One evening, seated upon a bank of the dyke commanding a view of the country, Henry de Kehlmark and Guidon Govaertz, their hands joined, were pursuing one of their ineffable conversations, interrupted by silences as eloquent and fervid as their words.
It was one of those late autumn evenings favourable to the evocation of legends, in a landscape of heather in flower and under a sky of shifting clouds, the one riding astride the other. In the distance towards Klaarvatsch, beyond the park trees, our friends' view embraced an immense stretch of verdure of the colour of winelees, to which the setting sun added a further lustre. Heaps of dry wood crackled here and there; and a scent of burning wood floated in the damp atmosphere. The weather was extremely mild and the evening air exhaled a sort of languor; the breeze seemed like a labourer's panting, or the heaving of a lover consumed with desire.
At the sight of a ruddy cloud of fantastic shape, the friends remembered the story of the Fire Shepherd celebrated in all the plains of the North. Kehlmark kept silence for some time, he seemed to be revolving some serious idea in connection with these terrifying beliefs. Since he had known him, the young Govaertz had never seen him with so gloomy, sorrow-stricken an aspect.
"You are suffering, master?" he said.
"No, dear boy; an unpleasant recollection; it will pass. This evening perhaps, the air is extremely heady; dost thou not find it so? Dost know the real story of the Fire Shepherd, whereof thou spakest just now. I have every reason to believe that it is wrongly told. I think I can suggest a more correct version. I have gathered their story from these haunted landscapes on evenings like this, especially those bits of heather where melancholy used to reign even more gloomily than elsewhere, where plain and horizon distilled the essences of their heavy sadness and shady sleep. Certain details of the landscape contract, as thou wilt have noticed in keeping thy sheep, a poignant and almost prophetic significance. Nature seems to suffer from remorse. The clouds stop and accumulate in a funeral procession over a pool predestined to be the scene of a death by drowning, a crime, or a suicide.
"Dear boy, how many good resolutions have suffered shipwreck in such weather! It is better then to conjure away one's own danger by thinking of the misfortunes of others. I have come at last to compassionate the awful lot of even accursed Cain. It is he whom I pity and not his victims. I find him superb and attractive although sinister. But I am talking nonsense and telling thee frightful stories like unto those old wives tell at evening tide."
"No, no; do continue; you tell a story so well, and you put so much meaning into ordinary words; your language often draws tears from me."
"Be it so. The hour is propitious. And since we are so well together here, I long to tell thee to what a degree I share the distress of the burning shepherd. For a long time he has haunted to the point of obsession the violet, nocturnal heather of my soul. I find myself, to my surprise, wandering in spirit by his side, among his sulphurous sheep, under the motions of his crook reddened in hell-fire, bitten at the heels by his black and red dog, resembling a half-burnt brand, a brand from the eternal furnace, the dog which shares his master's fate, and the half of whose body begins to burn again when the other half has resumed the appearance of life.
"This is what these phantoms have confided to me:—
Long, long ago Gerard was the shepherd of a couple of old and miserly peasants, living in a remote and isolated spot, full of steppes and deserts, like those down there at Klaarvatsch. No one knew from whence he came. When he was discovered for the first time he might have been fifteen years of age; he ran about half dressed; his appearance was like that of a wild animal and it was necessary to teach him to speak, like a child. At a venture, the old misers had him baptised, and taking him into their service brought him up to guard their sheep. He only cost them his pittance which was worse than frugal, and by taking him they had the credit of doing a good action.
"Doubtless mother Nature cherished this wild lad, for engendered by, one knows not what, woodland creatures, and repudiated by men, he seemed never to grow older, but became ever stronger and handsomer. He was a tall youth, and so well provided with hair that stray locks kept falling on his forehead and on his lovely eyes, wherein the infinite depths of eternity seem to lay.
"It was labour in vain to catechise him; he never attached much importance to our narrow rites and mummeries. In simple nature he found his model and his counsellor. In other words, he followed nothing but his instincts.
