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The child stealer (1867)

by Erckmann-Chatrian

Emil Erckmann (1822-1899) & Alexander Chatrian (1826-1890)


IN 1815, there was daily to be seen, wandering in the
Hesse-Darmstadt quarter of Mayence, a tall emaciated woman, with
hollow cheeks and haggard eyes, a frightful picture of madness. 
This unfortunate woman, named Christine Evig, a mattress-maker,
living in the narrow street called Petit Volet, at the back of the
cathedral, had lost her reason through the occurrence of a terrible

  Passing one evening along the winding street of the Trois Bateaux
leading her little daughter by the hand, and suddenly observing
that she had for a moment let go of the child, and no longer heard
the sound of its steps, the poor woman turned and called — 

  "Deubche! Deubche! where are you?"

  Nobody answered, and the street, as far as she could see, was

  Then running, crying, calling, she returned to the port, and
peered into the dark water lying beneath the vessels.

  Her cries and moans drew the neighbours about her; the poor
mother explained to them her agonies.  They joined her in making
fresh search, but nothing, not a trace, not an indication, was
discovered to throw light on this frightful mystery.

  From that time Christine Evig had never again set foot in
her home; night and day she wandered through the town, crying in a
voice growing feebler and more plaintive — 

  "Deubche! Deubche!"

  She was pitied.  Sometimes one, sometimes another kind person
gave her food and cast-off clothes.  And the police, in presence of
a sympathy so general, did not think it their duty to interfere and
shut Christine up in a madhouse, as was usual at that period.

  She was left therefore to go about as she liked, without any one
troubling himself concerning her ways.

  But what gave to the misfortune of Christine a truly sinister
character was that the disappearance of her little daughter had
been, as it were, the signal for several events of the same kind;
a dozen children disappeared in an astonishing and inexplicable
manner, several of them belonging to the upper rank of townspeople.

  These events usually occurred at nightfall, when the
street-passengers were few, and every one of them was hastening
home from business.  A wilful child went out to the doorstep of its
parent's house, its mother calling after it, "Karl!" "Ludwig!"
"Lotele!" — absolutely like poor Christine  No answer!  They rushed
in every direction; the whole neighbourhood was ransacked; all was

  To describe to you the inquiries of the police, the arrests that
were made, the perquisitions, the terror of families, would be a
thing impossible.

  To see one's child die is, doubtless, frightful; but to lose it
without knowing what has become of it, to think that we shall never
look upon it again, that the poor little being, so feeble and
tender, which we have pressed to our heart with so much love, is
ill perhaps — it may be calling for us, and we unable to help 
it — this passes all imagination — exceeds the power of human
expression to convey.

  Now one evening in the October of that year, 1817, Christine
Evig, after having strayed about the streets, had seated herself on
the trough of the Bishop's Fountain, her long grey hair hanging
about her face, and her eyes wandering dreamily into vacancy.

  The servant-girls of the neighbourhood, instead of stopping to
chat as usual at the fountain, made haste to fill their pitchers
and regain their masters' houses.

  The poor mad woman stayed there alone, motionless, under the icy
shower in which the Rhine mist was falling.  The high houses
around, with their sharp gables, their latticed windows, their
innumerable dormer-lights, were slowly becoming enveloped in

  The Bishop's Chapel clock struck seven, still Christine did not
move, but sat shivering and murmuring — 

  "Deubche! Deubche!"

  At that moment, while the pale hue of twilight yet lingered on
the points of the roofs before finally disappearing, she suddenly
shuddered from head to foot, stretched forward her neck, and her
face, impassible for nearly two years, was lit with such an
expression of intelligence, that Counsellor Trumf's servant, who
was at the moment holding her pitcher to the spout, turned in
astonishment at seeing this gesture of the mad woman's.

  At the same moment, a woman, with head bent down, passed along
the pavement at the other side of the square, holding in her arms
something that was struggling with her, enveloped in a piece of
linen cloth.

  Seen through the rain this woman was of striking aspect; she was
hurrying away like a thief who has succeeded in effecting a
robbery, slinking along in the shadow, her rags dragging behind her.

