A Spear Through the Heart
by Cherith Baldry
Crispin shifted the ladder to one side, and repositioned the lamps. At the top of the
wooden panel, surrounded by the extravagant wings of the heavenly host, the
painted Christ returned in majesty. Crispin examined His face, framed in thick
black curls, the broad scholar's brow, the eyes where he had tried to render
kindness, the firm mouth with understanding and even a touch of humour. A shiver
ran through him. Would he be accused of blasphemy, to paint a Christ whose
features all too clearly echoed those of Dr. Stanford? A man who even now stood
trial for his life, and who would surely burn in the fires of the Inquisition?
Less than a month ago, Crispin Peveril had been struggling through the crowds in
St. Giles, caught up helplessly as they pressed forward to witness the latest
execution. Two scholars of the University, so gossip said, sent to the fire for
attempting to conjure a demon. Crispin could see nothing but black smoke
billowing upwards, and the avid faces of the men who jostled him. But he could
smell the stench of burning beneath the stink of sweaty bodies, and beyond the
baying of the crowd he could hear a raw screaming.
Crispin retched; a glittering darkness surged around him. Stumbling, he almost
went down under the trampling feet of the mob. Then he felt a hand grip him
beneath the elbow and steer him out into the open. Someone sat him down and
thrust his head between his knees.
After a few moments the darkness cleared away. His body was bathed in a cold
sweat. Blinking, he looked up to find himself sitting on a mounting block outside
the Eagle and Child. A man was looking down at him, blocking out his view of the
crowd and the burning. "Are you better now?" he asked.
Crispin thrust his hands through damp hair. "Yes, I thank you, sir."
He studied his rescuer: a neat, compact man, dressed in a scholar's dark coat with
white bands at his throat. He was gazing down at Crispin with interest and
sympathy with lively dark eyes.
"I think not," he murmured. He placed a hand on Crispin's forehead, tilting his
head back. "Young man, when did you last eat?"
Embarrassment flooded over Crispin. "This morning," he lied.
"Nonsense. Come with me."
Again that firm grip on his elbow. Crispin couldn't resist as he was steered inside
the inn and dumped into a seat. Moments later a tankard of ale and a plate of roast
beef and bread were set in front of him. His rescuer took a seat opposite.
"Eat," he said. "And tell me what brought you to this."
For a moment tears rose in Crispin's throat and he was afraid that he would
disgrace himself utterly. With a furious effort he mastered himself, and took a gulp
"I'm a painter," he began. "But it's hard to get commissions, and the colourman
has refused to give me any more credit. I'll be out on the street unless I pay my
landlord before the week's end." He shrugged, embarrassed again. "I shall have to
give up, and go to be a clerk or a scrivener."
That penetrating dark gaze was still fixed on him. "Are you a good painter?"
Crispin's pride stirred. "Yes!"
"Then I may have a job for you. I am Dr. Stanford of Cardinal College. The Dean
and Chapter were discussing only the other day the need for a new altarpiece in
our chapel. You could paint such a work?"
Crispin stared at him incredulously. A commission from one of the richest Oxford
colleges was something he had never dared to dream of. It would make his name.
He would never have to worry about money again. "Yes," he breathed. "I can do
it." Then anxiety stabbed him and he added, "But I have no studio…"
For a moment Dr. Stanford weighed him up, as if he was about to ask what had
brought him to this lonely poverty. But to Crispin's relief he asked no more
questions. "No matter. You could work in College," he said, smiling. "Eat your
meal, and we will discuss it further. Under the circumstances --" he fingered the
white bands at his throat -- "the Dean thought that the Last Judgement would be a
Fury and grief surged through Crispin as he stared at the half finished painting.