"However, after a long time, his master and mistress, although advanced in years, had a child, quite a delicate little boy, to whom they gave the name of Stephen. As the parents were too old to attend to him, it was Gerard who brought him up. The young man began by choosing for him two of his favourite sheep as nurses. Stephen shot up and became a chubby child, rosy and pretty as an angel. Gerard continued to keep for him the best milk of his sheep, the sweetest fruits, and the eggs of ringdoves and pheasants. He adored him as no other human being ever adored another, his poor wild heart having never been able to expend the treasures of affection which it had accumulated. Stephen chirped like a bird; he was as fair as the other was dark; and the little fellow ordered about the big, wild boy. The old couple, selfish and crotchety to the point of mania, let them wander about together and live as they would.
"When they bathed in the Démer, Gerard admired this youthful frame, so slender and graceful, and knew no pleasure comparable to that of embracing the boy's warm and supple body, carrying him in his arms a long time and very far, deep into the midst of the woods, where they would finally roll about amongst the ferns and mosses. Gerard would tickle Stephen by passing his lips over his rosy skin. And the child would laugh, would attempt to escape, kicking out with his tiny feet, or else would bestow hearty slaps on the robust hinderparts of the big boy, who took these blows as so many caresses.
"This idyll lasted till the day when Stephen's parents received a visit from two cousins, accompanied by Wanna, a fair young girl of Stephen's age, brisk and lively as a clear frosty dawn, and as tasty as a woodland strawberry. The old people on both sides agreed to marry the children, who were pleased with each other at first sight.
"From the arrival of Wanna, Gerard became quite sad on account of the attention which the little Stephen bestowed on his nice cousin. Stephen was a spoiled child, who only loved Gerard as he might have loved a docile and faithful dog, the partner of his play, the humourer of all his whims. Gerard looked on Wanna with sombre, almost murderous eyes; but the fair lass did but laugh at the savage, and to annoy him, being of sportive and crafty humour, she would often carry off Stephen, or run away and hide herself so that he might come and rejoin her far from the jealous youth.
"Gerard, at the end of his patience, implored his friend not to marry. Stephen laughed in his face. "Art thou crazy, dearest fellow? Its nature's law. Look at the beasts of our farm; look at the wild animals in the woods!"
"Oh pity! I know not what I feel, but I want thee for myself alone, unshared by any other. Why imitate the animals, and do like others? Are we not sufficient to one another? Dost thou expect ever to be loved as by thy Gerard? Let us suspend, as far as we are concerned, prolific creation. Are not enough creatures born? Let us live for ourselves, for us two alone. Stephen, have pity; it is thyself I want, all to myself, thee alone! I know not what thou art, whether thou'rt a man like others, but to me thou'rt incomparable. Oh, why had she need to come between us? No, I am explaining myself ill; thy astonished eyes kill me! Listen, I suffer throughout my whole body, when I know thou'rt with her. Tormenting heat runs through all my blood. Your joined hands furrow softly within my bosom and lacerate my heart with your nails! Oh, my little Stephen, I die to think that she will kiss thee on the lips, that she will carry thee away far from here, and that I must give thee up for ever to this robber of my life.
"Stephen smiled, a little saddened withal, endeavouring his best to make him reasonable. "Big madman," said he "my feelings for thee will in no wise change. See, am I not always the same? We will meet as in the past. Thou shalt accompany me with her."
"But this reasoning had no effect on the poor shepherd.
"As the fatal day approached, Gerard pined away, lost his appetite, cared for nothing that he had attended to before, and neglected his flock. His ways became so alarming that his master and mistress sent him to the vicar. Perhaps someone had cast a spell on him! Shepherds all are somewhat sorcerers and themselves exposed to the evil practices of their fellows. The frank Gerard told the priest quite simply of his deep distress. But at the first word the holy man heard, he cried out: "Get thee gone, accursed man; thy presence is a plague. I know not what hinders me from handing thee over to the drossard  of my Lord, the Duke of Brabant, and to have thee burnt in the Market-Place, as is done to others of thy kind. Thou must depart on the spot. Thy crime has cut thee off from the community of the faithful. None can absolve thee except the Pope of Rome. Throw thyself at his feet. As yet thou hast only sinned in thought. Were it otherwise I would call down on thy accursed flesh the flames of the purifying pile!"