  Christine Evig had extended her shrunken left hand, and a few
inarticulate words fell from her lips; but suddenly a piercing cry
escaped from her bosom — 

  "It is she!"

  And bounding across the square, in less than a minute she reached
the corner of the Rue des Vieilles Ferrailles, where the woman had
passed out of her sight.

  But there Christine stopped, breathless; the stranger was lost in
the darkness of that filthy place, and nothing was to be heard but
the monotonous sound of the water falling from the house-gutters.

  What had passed through the mad woman's mind?  What had she
remembered?  Had she had some vision — one of those insights of the
soul that for a moment unshroud to us the dark depths of the past? 
I do not know.

  By whatever means, she had recovered her reason.

  Without losing a moment in pursuing the vanished apparition, the
unfortunate woman hurried up the Rue des Trois Bateaux as if
carried along by vertigo, and turning at the corner of the Place
Gutenberg, rushed into the hall of the provost, Kasper Schwartz,
crying in a hoarse voice — 

  "Monsieur le Prevot, the child-stealers are discovered!  Quick!
listen! listen!"

  The provost was just finishing his evening meal.  He was a grave,
methodical man, liking to take his ease after supper.  Thus the
sight of this phantom greatly disturbed him, and setting down the
cup of tea he was in the act of raising to his lips, he cried — 

  "Good God! am I not to have a single moment's quiet during the
day?  Can there possibly be a more unfortunate man than I am?  What
does this mad woman want with me now?  Why was she allowed to come

  Recovering her calmness at these words, Christine replied in a
suppliant manner — 

  "Ah, monsieur! you ask if there is a being more unfortunate than
yourself; look at me — look at me!"

  Her voice was broken with tears; her clenched hands put aside the
long grey hair from her pale face.  She was terrible to see.

  "Mad! yes, my God!  I have been mad; the Lord, in His mercy, hid
from me my misfortune; but I am mad no longer.  Oh, what I have
seen!  That woman was carrying off a child — for it was a child; I
am sure of it."

  "Go to the devil, with your woman and child! — go to the devil!"
cried the provost.  Seeing the unfortunate woman throw herself upon
her knees, "Hans! Hans!" he cried, "will you come and turn this
woman out of doors?  To the devil with the office of provost!  It
brings me nothing but annoyance."

  The servant appeared, and Monsieur Kasper Schwartz pointed to
Christine — 

  "Show her out," he said.  "Tomorrow I shall certainly draw out a
warrant in due form, to rid the town of this unfortunate creature. 
Thank Heaven we are not without madhouses!"

  The mad woman laughed dreamily, while the servant, full of pity
for her, took her by the arm, and said gently to her — 

  "Come, Christine — come."

  She had relapsed into madness, and murmured — 

  "Deubche! — Deubche!"


WHILE these things were passing in the house of the provost, Kasper
Schwartz, a carriage came down the Rue de l'Arsenal; the sentinel
on guard before the shot-park, recognizing the equipage as that of
Count Diderich, colonel of the Imperial regiment of
Hilbourighausen, carried arms; a salute answered him from the
interior of the vehicle.

  The carriage, drawn at full speed, seemed as if going towards the
Porte d'Allemagne, but it took the Rue de l'Homme de Fer, and
stopped before the door of the provost's house.

  As the colonel, in full uniform, got out, he raised his eyes, and
appeared stupefied, for the shocking laughter of the mad woman made
itself heard outside the house.

  Count Diderich was a man about five-and-thirty or forty years of
age, tall, with brown beard and hair, and a severe and energetic

  He entered the provost's hall abruptly, saw Hans leading
Christine, and, without waiting to have himself announced,
walked into Monsieur Schwartz's dining-room, exclaiming — 

  "Monsieur, the police of your district is intolerable!  Twenty
minutes ago I stopped in front of the cathedral, at the moment of
the Angelus.  As I got out of my carriage, seeing the Countess
Hilbourighausen coming down the steps of the cathedral, I moved on
one side to allow her to pass, and I then found that my son — a
child of three years old, who had been seated by my side — had
disappeared.  The carriage door on the side towards the bishop's
house was open: advantage had been taken of the moment when I was
letting down the carriage steps to carry off the child!  All the
search and inquiries of my people have been fruitless.  I am in
despair, monsieur! — in despair!" 

