Slave of the Swan (1978)

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Published: 1 April 1978 to 29 July 1978 (18 episodes)

Artist: Guy Peeters

Writer: Unknown

Translations/reprints: De wraak van de Zwaan [Revenge of the Swan] (in: Tina 1980)

Plot

Katrina Vale is a talented ballerina. Her mother is a ballet teacher, but has to work as a cheap one. Therefore life’s so much on the poverty line that Mum collapses of malnutrition from having to cut meals, and she’s taken to hospital. Katrina has to find a relative to look after her or it’s welfare, but Mum has never talked about any relations or her past life. A search of Mum’s belongings reveals she used to be a famous ballerina, under the name of Katia Groves. This is quite a surprise to Katrina, who was never told any of this, and is puzzled as to why things changed so much for Mum (yes, why did they?). Another ballerina, Rosa Kachinksy aka “The Swan”, was Mum’s best friend. Katrina finds the address for the ballet school Kachinsky runs in London and decides to go to Kachinsky for help. But in London Katrina gets hit by a hit-and run driver and loses her memory. She makes it to Kachinsky’s school but now has no idea why she came or who she is.

Kachinsky catches on to who Katrina is, though. Unfortunately she’s gone from Mum’s best friend to her worst enemy because she blames Mum for being confined to a wheelchair. Now she intends to use Katrina to wreak her revenge. So she takes advantage of Katrina’s amnesia to feed her an orchestrated tissue of lies to make Katrina her slave and keep her away from her mother forever.

It starts with Kachinsky telling Katrina that her name is Mary Black, and she’s been taken from an orphanage to work as a servant. Soon she is turning Katrina into a drudge who is lumbered with all the worst jobs around the place, and loving every minute of watching Katrina slave away. And of course she isn’t paying Katrina a penny for all the work; she tells Katrina that she’s living off her charity. But that’s only the beginning.

Kachinsky gives Katrina a ragged hair cut while she’s in a drugged sleep to prevent anyone recognising her from newspaper reports of her being missing (and no doubt Kachinsky enjoyed giving the poor girl that dreadful haircut!). When Kachinsky sees Katrina stealing moments to dance she puts her feet into deliberately heavy boots, on pretext they are medical boots, to stop her dancing and anyone getting suspicious.

The ballet pupils begin to notice how Kachinsky is treating Katrina. They sympathise with Katrina and tell her she’d being exploited. Their sympathy grows when Katrina plays a piece of music she finds and Kachinsky is so upset that she slams the piano lid so hard on Katrina’s hands that her fingers are badly bruised. They tell her that she was playing “The Swan”, a title role that was created especially for Kachinsky, and it’s where her nickname comes from. It was Kachinsky’s final triumph, for soon after she had the accident that crippled her.

During this same incident Kachinsky made a slip that she knew Katrina’s parents. When Katrina confronts Kachinsky, she spins a line that the parents were thieves who died in prison. She takes advantage of Katrina reclaiming a piece of her mother’s jewellery to plant ideas in Katrina’s mind that she is a thief too. She also makes threats that if Katrina leaves she will get no references. After this, Kachinsky is confident Katrina won’t leave, no matter how badly she is treated.

Seeing that the ballet pupils are getting suspicious and sympathising with Katrina, Kachinsky decides her next move is to turn them against her. She begins working on Sarah by making it look like Katrina is stealing from her. When the ‘theft’ is discovered Kachinsky spins out more lies about Katrina’s ‘criminal’ past right in front of the whole school. The plan works. Now the girls think Katrina’s a thief and turn against her.

However, Sarah is still friendly and treats Katrina to a ballet performance. Katrina feels ballet is the key to her past and hopes for a clue there. There she hears people repeating a long-standing rumour that within an hour of performing “The Swan”, the woman who was Kachinsky’s best friend deliberately crippled her out of jealousy. That woman is Katrina’s mother. So now we know why Kachinsky is out for revenge. But from what we have seen of both Kachinsky and Mrs Vale, can we really believe the rumour is true? We need to get Mrs Vale’s side of things.

Meanwhile, the police finally trace Katrina to Kachinsky’s ballet school. Kachinsky manages to mislead them, but then realises Katrina is missing because she’s still at the ballet. There Katrina has impressed performers with her own ballet talent. And while she was dancing, fragments of memory began to return, but they are not strong enough. When Kachinsky arrives she drags Katrina off and says she’s having delusions.

However, Katrina is finally beginning to doubt what Mrs Kachinsky is telling her. She and Sarah go in search of the orphanage. Kachinsky finds out and pulls another trick: she leads them to a burned-out orphanage and takes advantage of it having been deliberately burned down and someone dying in the fire to have Katrina believe she’s a fire bug and a murderer as well as a thief, and she’s wanted by the police for it. She found Katrina in a daze after the ‘incident’ and took her in and kept her safe from the police because she believed she deserved a second chance. After this, Katrina is now well and truly in the power of the Swan, for she now believes that Kachinsky is her only friend who did so much for her. She now does any job for Kachinsky, no matter how horrible, without complaint or payment, because she thinks this is the only way to repay her. Kachinsky realises Katrina’s completely in her power now too, and is crying for joy.