"Gerard returned to his master's house, without shame, but more in despair than ever. He took good care not to relate in detail what had taken place between the minister of God and himself, but confined himself to declaring that he was going to undertake a long pilgrimage to expiate a deadly sin. That very night he would start when all were asleep, so as not to meet indiscreet or inquisitive persons. As a last favour he begged Stephen to accompany him a certain distance from their cottage. Wanna wished to detain her betrothed, but Stephen took pity on his friend, and in presence of a separation perhaps eternal, he remembered their long and unclouded love of days gone by.
"Brother, what is the fault so serious that causes thee to part?" inquired Stephen several times, as he walked along with his faithful companion. But the other was silent, simply giving him a long look and shaking his head.
"For a long time they walked on, sore at heart, without exchanging a word, but when they reached the crossroads where they were to embrace for the last time, Gerard turned round and showed Stephen a red light on the horizon, in the direction from which they had come.
"Then with a wild laugh, he said: "Look there, it is the old people's house that is in flames; and Wanna, thy Wanna, is burning with them! Now thou belong'st to me for ever!"
"And he embraced, with frantic energy the young man, who struggled to get free.
"Gerard! Thou frightenest me! Help. The wolfman! He's throttling me!"
"Be mine. 'Twas I who gave thee life. I am more than thy mother, do'st understand? More therefore, than any woman, no matter who she be! Thou demandest the secret reason of my departure. Thou shalt know. Their priest has cursed me. I am decreed to eternal fire. Well, I hasten to plunge myself in advance into this fire, but not before imbibing the very sources of thy life, not before satiating myself with the sweets of thy lips, that succulent fruit which shall quench my thirst in the heart of the infernal furnace! Be mine! Mine! Mine!
"A sudden storm flung itself loose the while the wretched man broke out thus in cries of vengeance to heaven.
"Ah," rejoiced he, "fire of chastisement, be my fire of joy! Nature, burn me, consume me! Whether thou com'st, as they say, from God, or from the Devil, what matters it to me! Come, join us in the arms of death! Rise, beautiful storm of deliverance! I have naught else to lose; the fiery torrents shall be like to my flesh, fresh and limpid streams, compared with the love that devours me and has reduced me to despair!
"Ah, come!" And the accursed man pressed Stephen to his heart, stifling him, fastened his lips on his and withdrew them not again, until heaven's fire had enveloped them both."
At this point in the pathetic improvisation, Kehlmark's voice died away in a low murmur, like a gasp.
"Oh, my dear child," groaned he, falling at the feet of the young shepherd, "I love thee to distraction; as much as Gerard loved Stephen, so love I thee."
"And I, I love you also, dear master, and that with all my strength," replied Guidon, throwing his arms around his neck. "I am yours, yours alone, without a second thought. Is it only now that you know it? Do with me whate'er you will."
"I had but only to see thee," said Kehlmark, "to take compassion on thy beauty ignored and proudly chaste. And from that compassion sprang my love."
"And I, my dear master," stammered little Govaertz, "I had only to see you to know that you were sad and terrible, and my devotion was born of my anxiety."
"The pretended evil that thy father spake of thee, "resumed the Dykgrave," decided my sympathy, and thy sister's disdainful air, the malevolence of her look, illuminated thee henceforth in my eyes with a permanent light of transfiguration … I did not dare to declare myself before seeing thee again, and I feigned indifference so as to mislead thy family and thy over-rough comrades, whom that very evening I hindered, simply by approaching their turbulent band, from tormenting thee, my child, my life's chosen."
No lightning shaft struck them, but they heard a muffled cry, a sob, a rustling in the bushes behind them. Two indistinct silhouettes fled through the darkness.
"Somebody was listening to us!" said Kehlmark, who had stood up and was prying into the thick darkness.
"What does it matter? I am yours," murmured Guidon, drawing him towards him, and nestling shiveringly against his breast. "You are all for me, and I do not believe in the fire from heaven! Before thee, nobody ever said to me a single good word. I had known naught save reproaches and rough treatment. Thou art my master and my love. Do with me whatsoe'er thou wilt … Thy lips …"
- The drossard was an executive magistrate in the Duchy of Brabant, in the Middle Ages.