Beneath the Christ, the panel was divided into two sections, the subjects only
roughly sketched in. On one side, angels would enfold the blessed into rich
garments, and escort them into the halls of heaven. On the other, devils would
drag the damned souls off to hell. Between them, among the crowd who waited for
judgement, Crispin had drawn his own face, pale and watchful, a dark and
But how could he go on painting now, as if nothing at all had happened? When he
owed so much to Dr. Stanford, how could he forget the hideous death that waited
for him? His patron's trial was no more than a fiction; no one who fell into the
claws of the Inquisition ever got free again. And there was nothing that Crispin
could do about it.
That same day, Dr. Stanford had returned with Crispin to his lodgings, paid what
he owed the landlord, and took away several examples of his work. Two days
later, the Dean summoned him to an interview, which lasted less than ten minutes
and served to prove nothing but the Dean's total ignorance of art and his
willingness to endorse the decision that his colleague had already made.
Crispin emerged into the Great Quad and stood there dazed, still unable to believe
the sudden turn in his fortunes. He gazed at the chapel, his head full of the
clamour of angels' wings, and started at a light touch on his shoulder.
He spun round, and for a heartstopping moment thought that he confronted one of
the angels from his own wild imagining.
"Peveril? Dr. Stanford sent me to fetch you. He would like a word with you."
The speaker was, after all, no more than a young man dressed in the sober brown
of a servant. But his tumble of tawny curls framed a face that angels might have
wept for, with grey-green eyes that gave Crispin a frank and almost insolent stare.
"Yes -- yes, of course," Crispin stammered.
The young man led the way across the quad, through a doorway and down a stair
into a stone-flagged passage. Crispin followed, bemused. Did Dr. Stanford have
his rooms in the cellar?
Half-way down the passage the servant stopped in front of an oak door studded
with iron nails; he knocked and flung it open, motioning to Crispin to enter.
Inside, lamps hung from the barrel-vaulted roof; Crispin halted in amazement at
the scene they illuminated.
Shelves lined the walls, crammed with books ands scrolls. At one end of the room
a cupboard stood half open to reveal more shelves filled with vessels made of
glass, porcelain and glimmering metal. A table was scattered with papers and
writing materials, along with the remains of a half-eaten meal and a jug of wine.
At the far end of the room a furnace glowed. Dr. Stanford was bent over it,
inspecting something that bubbled in a huge glass alembic. As Crispin entered, he
turned, smiling. "Come in, Master Peveril. I'm glad to see you."
"You're an alchemist!" Crispin exclaimed.
Dr. Stanford shrugged, deprecating. "A scholar of the art."
Crispin shot a glance at the servant, who had followed him into the room and
closed the door behind him. He looked faintly amused, with a secret, triangular
smile, whether at Crispin's astonishment or something only he could perceive.
"Lucas, come and keep an eye on this." Dr. Stanford beckoned to his servant. "Tell
me at once if the colour changes. Lucas came to me but recently," he added in
explanation to Crispin, "but he is most diligent. In time he'll be a valuable
The servant crossed the room and took his master's place in front of the alembic,
while Dr. Stanford sat down at the table. "The Dean was satisfied? Good." He
poured a glass of wine and downed it thirstily. "You will need materials, of course.
Lucas here will make a list for you, and go with you to transport them. The
College will pay, naturally."
Crispin sketched a bow. "Thank you, sir."
Dr. Stanford's gaze rested on him, a searching look that Crispin found hard to
meet. He had expected a scholar, buried in the writings of the ancients, or perhaps
a theologian, not an alchemist carrying on his craft under the nose of the
"One thing I should say," Dr. Stanford poured another glass of wine and sipped at
it. "You know, of course, that Father Alfonso de Tarazona is staying in Cardinal at
Crispin nodded, suppressing a shudder at the name of the Grand Inquisitor. That
was when the burning had begun.
"He is an old man, and his temper grows uncertain. And no doubt the recent
successes of Master Cromwell and his Recusant Army have not improved matters.
Father Alfonso looks on England as a nest of heretics."