While Katrina spring-cleans Kachinsky’s room, she accidentally finds a secret room hidden behind the wardrobe. It is a shrine filled with Kachinsky memorabilia, and even includes the costume from “The Swan”.

Then Kachinsky’s chauffeur gossips about Katrina being an arsonist and hysteria spreads about her pulling the same thing at the school. Kachinsky takes advantage to keep Katrina locked in a disused coal cellar to sleep. There Katrina gets a frightening visitor – someone in the Swan costume! Next morning she checks the Swan costume and finds evidence it has been moved recently, and concludes someone took it and used it to frighten her.

The rumours about Katrina being an arsonist grow more intense. So when Sarah’s costume accidentally catches fire, tongues wag that Katrina caused it although she saved Sarah by putting out the flames. Sarah goes to hospital and now Katrina has lost her only friend.

Katrina’s such a bag of nerves now about her ‘arson’ and everyone turning against her that she takes off in a panic when a policeman calls. She also sees a strange woman lurking around and thinks she is a plain-clothed policewoman who is on her tail. When she tells Kachinsky this, Kachinsky tells her that the woman is just a new ballet student, Rita Hayes. All the same, Katrina remains convinced that she’s right when Rita seems to be watching her, snooping around in her room and asking her questions.

Meanwhile, the Swan costume is resurrected again. Katrina is surprised to find someone dancing in the costume in the ballet studio to “The Swan” music. She can’t see who it is because the headdress obscures the face. The mysterious dancer doesn’t seem able to dance properly. She throws a real hissy fit and smashes the ballet record.

When Katrina goes to Kachinsky to report the matter she finds Rita snooping around in Kachinsky’s office. Katrina doesn’t listen when Rita tries to explain, and that it’s for her own good. Katrina alerts Kachinsky, but they find Rita has cleared out. Kachinsky realises Rita’s snooping must be because she is onto her game with Katrina and gone to alert the police. Not wanting to be cheated of her revenge before it is complete, she decides to get rid of Katrina altogether before the police arrive.

On pretext she is helping to conceal Katrina from arrest, Kachinsky takes Katrina to a rusty old boat in the canal to hide, but in fact she means to kill Katrina there. When Katrina enters the boat she is surprised to hear somebody shut the hatch on her, which locks her in. For a while Katrina does nothing because she has been fooled by Kachinsky’s assurances that her chauffeur will come with supplies. Meanwhile, the police have arrived to question Kachinsky. The pupils are perturbed at how pleased Kachinsky seems to be at Katrina’s disappearance, which seems very odd considering what she had them believe about her taking care of Katrina before.

Back in the boat, Katrina finally realises nobody is coming, but assumes it is because something happened to Kachinsky. But when the tide causes water to rise in the rusty old tub (as Kachinsky planned) Katrina realises she has to get out fast or she will drown. After a desperate struggle she succeeds.

Katrina is in a dreadful state but, thinking Kachinsky did not return as promised because something happened to her, staggers back to the ballet school to check on her. There she collapses, in full sight of her mother, who recognises her at once. Mum has tracked Katrina down, with the aid of Sarah’s family and Rita Hayes. It turns out Rita Hayes was a private investigator Sarah’s family had hired to help Katrina; it was part gratitude for saving Sarah and part suspicion about Kachinsky’s treatment of Katrina.

However, Mum now fears Katrina is dead. Seeing this, Kachinsky crows – right in front of everyone, including the police – she has taken her revenge at last by robbing Mrs Vale of her daughter. At this, the police arrest Kachinsky.

But no – Katrina is still alive, and she regains her memory when her mother addresses her by her proper name. Mum explains to Katrina that she and Kachinsky used to be best friends at a ballet company, and she never minded that Kachinsky was the better dancer. However, following Kachinsky’s one and only (and unforgettable) performance as “The Swan”, she was crippled by a fall down a staircase and wrongly accused Mum of pushing her out of jealousy. The accusation was widely believed and Mum was forced to leave the stage. “The Swan” has never been performed since and the swan costume itself disappeared. At this, Katrina leads Mum and Sarah to the secret room full of Kachinsky memorabilia.

Then in comes Kachinsky. She had given the police the slip – and she’s walking! She had secretly regained the use of her legs years ago. She kept it quiet because she could never dance properly again and couldn’t settle for anything less than perfection, and she enjoyed playing on people’s sympathy into the bargain. Katrina now realises Kachinsky was the one in the swan costume, and Kachinsky deliberately shut her in the rusty old tub – to die. Kachinsky gleefully admits both charges and tells Katrina “what a trusting little fool” she was to fall for those tricks and all the other lies. As the police take Kachinsky back into custody she raves that she still has more than Mrs Vale, who in her view has nothing. But Katrina does not agree – and neither do we.