  The colonel's agitation was extreme; his dark eyes flashed like
lightning through the tears he tried to repress; his hand clasped
the hilt of his sword.

  The provost appeared dumbfounded; his apathetic nature was
distressed at the idea of having to exert himself and pass the
night in giving orders, and going about from place to place — in
short, to recommence, for the hundredth time, the hitherto
fruitless search.

  He would rather have put off the business till the next day.

  "Monsieur," replied the colonel, "understand that I will not be
trifled with.  You shall answer for my son with your head.  It is
your place to watch over the public security — you fail in your
duty — it is scandalous!  Oh that I at least knew who has struck the

  While pronouncing these incoherent words, he paced up and down
the room, with clenched teeth and sombre looks.

  Perspiration stood on the purple brow of Master Schwartz, who
murmured, as he looked at the plate before him — 

  "I'm very sorry, monsieur — very sorry; but this is the 
tenth! — the thieves are much more clever than my detectives.  What
would you have me do?"

  At this imprudent response the colonel bounded with rage, and
seizing the fat provost by the shoulders, dragged him out of his

  "What would I have you do? — Is that the answer you give to a
father who comes to demand of you his child?"

  "Let me go, monsieur! — let me go!" roared the provost, choking
with alarm.  "In Heaven's name calm yourself!  A woman — a mad
woman — Christine Evig, has just been here — she told me — yes, I
remember — Hans! Hans!"

  The servant, who had overheard all at the keyhole, entered the
room instantly.


  "Fetch back the mad woman."

  "She's still outside, monsieur."

  "Well, bring her in.  Pray sit down, colonel."

  Count Diderich remained standing in the middle of the room, and
a moment afterwards Christine Evig returned, haggard, and laughing
insanely, as she had gone out.

  Hans and a servant-girl, curious as to what was passing, stood in
the open doorway open-mouthed.  The colonel, with an imperious
gesture, made a sign to them to go away, then, crossing his arms
and confronting Master Schwartz, he cried — 

  "Well, monsieur, what kind of intelligence do you expect to
obtain from this unfortunate creature?"

  The provost moved, as if he were going to speak; his fat cheeks

  The mad woman uttered a sort of sobbing laughter.

  "Monsieur," said the provost, at length, "this woman's case is
the same as your own; two years ago she lost her child, and that
drove her mad."

  The colonel's eyes overflowed with tears.

  "Go on," he said.

  "When she came here a little while ago she appeared to have
recovered a spark of reason, and told me ——"

  Master Schwartz paused.

  "What did she tell you, monsieur?"

  "That she had seen a woman carrying a child."


  "Thinking that she was only raving, I sent her away."

  The colonel smiled bitterly.

  "You sent her away?" he cried.

  "Yes; she seemed to me to have relapsed into her state of

  "Parbleu!" cried the count, in a tone of thunder, "you refuse
assistance to this unfortunate woman?  You drive away from her her
last gleam of hope, instead of sustaining and defending her, as it
is your duty to do?  And you dare to retain your office! — you dare
to receive its emoluments!"

  He walked up close to the provost, whose wig trembled, and added,
in a low concentrated tone — 

  "You are a scoundrel!  If I do not recover my child, I'll kill
you like a dog."

  Master Schwartz, his staring eyes nearly starting from his head,
his hands helplessly open, his mouth clammy, said not a word;
terror held him by the throat; and besides, he knew not what to

  Suddenly the colonel turned his back on him, and going to
Christine, looked at her for a few seconds, then, raising his
voice — 

  "My good woman," he said, "try and answer me.  In the name of
God — in the name of your child — where did you see that woman?"

  He paused, and the poor woman murmured in a plaintive voice — 

  "Deubche! — Deubche! — they have killed her!"

