. Boyd played the Chorus to the end, then drifted off through chord after chord, trying old, familiar melodies. He played "Home, Sweet Home," "Die Wacht am Rhine," "Santa Lucia." The man showed no recognition, but the haunting look of soul starvation in his face deepened to agony.

Under that peasant's dress surely lay a mystery. Boyd became keen to discover it. Could he but touch with his music the hidden chord of feeling, the stranger would reveal himself. The musician experimented—with simple songs, those to which the heart-strings of memory vibrate—but with no success.

At last, made impatient by failure, he turned and made a gesture of invitation, "Won't you come in?"

Instantly the man flushed, rose and hurried away.

"Maté! maté!" called Boyd. "Stop, stop!"

Half a dozen white-clad pilgrims paused and turned to him with smiling faces. The man skurried on, disappearing at a turn of the road. Boyd was mystified.

The next day brought a similar experience—this time the pilgrim would not venture so near the house. His reflected image could be seen as he sat on the other side of the road, ready for instant flight—intent upon the music, nevertheless, with a pitiful insistency—a look half beseeching, half terrified.

He sat there all the afternoon, while his puzzled entertainer played. But when Boyd rose, the listener vanished.

That was the last seen of him for some days. Then came the beginning of a strange companionship.

As time passed, there grew upon the lonely American at Chuzenji the sensation of being haunted. He never sat down to his piano without the feeling of a presence near him. Sometimes the form of the vanishing pilgrim flitted across the glass. But always when search was made the road and the garden were deserted—there seemed no place for a man to hide.

Gradually Boyd became accustomed to his invisible auditor. At last he came to crave his presence as a stimulus to his playing. There was a weird enchantment in the mysterious proximity of the spirit he could feel answering to every note. One must live through it, as Boyd had, to know that intense yearning for the music of one's own people, the desire that comes when the only music to be had is that of alien instruments—the only songs, the inharmonious carollings of incomplete scales. There was no mistaking the eyes of the man. All the lures that Boyd put forward, however, were of no avail—the Unknown persisted in his unaccountable conduct. The mystery deepened.

October came, and with it return to Yokohama and business interests. "Must" is a cruel mistress. At last goods and chattels were packed and crated, the piano sent coastward—and Boyd slept his last night in the dismantled house. The persistent presence of the shadow filled the bare rooms, seemed to whisper outside the paper shoji with the restless, unhappy question of an uneasy spirit. All next day the traveller was possessed by an uncomfortable suspicion that he was followed. At Nikko he felt freer, but no sooner was he settled in the "City Athwart the Beach," than the invisible audience again made its presence known.

At this juncture came Pentanoff, the Hungarian pianist, on his tour around the world, and, having letters of introduction, was everywhere feted and entertained.

Boyd's musical inclinations and piano brought them much together. The virtuoso was a pale little man, with a shock of fuzzy hair and an impetuous manner. His mother was an English woman, and, besides his mastery of what was literally his "mother tongue," he had inherited from her a certain poise and gentle directness unusual in his hot-headed race.

One night, in Sumner's bungalow, as the two sat over their coffee and cigars, the host told of his weird experience.

"I'm sure he's near us now!" he exclaimed, as he finished the tale. "I am vividly conscious of him, though where he keeps himself is a mystery."

Pentanoff was all interest. "Not German, French, nor English, you say?—nor American, or he would have answered to all three—Scandinavian?"

"I don't think so."


"No,—I tried the Russian hymn—if anything, that hymn scared him away."

"I wonder—" said Pentanoff, tapping with tuneful finger a minor note—Then rapidly, nervously, slamming the music stool into position, he settled himself, and plunged into the ringing measures of a Polish battle hymn. How he played! Boyd felt an electrifying thrill. He could not keep still, he rose and walked about the room. That tormenting, irresistible music ran riot in his blood. He wanted a forlorn hope to lead—a height to storm—a dash to death with drawn sabre, in some mad charge for liberty!

The hysteria of the passionate song shook him like a great wind. He turned—and came face to face with his Chuzenji Tannhauser! Great tears coursed down the man's cheeks. He turned to speak—only dry sobs came. Pentanoff heard, and whirled around. The musician spoke in a language Boyd did not understand.

The man threw himself on his knees in a passion of weeping. It was some moments before he controlled himself.

Pentanoff received then a merciful inspiration. Turning to the piano, he played gentle, half-savage airs, strange, thrilling songs of the infancy of a people—the simplest, sweetest, saddest in the world. They soothed like an enchantment, the poor creature at his feet. Gradually the scalding tears gave place to gentle sobs of childlike relief, infinitely pitiful—then silence.

Again the musician spoke, his eyes, with gentle test, intent upon the keyboard. The answer came, hesitating, halting.

"Would you mind," Pentanoff said, "leaving us alone?"

Boyd reluctantly left the room and far into the night he heard the hum of voices—then more of the strange eerie music.

Dawn had almost come when Pentanoff rejoined him.

"It's very sad!" he said.

"Tell me," demanded the host after a lengthened silence. "Am I to be 'pied piper' against my will, and not know why?"