Thoughts

There have been hundreds of stories about unscrupulous people taking advantage of amnesiac girls for their own ends, such as Jinty’s “Miss No-Name”. But this one could well be the most disturbing, even sickening, of them all. Usually the people who take advantage of an amnesiac protagonist are just doing it for profit and unpaid labour. Feeding them lies about having shady pasts and being on the run from the police to blackmail them into staying is a pretty common trick; Mandy’s “The Double Life of Dolly Brown” aka “The Double Life of Coppelia Brown” is one example. But the antagonist in this story isn’t doing it for money – she’s doing it for revenge. Of course it is useful to exploit someone for unpaid labour, but that isn’t her real motive; it’s just part of her campaign for revenge.

Having revenge as the motive for enslaving an amnesiac girl rather than the usual greed makes the story truly frightening. Revenge is extremely dangerous because it can drive the antagonist to the point where she has no limits. That certainly is the case with Kachinsky. She is capable of anything, including murder, to get revenge on the woman she hates. As Kachinsky’s revenge unfolds she reveals herself more and more as what a sick, cruel, twisted woman she is. She is not content with merely exploiting Katrina and keeping her away from her mother. She means to break Katrina entirely with endless psychological and emotional tortures at her ballet school, including using the swan costume to terrorise Katrina. When it comes to plotting murder, Kachinsky has no compunction or remorse about it either. When she tells Katrina to use a gangplank to go over to the boat she contemplates just pushing it away and knocking Katrina into the mud. But she decides against it because it’s too quick. She wants to watch and relish each minute of Katrina suffering slowly.

Kachinsky is also extremely clever in the ways she constantly manages to block Katrina’s attempts to remember her past and twist it around to reinforce her lies even more, cut Katrina off from avenues of help, and ensnare Katrina ever more tightly. Kachinsky pulls it off so well that Katrina ends up thoroughly convinced that Kachinsky is actually protecting her, that everything she does is for her own good, and that she actually deserves everything that she is going through because of her so-called arson, murder and thievery. Katrina is so taken in by Kachinsky’s lies that she does not even realise she is being exploited. This makes Katrina’s situation even worse than other amnesiac protagonists; at least they understand the antagonists are abusing and exploiting them. But Katrina can’t; she’s been so take in and brainwashed that she thinks the woman who is abusing her is actually her only friend. Readers would have been crying for Katrina every step of the way, not only because of the abuse she is going through but also because she can’t see it for what it is.

When it is revealed that Kachinsky had been faking paralysis all this time, it’s the last straw that puts her well beyond the pale. Her excuse for abusing Katrina is that it’s all revenge on the woman who confined her to the wheelchair. But when we discover Kachinsky isn’t really confined to the wheelchair at all – well, what a nerve she’s got there! The last possible reason for Kachinsky evoking any of our sympathy is gone.

It is only when we see Mrs Vale’s flashback of Kachinsky before the accident that we feel Kachinsky is in any way tragic. We can see she used to be a very nice woman who would never have even dreamed of doing all those things she did to Katrina. And she would still be a nice, happy woman if she hadn’t had the accident. But really, Kachinsky’s hatred destroyed her far more than the accident did.

It is no surprise to learn that Kachinsky wrongly accused Mrs Vale of causing her accident. This almost invariably is the case in revenge stories, and it makes everything all the worse for all concerned because we know it’s all been for nothing.

Is Kachinsky insane? Or is she just so full of hate it turned her into an evil, twisted monster? It is difficult to determine. Kachinsky does not come across as downright insane, just sick, cruel and perverted. Only a psychiatrist can judge on her state of mind, but we never find out what the courts decide to do with her. We can safely assume that she will lose her ballet school, her reputation, and all the sympathy and respect people have for her. When word spreads, people are certain to rethink Kachinsky’s accusations against Mrs Vale, and her reputation will be salvaged. Mrs Vale may even become a teacher at Kachinsky’s ballet school, or even take it over altogether. Who knows? Whatever the aftermath, we can be confident that the Vales’ revenge will be sweeter than Kachinsky’s.

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11 thoughts on “Slave of the Swan (1978)

  1. It’s an astoundingly over-the-top story: thinking about it or just looking at the covers, it feels absurd, but re-reading it is actually quite chilling.

    1. The Crabbs, who took advantage of the amnesiac Lori in “Miss No-Name”, don’t seem to repulse me in the way Kachinsky does. She is sick and twisted while they are just crooks.

  2. If this story had run in Tammy, John Armstrong would have been my first choice to draw it. He was one of the best artists for drawing ballet, perhaps the best of all, and his depiction of Kachinsky would have been just sumptuous.

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