  The count turned pale, and, carried away by terror, seized the
mad woman's hand.

  "Answer me, unfortunate creature! — answer me!" he cried.

  He shook her; Christine's head fell back; she uttered a peal of
frightful laughter, and said — 

  "Yes — yes — it is done! — the wicked woman has killed it!"

  The count felt his knees giving way, and sank rather than sat
down upon a chair, his elbows upon the table, his pale face between
his hands, his eyes fixed, as if gazing upon some fearful scene.

  The minutes passed slowly in silence.

  The clock struck ten; the sound made the colonel start.  He rose,
opened the door, and Christine went out.

  "Monsieur," said Master Schwartz.

  "Hold your tongue!" interrupted the colonel, with a withering

  And he followed the mad woman down the dark street.

  A singular idea had come into his mind.

  "All is lost," he said to himself; "this unhappy woman cannot
reason, cannot comprehend questions put to her; but she has seen
something — her instinct may lead her."

  It is almost needless to add that the provost was amazed.  The
worthy magistrate lost not a moment in double-locking his door;
that done, he was carried away by a noble indignation.

  "A man like me threatened! — seized by the collar!  Aha, colonel!
we'll see whether there are any laws in this country!  Tomorrow
morning I shall address a complaint to the Grand Duke, and expose
him to the conduct of his officers," &c.


MEANWHILE the colonel followed the mad woman, and by a strange
effect of the superexcitation of his senses, saw her in the
darkness, through the mist, as plainly as in broad daylight; he
heard her sighs, her confused words, in spite of the continual moan
of the autumn winds rushing through the deserted streets.

  A few late townspeople, the collars of their coats raised to the
level of their ears, their hands in their pockets, and their hats
pressed down over their eyes, passed, at infrequent intervals,
along the pavements; doors were heard to shut with a crash, an
ill-fastened shutter banged against a wall, a tile torn from a
housetop by the wind fell into the street; then, again, the immense
torrent of air whirled on its course, drowning with its lugubrious
voice all other sounds of the night.

  It was one of those cold nights at the end of October, when the
weathercocks, shaken by the north wind, turn giddily on the high
roofs, and cry with shrilly voices, "Winter! — Winter! — Winter is

  On reaching the wooden bridge Christine leaned over the pier and
looked down into the dark muddy water that dragged itself along in
the canal; then, rising with an uncertain air, she went on her way,
shivering and murmuring — 

  "Oh! oh! — it is cold!"

  The colonel, clutching the folds of his cloak with one hand,
pressed the other against his heart, which felt almost ready to

  Eleven o'clock was struck by the church of St. Ignatius, then

  Christine Evig still went on; she had passed through the narrow
streets of l'Imprimerie, of the Maillet, of the Halle aux Vins, of
the Vieilles Boucheries, and of the Fosses de l'Eveche.

  A hundred times, in despair, the count had said to himself that
this nocturnal pursuit would lead to nothing; but, remembering that
it was his last resource, he followed her as/she went from place to
place, stopping, now by a cornerstone, now in the recess of a wall,
then continuing her uncertain course — absolutely like a homeless
brute wandering at hazard in the darkness.

  At length, towards one o'clock in the morning, Christine came
once more into the Place de l'Eveche.  The weather appeared to have
somewhat cleared up; the rain no longer fell, a fresh wind swept
the streets, and the moon, now and then surrounded by dark clouds,
now and then shining in full brilliancy, shed its rays, smooth and
cold as blades of steel, upon the thousand pools of water lying in
the hollows of the paving-stones.

  The mad woman tranquilly seated herself on the edge of the
fountain, in the place she had occupied some hours before.  For a
long time she remained in the same attitude, with dull eyes, and
her rags clinging to her withered form. 

  All the count's hopes had vanished.

  But, at one of those moments when the moon, breaking through the
clouds, threw its pale light upon the silent edifices, she rose
suddenly, stretched forward her neck, and the colonel, following
the direction of her gaze, observed that it was fixed on the narrow
lane of the Vieilles Ferrailles, about two hundred paces distant
from the fountain.