He spoke in a matter-of-fact way, as if he did not realise, or care, that what he had
already said might have drawn the unwelcome attention of the Inquisition. He
must trust his servant Lucas, and Crispin himself, not to repeat his dangerous
Life hadn't always been like this, Crispin reflected. The Court of the Inquisition
had been established in England over a hundred years ago by Henry IX, influenced
no doubt by his pious mother, Queen Katherine. It had settled into the framework
of English life, the various Inquisitors happier to hunt deer rather than heretics --
until the appointment of Father Alfonso by the King's Spanish wife. Now you
thought before you spoke, and looked over your shoulder in case an official of the
Inquisition might be listening. Crispin could almost see the miasma of fear that
hung over the country like the smoke from the pyres of execution. Little wonder
that rebellion had followed.
Dr. Stanford shifted in his seat, distracting Crispin from his dark thoughts. "Father
Alfonso will no doubt expect to approve your painting. It would be inadvisable to
attempt anything too . . . original."
Crispin swallowed. "I understand. But sir . . ."
"All of this." Crispin waved a hand around him. "Is it allowed? Aren't you in
Dr. Stanford smiled, shaking his head. "Whatever wild tales you have heard of
alchemy, think again. There is no trafficking with demons, or dabbling in
forbidden arts. I'm looking for knowledge, Master Peveril. Knowledge of the
world, and knowledge of my own soul. With Paracelsus, I believe that the true end
of alchemy is to find cures for disease. There's nothing that the Grand Inquisitor
could possibly object to."
Crispin couldn't share his confidence, but it was impossible to argue. "I see, sir,"
he said with a sigh.
"Excellent!" Dr. Stanford tossed off the remains of his wine and stood up. "Now I
have work to do. Master Peveril, Lucas is yours for the rest of the day. He'll go
with you to fetch your equipment from your lodgings and buy whatever else you
"Thank you, sir."
Dr. Stanford went back to the furnace and his alembic, while Lucas took his place
at the table. He found a scrap of paper and dipped a pen, holding it poised to write
as he glanced up at Crispin. "A list? Of what you need?"
"Oh, yes . . ." Crispin wondered why he should feel more awkward and
embarrassed in the presence of the servant than the master. "Canvas, and wood for
a framework, oil . . . and my ingredients for paint are very low. Lucas," he added
abruptly, "will you sit for me?"
"Sit for you?" Lucas paused in his scribbling, and raised his brows in
astonishment; his perfect features took on a faintly disdainful air. "Whatever for?
What part could I have in this painting?"
"I had thought -- an angel…" Crispin stammered.
For some reason Lucas looked amused. "I think not," he replied. "I can't spend all
day sitting around in the chapel."
"Oh, I could sketch you anywhere."
Lucas's amusement faded. "No," he snapped. "I have better things to do."
For all that, more than one of the Heavenly Host had taken on Lucas's features,
or his tawny flowing hair and intense green gaze. Gazing now at the half finished
work, Crispin knew that this new commission was stretching him to the limit of his
capacity. The painting was good -- but could he ever finish it now, with his friend
and patron on trial for his life?
The day's work done, Crispin emerged from the chapel and stood blinking in the
late afternoon sunlight. Every muscle in his body ached, but he knew that he had
never painted better than this.
He tensed slightly as he spotted Lucas rounding the corner of the hall from the
direction of Dr. Stanford's workroom. A breeze sifted through his tumbled curls;
sunlight lit them to flame. Crispin drew back into the shadows of the chapel porch,
unsure why he always felt uncomfortable in Lucas's presence.
Lucas spotted him, but passed with no more than a nod, heading for the library. A
few yards down the path Crispin saw him encounter Father Paul, the College
chaplain, and halt to bow to him respectfully. The little priest blinked nervously up
at him from age-watery eyes; he would have hurried past, but Lucas laid a hand on
his arm to stop him.
"I've wished to speak to you, Father," he said.
"Well?" Crispin could tell that for some reason Father Paul was uneasy. "Can't it
wait until after chapel?"
"I'm sorry, Father, I have other duties then." Lucas was still polite, but his tone
left no room for argument. "I wished to speak to you about my master's work."