"It's very sad!" he repeated. "His whole story is disconnected—a sort of patchwork of memory—and there are hopeless rents in it. He is my countryman. He was a Nihilist." Again Pentanoff lapsed into silence, an odd look in his inscrutable eyes. "An official in his district," he resumed at length, "had become obnoxious to the Association, and was condemned. The Circle, of which your man was a member, was called upon to furnish the murderer. They drew lots, and it fell to him—Fate is such an ironical dame! He was the first violin in the most popular orchestra, and it was decided that the offender might be shot at one of the balls which it was known they would both attend. Unfortunately for the Society, chance had not chosen wisely, the avenger had a gentle soul—he was weak—he couldn't do it. I wish you had heard him describe it. I feel as if I had lived it all myself, or dreamt it in a nightmare. He sat through the evening, his violin trembling in his hand, his revolver lying in his breast. Dance after dance went by, and still he did not shoot. He pictured it to himself, as he pictured it to me—how the man would fall—how that brilliant gathering would rise in screaming disorder—how he would be seized—perhaps not have time to empty another cartridge into his own brain I He saw it over and over again while the lights winked and glared at him, and perspiration hung chill at his temples. He could not kill in cold blood!

"He was ordered to play a solo. He determined that this once—this the last time, he would play—and then—he would make an end of it. He improvised—tearing out from his soul all that terrible day of fear had held for him. He lost trace of everything but his music, and his misery. He paused. The audience he had held spellbound burst into a roar of applause. The host sent him his own glass of wine, the hostess her gold bracelet. He was dazed for a few moments, then the mists cleared—and he saw that his man had gone!

"Vaguely he murmured the name. Some one told him that the official had received a message which called him away. The rest of the evening is a blank. He remembers only stumbling into the outside darkness.

"According to his code of honor he must give himself up to the Society. That meant a disgrace he could not bear—and death!—that he feared with overpowering terror. He went home, secured his little savings, and fled.

"Realizing that his fellow-conspirators would leave nothing undone to find him, and make an example of him as a renegade and coward, he lived panic stricken—hiding, running, starving for days at a time, possessed by a Fear that daily grew upon him. Of course, he overestimated the power of the secret organization—all its members do. But he had been trained in its narrow circle till it made the bounds for his world.

"He does not seem to know how long, or where, he wandered, but after months of anguished flight he reached the sea coast, and concealed himself in a vessel whose destination he did not even guess. She was an English tramp, bound for the China ports, Yokohama her last call, he learned when hunger forced him on deck. He was impressed as stoker. They did not put him off at Calcutta, as they had threatened, but let him work his way to Japan. Even on board the ship he did not feel himself safe from the grasp of the men whose confidence he had betrayed. He lived in apprehension. His mind was already in the clutch of the fixed idea—the monomania of the hunted.

"When he reached the farthest East, he was terrified at prospect of the return voyage. He thought of embarking for America, and had almost completed arrangements for that, when he imagined he recognized a face in the crowd—fancied he saw a hand make the signal of his Society! Mad with fear, he fled, wandering and begging—ever making for remoter regions. Reaching the mountains, he buried himself in a little village of charcoal burners.

"There he lived ten years, perhaps longer. He picked up the language and gradually became identified with the people, who accepted him at first with curiosity, at last with friendship, ever with uniform gentleness.

"The Fear was with him always, though its cause had after a time vanished from his clouded mind. Only one longing, one need, remained clear and persistent—music! He strung a samisen to a European scale, and worked with the koto, but their tinklings were a poor solace.

"In his restlessness he began journeying, following pilgrimages from place to place, till he happened to fall in with the Nantai San procession. Suddenly—you can imagine what it must have been to him—out of the blur of white road and dusty, blue shadows, came the long lost tones—the melodies for which his heart hungered. He was drawn to them as by a spell. Memories sprang to life! faint and indistinct at first, dim visions of another existence. He followed the sounds till he came to your veranda, and sat there looking in at the strange, yet familiar instrument. Slowly he drank in harmonies, long forgotten, long sought for. When at last you rose and spoke to him, the old terror smote his heart, and he fled.

"But the music drew him back. He would often crouch under the little porch, listening with all his soul. In those long summer months his mind was born again—but the dread remained. When you went away, he followed you.

"To-night—but you know the rest—the final awakening came. He was exhausted. I played him to sleep at last. He's in there now, poor wretch I Think of it—what a life!"

The two men sat silent. For the moment they entered that strange existence of fear and longing—understood the unutterable effort of that numbed brain working through a labyrinth of darkness, guided only by the slender thread of sound—leading slowly out into the light!

Pentanoff rose. "I'll come back in the morning," he said, "to talk over what we had best do. Leave the poor devil where he is; let him alone—I've made him comfortable, and he'll sleep for twenty-four hours at least."

Bidding his friend good-night, Boyd went to his room and to bed, falling into a heavy doze, from which he suddenly awoke. He was sitting bolt upright in his bed, startled. He was sure he had heard some strange noise. It came again—three great chords on the piano!. The suddenness of the awakening had confused him. For some moments he was at a loss to account for the sounds in the room beneath. His feet slipped to the floor—then a rush of music held him still and silent.

What was it?—this overwhelming uprising of sound? Terror, terror, abject terror! in every note. Then fragments of longing, yearning—reminiscent melodies— and again Fear, smiting, all-benumbing Fear!

Boyd swayed back and forth, blinded with tears. Again and again he tried to rise, but sank down trembling.

A crash—a discord, that seemed to break the very heart of the instrument—then silence, through which the last chord hummed in a roaring circle of sound.

Snatching his dressing-gown, Boyd ran to the sitting-room. The swinging lamp that hung from the ceiling was turned low, and threw distorted, gigantic shadows as it swung slightly to and fro in the draught of the opened door. The room at first glance seemed empty—but across the keyboard of the piano, lay huddled a limp shape—one arm hanging idly, the other bent under the drooping head.

Slowly the body lost balance; sinking, collapsing to the floor. The thread in the labyrinth was broken!

  1. Copyright, 1909, by The Shortstory Publishing Company. Copyright secured in Great Britain. All rights reserved. The writer of this story received a cash price of $100 in The Black Cat story contest ending May 15, 1908

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1940, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 80 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.