  At the same moment she darted forward like an arrow.

  The count followed instantly upon her steps, plunging into the
block of tall old buildings that overlook the church of St.

  The mad woman seemed to have wings; ten times he was on the point
of losing her, so rapid was her pace through these winding lanes,
encumbered with carts, dung-heaps, and faggots piled before the
doors on the approach of winter.

  Suddenly she disappeared into a sort of blind alley, pitch dark,
and the colonel was obliged to stop, not knowing how to proceed

  Fortunately, after a few seconds, the sickly yellow rays of a
lamp pierced the darkness of the depths of this filthy hole,
through a small cracked window-pane; this light was stationary, but
now and then it was momentarily obscured by some intervening

  Some one was evidently awake in that foul den.

  What was being done?

  Without hesitation the colonel went straight towards the light.

  In the midst of the obstructions he found the mad woman, standing
in the mire, her eyes staring, her mouth open, looking at the
solitary glimmer.

  The appearance of the count did not seem at all to surprise her;
only, pointing to the window on the first floor in which the light
was seen, she said, "It's there!" in an accent so impressive that
the count started.

  Under the influence of this impulsion he sprang towards the door
of the house, and with one pressure of his shoulder burst it open. 
Impenetrable darkness filled the place. 

  The mad woman was close behind him.

  "Hush!" she cried.

  And, once more giving way to the unfortunate woman's instinct,
the count remained motionless and listened.

  The profoundest silence reigned in the house; it might have been
supposed that everybody in it was either sleeping or dead.

  The clock of St. Ignatius struck two.

  A faint whispering was then heard on the first floor, then a
vague light appeared on a crumbling wall at the backboards creaked
above the colonel, and the light came nearer and nearer, falling
first upon a ladder-staircase, a heap of old iron in a corner, a
pile of wood; further on, upon a sash-window looking out into a
yard, bottles right and left, a basket of rags — a dark, ruinous,
and hideous interior.

  At last a tin lamp with a smoky wick, held by a small hand, as
dry and sinewy as the claw of a bird of prey, was slowly projected
over the stair-rail, and above the light appeared the head of an
anxious-looking woman, with hair the colour of tow, bony cheeks,
tall ears standing almost straight out from the head, light grey
eyes glittering under deep brows — in short, a sinister being,
dressed in a filthy petticoat, her feet in old shoes, her fleshless
arms bare to the elbows, holding a lamp in one hand and in the
other a sharp slater's hatchet.

  Scarcely had this abominable being glared into the darkness than
she rushed back up the stairs with astonishing agility.

  But it was too late: the colonel had bounded after her, sword in
hand, and seized the old witch by the petticoat.

  "My child, wretch!" he cried; "my child!"

  At this roar of the lion the hyena turned and struck at random
with her hatchet.

  A frightful struggle ensued; the woman, thrown down upon the
stairs, tried to bite; the lamp, which had fallen on the ground,
burned there, its wick sputtering in the damp and throwing changing
shadows on the dusky wall.

  "My child!" repeated the colonel; "my child, or I'll kill you!"

  "You — yes, you shall have your child," replied the breathless
woman in an ironical tone.  "Oh! it's not finished — not — I've good
teeth — the coward, to — to strangle me!  Ho! — above, there! — are you
deaf? — let me go — I'll — I'll tell you all."

  She was nearly exhausted, when another witch, older and more
haggard, tottered down the stairs, crying — 

  "I'm here."

  The wretch was armed with a large butcher's knife, and the count,
looking up, saw that she was selecting a place in which to strike
him between the shoulders.

  He felt himself lost; a providential accident alone could save

  The mad woman, until then a motionless spectator, sprang upon the
old woman, crying — 

  "It is she! — -there she is!  Oh, I know her! — she shall not
escape me."

  The only answer was a gush of blood, which inundated the landing
place; the old woman had cut the unfortunate Christine's throat.

  It was the work of a second.