"Stanford's alchemy?" Father Paul let out a derisive snort. "What do I know of
that? If it troubles you, leave his service."
"No, Father, it doesn't trouble me." Excitement crept into Lucas's voice. "He can
do wonders! I thought . . . if you approved, you might speak to the Dean, and
suggest that Dr. Stanford should attempt a transmutation."
Father Paul shook off Lucas's hand. "Why should I --"
"For the King, Father!" Lucas interrupted eagerly. "So that the College can send
more gold to his cause."
For the first time Father Paul's impatience faded. He looked up at Lucas.
"Stanford can do this?"
"I believe so, Father."
Something about the priest's intent look chilled Crispin. Did he really want that: to
send money to shore up the failing King, and keep the country in the firm grasp of
the Inquisition? For that matter, did Lucas want it? Crispin had believed Dr.
Stanford and his servant were supporters of Cromwell and the Recusants, though
here in Oxford they could not say so openly. The thought of Lucas as a fervent
Royalist was just wrong. Why should he sound so eager now?
And what about Dr. Stanford? He had told Crispin that he practised alchemy to
search for knowledge. All his interest was in finding cures for disease. He had
never even mentioned gold.
"I will think about this," Father Paul said, nodding slowly.
As he took his leave of Lucas, Crispin slid back into the chapel, unwilling to be
caught eavesdropping. By the time Father Paul came in to prepare for Vespers, he
was cleaning his brushes ready for the following day's work.
Crispin stood back, listening. The trial was taking place in the College Hall;
surely when it was over there would be noise, the verdict shouted through the
cloisters of Cardinal and out into the streets? Nothing -- no sound but the dull
cooing of pigeons outside the east window.
Grief and rage flooded through Crispin again. If he could do nothing else, he
could paint the truth. His heart hammering, his ears still alert for the first sounds
from outside, he loaded his palette with the colours of hell.
A few days after his conversation with Father Paul, Lucas intercepted Crispin on
his way to the chapel to start work.
"Dr. Stanford wants you," he announced. "He's about to attempt a transmutation,
and he could do with an extra pair of hands."
Without waiting for Crispin's assent, he wheeled round and led the way to the
workroom in the cellar. Crispin followed reluctantly. He wanted nothing to do
with this. Whatever Dr. Stanford might say, the fires of his furnace were too
evocative of the pyres of the Inquisition.
Crispin was even more unwilling when he reached the door of the workroom and
saw two Inquisitorial guards stationed outside it. Dr. Stanford was inside, along
with Father Paul the chaplain, Dr. Fell the Dean and Father Alfonso himself, the
Grand Inquisitor. All three of them were seated on chairs placed against one wall,
reminding Crispin of judges on the bench.
He had seen Father Alfonso at a distance, but had never been in his presence
before. The Grand Inquisitor was a tall man, with neatly trimmed white hair and an
austere face the colour of ivory, from which deep-set black eyes gazed arrogantly.
He was dressed in a plain black soutane with a silver pectoral cross. On his hand
the ring of his office smouldered in the lamplight.
"Master Peveril." Dr. Stanford beckoned to Crispin from the furnace at the far end
of the room. "Thank you for coming. I'll be glad of your assistance, if you don't
mind leaving your work for a while."
Crispin murmured agreement -- there was no real choice -- bowed to the three
churchmen seated against the wall and joined Dr. Stanford by the furnace. A
crucible was simmering there, set in a bath of water; Dr. Stanford was stirring it,
his metal rod swirling through what looked like mercury.
His face was grim as he turned towards the three witnesses. "Gentlemen, I've
already explained that I have not had enough time to prepare for this. I take no
responsibility if I'm unsuccessful."
"I'm sure all we want is for you to try," the Dean murmured peaceably.
The Grand Inquisitor gave Dr. Stanford a severe look. "To help your King in his
righteous cause against the heretics, God will assist the man of a pure heart."
Crispin's skin crawled. If the transmutation failed, would the Grand Inquisitor
assume that Dr. Stanford's heart was not pure?