  The colonel had time to spring to his feet and put himself on his
guard; seeing which the two frightful old women fled rapidly up the
stairs and disappeared in the darkness. 

  The flame of the smoky lamp flickered in the oil, and the count
took advantage of its last rays to follow the murderers.  But on
reaching the top of the stairs, prudence counselled him not to
abandon this point of egress.

  He heard Christine breathing below, and drops of blood fell from
stair to stair in the midst of the silence.  It was horrible!

  On the other hand, a sound at the back of the den made the count
fear that the two women were attempting to escape by the windows.

  Ignorance of the place for a moment prevented his moving from the
spot on which he was standing, when a ray of light shining through
a glass door allowed him to see the two windows of a room looking
into the alley lit by a light from without.  At the same time he
heard, in the alley, a loud voice call out — 

  "Hallo! — what's going on here?  A door open!"

  "Come this way! — come this way!" cried the colonel.

  At the same moment the light gleamed inside of the house.

  "Ah!" cried the voice, "blood! The devil! — I can't be 
mistaken — it's Christine!"

  "Come here," repeated the colonel.

  A heavy step sounded on the stairs, and the hairy face of the
watchman, Selig, with his big otter-skin cap, and his goat-skin
over his shoulders, appeared at the head of the stairs, directing
the light of his lantern towards the count.

  The sight of the uniform astonished the worthy fellow.

  "Who's there?" he inquired.

  "Come up, my good fellow, come up!"

  "Pardon, colonel — but, down below, there's ——"

  "Yes — a woman has been killed; her murderers are in this house."

  The watchman ascended the few remaining stairs, and, holding up
his lantern, threw a light on the place; it was a landing about six
feet square, on to which opened the door of the room in which the
two women had taken refuge.  A ladder on the left hand, leading up
to the garret-story, still further contracted the space.

  The count's paleness astonished Selig.  However, he dared not
question the colonel, who asked — 

  "Who lives here?"

  "Two women — a mother and daughter, they are called about the
market the Josels.  The mother sells butcher's meat in the market,
the daughter makes sausage meat."

  The count, recalling the words uttered by Christine in her
delirium — "Poor child! — they have killed it!" — was seized
with giddiness, and a cold perspiration burst from his forehead.

  By the most frightful chance he discovered, at the same instant,
behind the stairs, a little frock of blue and red tartan, a pair of
small shoes, and a black cap, thrown there out of the light.  He
shuddered, but an invincible power urged him on to look — to
contemplate with his own eyes; he approached, therefore, trembling
from head to foot, and with a faltering hand raised these articles
of dress.

  They had belonged to his child!

  Some drops of blood stained his fingers.

  Heaven knows what passed in the count's heart.  For a long while,
leaning for support against the wall, with fixed eyes, arms hanging
helplessly by his side, and open mouth, he remained as if stunned. 
But suddenly he sprang against the door with a yell of fury that
terrified the watchman.  Nothing could have resisted such a shock. 
Within the room was heard the crashing of the furniture which the
two women had piled up to barricade the entrance; the building
shook to its foundation.  The count disappeared into the obscurity;
then came shrieks, wild cries, imprecations, hoarse clamours, from
the midst of the darkness.

  There was nothing human in it; it was as if wild beasts were
tearing each other to pieces in the recesses of their den!

  The alley filled with people.  The neighbours from all sides
rushed into the house, inquiring — 

  "What's the matter?  Are they murdering one another here?"

  Suddenly all became silent, and the count, covered with wounds
from a knife, his uniform in tatters, came down the stairs, his
sword red to the hilt; even his moustaches were blood-stained, and
those who saw him must have thought that he had been fighting after
the manner of tigers.

  What more is there for me to tell you?

  Colonel Diderich was cured of his wounds, and disappeared from

  The authorities of the town considered it judicious to keep these
horrible details from the parents of the victims; I learned them
from the watchman Selig himself, after he had grown old, and had
retired to his village near Saarbruck.  He alone knew these
details, having appeared as witness at the secret inquiry which was
instituted before the criminal tribunal of Mayence.