He was not allowed to stand questioning for long. Dr. Stanford thrust a pair of
bellows into his hands and ordered him to blow up the fire in the furnace.
Meanwhile Lucas was examining a clutch of alembics and retorts set on three
charcoal braziers. The liquids inside them bubbled and sent clouds of aromatic
steam into the air.
"We will proceed," said Dr. Stanford. "Lucas, the sulphur."
Crispin didn't even try to understand what was happening. Making paint was the
limit of his skill. He knew nothing of alchemy, and didn't want to know. He
stoked the furnace when he was ordered, helped Lucas carry flasks back and forth,
handed Dr. Stanford his instruments as he pointed to them.
The room grew hot and hazy with steam. Crispin's shirt stuck clammily to his
back. Father Paul had taken out a handkerchief and was mopping his brow, but the
Grand Inquisitor appeared unmoved. His gaze was fixed on Dr. Stanford, who
remained intent on the complex process.
At last he straightened up. "Lucas, I'm ready. Bring me the pelican there."
The pelican was a large flask with two curving necks; it held a deep red, oily
liquid that bubbled softly like thick soup. To Crispin's astonishment, Lucas lifted
it in his bare hands, clutching it tightly round the narrowest part of the body.
"Lucas!" Dr. Stanford exclaimed.
Lucas seemed unaware of pain. His eyes blazed with an unknown fire. His mouth
gaped, distorted, and words in an unknown tongue spilt out of it in a deafening
The flask in his hands shattered, spraying boiling liquid across the room. The
charcoal hissed as drops fell on it, sending clouds of smoke billowing out.
Through it, Crispin saw the Grand Inquisitor spring to his feet.
"Sorcery!" he cried, shooting out an arm to point at Dr. Stanford. "You have
conjured a demon." He turned to the Inquisitorial Guards who had slammed back
the door and trampled into the room at the first sound of howling. "Arrest him."
Dr. Stanford was staring at Lucas, eyes wide with shock and consternation. "This
is foolishness," he snapped, as the guards grabbed him, one on each side. "I have
"Silence!" Father Alfonso ordered. "Will you try to deny it, when the creature
even now possesses your servant?" He stepped forward to stand commandingly
over Lucas, and made the sign of the cross. "In the name of the father, and of the
Son, and of the Holy Ghost, begone!"
Lucas let out another wordless howl and collapsed on the floor among the shards
of glass and spattered liquid.
A pang throbbed through Crispin, so excruciating that it felt like a spear driven
through his heart. He stepped back, breathing hard. The gloating face of the
demon leered back at him; its claws were sunk deep into the damned soul it was
about to fling into the fiery pit. Its victim's face was distorted into a howl of terror
and despair: the face of Father Alfonso de Tarazona.
Crispin stared at it exultantly. All his rage and hatred had flowed out through his
fingers and into the painting. Now the whole world would be able to see the evil
that had invaded Cardinal, that gripped the whole country as tightly as the demon
gripped the damned soul of the Grand Inquisitor.
On the morning after Dr. Stanford's arrest, Crispin did not go straight to the
chapel. Instead, he headed for Dr. Stanford's workroom in the cellar. When he
flung the door open, he found Lucas there, sweeping the floor. The furnace was
cold, choked with a mass of burnt paper, and all the shattered glass and the rest of
the equipment had been tidied away.
For all the ominous bareness, Crispin's first reaction was relief. "You're not hurt!"
he exclaimed. "What happened to you? Why didn't they arrest you too?"
Lucas shrugged. "They interrogated me, but they decided that I was nothing more
than the conduit for the demon that Stanford called up. They don't blame me for
"And are you well?" Crispin asked, remembering Lucas's collapse. How could he
possibly have taken that demonic presence into himself, and less than twenty-four
hours later stand here calmly sweeping?
"What will happen to Dr. Stanford now?"
Lucas's grey-green eyes transfixed him with a look of contempt. "Do you really
need to ask that? There'll be a trial, of course, but there can only be one result.
"No!" Crispin remembered the stench and the screaming in St. Giles' the day he
had met Dr. Stanford. "There must be a way -- Lucas, if you testify at his trial, tell
them that all he wanted was to do good, to find cures . . ."
"And you think that would help?" The contempt deepened in Lucas's gaze. "After
what they saw here last night? Peveril, you're a fool."
Crispin bowed his head. He had never felt so helpless in his life.
Crispin stared at the wooden panel. The whole world would see the damnation of
the Grand Inquisitor, and they would know he had painted it. They would arrest
him as they had arrested Dr. Stanford, and send him to the fire. He would be
condemned by his own hand.
He sobbed out a curse and grabbed his palette again. With clumsy strokes of the
brush he darkened the Inquisitor's white hair, painted out the lines of age on his
face, and with a palette knife he scraped out the ring of office on his wildly flailing
hand. Hating himself and his cowardice, he did not stop until the damned soul
was unrecognisable, and he was safe.
Night had fallen when Crispin stumbled out of the chapel. The bell above the
gatehouse had begun to toll, calling the scholars home; each stroke hammered pain
into Crispin's head. All his body prickled with cold sweat. Shuddering, he sank
down on a bench in the chapel porch and tried to calm the racing of his heart.
He sprang to his feet again as the doors of the hall were flung open. Light poured
out of them, along with a group of scholars, their black gowns flapping as they
scattered like the wings of startled crows.
One figure emerged more slowly, stood on the edge of the group for a moment,
then paced down the path until he confronted Crispin. The lamplight from the
chapel shone on Lucas's tawny curls.
Crispin's throat closed up until he could hardly breathe. "What happened?"
Lucas's eyes looked deep into his. "Can't you guess? Father Alfonso is dead."
"In the middle of his denunciation." Lucas gave that triangular smile with a gleam
of teeth that made it nearer to a snarl. "Suddenly he clutched at his chest and
crashed over. He was dead before he hit the floor. Dead as surely as if someone
had thrust a spear through his heart."
Crispin stared at him. A spear though his heart - or the claws of a demon . . . "I
can't believe it," he whispered.
Lucas shrugged. "It's true enough."
The clamour of the bell seemed to echo the howling of the demon, and Crispin
knew beyond any doubt that he had killed Father Alfonso as surely as if his hand
had driven home a spear. "No . . ." he breathed.
With sudden fury Lucas grabbed his shoulder and shook him roughly. "What's the
matter with you? I thought you wanted Stanford freed?"
"When Father Alfonso died, the Dean -- with more presence of mind than I would
have given him credit for -- called out, 'The judgement of God!' And as no one
but the Grand Inquisitor wanted to see Stanford burn, the charges were dismissed."
Crispin gripped his hands together to stop them from shaking. No one would ever
discover what he had done. If he confessed, they would think he was mad. And to
bring Dr. Stanford safe out of the hands of the Inquisition -- would he have done
the same, if he had known?
A neat, brisk figure was making his way from the hall to where Crispin and Lucas
stood in the chapel porch. "Master Peveril!" Dr. Stanford exclaimed. "Has Lucas
told you the news?"
Crispin nodded, unable for a moment to speak.
"But you look as if you've seen a ghost -- or one of Father Alfonso's demons.
There's no need to be so upset. All's well now. Come to my rooms and drink a cup
of wine before you go home. Lucas, attend us."
Dr. Stanford laid a hand on Crispin's shoulder and propelled him along the path.
Lucas fell in behind them. Glancing back, Crispin saw the lamplight from the
chapel flicker like flames in his eyes; his small, triangular smile held an unspoken
Terror flooded through Crispin. When all this began, two scholars had been burnt
for conjuring a demon. Who was to say they had failed? Lucas had howled with
the voice of a demon, and the Inquisition had seized his master on a charge of
He works your ruin. But how could Crispin say that to Dr. Stanford? No one
would believe him.
Helplessly Crispin heard the padding of Lucas's feet behind him as all three of
them walked into the dark.