Published: Spellbound: #01 (25 Sep. 1976) – #10 (27 Nov. 1976)
Artist: Jordi Franch
The splash page of the first episode of this story immediately establishes that it is set in the days of highwaymen. It’s also set in the days of lingering witch superstitions, as our protagonist Lucy Pilgrim is to find out.
Lucy’s mother has just died and her cruel aunt and uncle have a bombshell for her: her mother adopted her as a baby after she was found abandoned, and her real parents are unknown. Aunt and Uncle don’t want Lucy and are taking her to an orphanage. At least they allow her to retain her bracelet, which has strange marks her adoptive mother never explained. It brings Lucy comfort, and we can guess it’s the key to finding her true parents.
On the way to the orphanage their coach is held up by a highwayman, Gentleman John. When John see how the cruel relatives are making Lucy sit outside the coach with the driver in drenching rain and without any rain protection, he is appalled at their treatment of her. He forces them at gunpoint to take Lucy’s place and has Lucy take their place in the coach. John also reacts oddly to Lucy’s bracelet. He allows her to keep it, saying “Where you’re going ‘tis best kept hidden” and wishes her luck.
The orphanage is just as cruel as Lucy’s aunt and uncle. Even the other children in the orphanage pick on her once they see she comes from a higher-class background, there are a few kinder exceptions. Their bullying grows worse when they see Lucy is left-handed. They call it the mark of evil and brand Lucy a witch. When Lucy faints from her ill-treatment, the staff throw water over her and throw her out on the street for a while, anticipating she will come crawling to be let back in.
Instead, Lucy runs away and bumps into Gentleman John again. John and his horse Midnight got shot in a clash with some soldiers. Lucy, who has been taught nursing by her adoptive mother, tends to both of them. John is outraged to hear what people are calling her because she’s left-handed, but unfortunately for Lucy that’s not the end of it. John also needs food, and the only way Lucy can get it is…to go back to the orphanage. She also finds they’re looking for her as the Governors are coming. She pretends to have fallen ill from the way they treated her earlier, which gets her special treatment and good feeding – with a bit of blackmail she applies on them while the Governors are around. Once they’re gone, Matron has Lucy sleep in the outhouse as punishment for the trouble she caused.
At least the outhouse makes it easier for Lucy to slip back to John. John is recovering, but Midnight is suffering from infection and needs special care. Lucy insists on using the orphanage as the place to get food and supplies from despite its cruelties, as she refuses to use John’s dubious highwayman contacts on principle.
But when the resident black cat seems to protect Lucy from the children’s bullying and becomes friendly with her, her witchy reputation escalates to the point where the children actually believe she’s a witch and become really frightened of her. Matron decides Lucy has to go. She has Lucy boarded out to another position – and pocketing her wages – so she will make a profit into the bargain.
Trust Matron to have Lucy boarded out to a coal mine, with all its horrors, dangers and dreadful working conditions. And again rumours spread that Lucy is a witch once her fellow workers see she is left handed. At least Lucy is not far from John and can slip away to tend to Midnight, who is on the mend. She stays on at the coal mine because she fears running away will lead her pursuers to John. But she gets into big trouble when she speaks out at the colliery owner, Mr Tranter, when his nasty daughter insults her. Tranter orders that Lucy be roundly beaten in front of everyone, much to the delight of his daughter – and then straight back to work without any medical treatment. None of the workers offer Lucy any sympathy because of her left hand, and she’s on the brink of collapse.
But one of John’s men has seen everything and makes a full report to him. John retaliates by holding up the Tranters. But instead of robbing them he deprives them of their coach so they have to make a very long walk, and warns them to repent how they mistreated the “left-handed lass”.
Repent? If they had any brains they would realise there was a link between Lucy and the highwayman and have her arrested. Instead, when word gets back to the mine, the idiots actually think Lucy used witchcraft to summon Gentlemen John! Well, at least their fear prompts them to release her from the mine (so that’s the end of Matron’s profit there) and she is free to nurse Midnight. However, she begins to wonder if John actually knows something about her past because of the way he reacted to the bracelet when they first met. And now there’s no sign of him.
So Lucy goes in search of John, and fortunately Midnight is now well enough for Lucy to ride her. Unfortunately the constables spot her riding John’s horse, so now she is wanted as his accomplice. She traces John to a derelict inn, and is horrified to see he is in league with some cut throats. They are planning a big gold bullion robbery, which John is going along with rather reluctantly as he does not like their talk of murder. They just say, so what? They will be hanged anyway. John says he won’t help them without Midnight, so for this reason Lucy decides not to reveal herself or Midnight to him. She heads out to Hartford Hall, where John said he was hanging around, but hears some talk that suggests Hartford Hall has a sinister reputation.
Then gypsies steal Midnight and threaten to put a curse on Lucy when she tracks them down. She decides to use her left-handed reputation to her advantage and claims she has her own powers with it. When she puts on a witchcraft act with their fierce dogs they fall for it and return Midnight. But as they do so, they say that’s no wonder she has such powers above the ordinary with that bracelet of hers. But they refuse to elaborate and tell her to get the hell out.
As Lucy nears Hartford Hall she hears more sinister rumours about it: it has been taken over by “nameless forces” ever since a tragedy occurred there. She reckons John started those rumours to scare people away from the place. At Hartford Hall she finds John, and tells him what she overheard, and tries to talk him out of it. Instead, he holds her prisoner and leaves her in the care of Nursie Kate.
When Kate sees Lucy is left-handed she says someone very dear to her and John was too. She also says John is a Robin Hood type – he steals only ill-gotten wealth and does not keep it for himself. Lucy tries to escape from the hall and warn someone about John’s plot, only to fall into a deep pool of water and John finds her. He pulls her out and takes her back to Kate for nursing. Kate also reacts strangely to the sight of Lucy’s bracelet.
Lucy falls asleep and dreams of a woman, and she calls her “mother”. Lucy explores the hall and finds a portrait of the woman. The woman in the portrait is left-handed and wears the bracelet, and Lucy realises the woman must be her mother. She then overhears a conversation between John and Kate and learns that John is her father! Her mother had been a gypsy, and her tribe never forgave her for marrying the non-Romany John. When the mother died giving birth to Lucy, John could not bear to set eyes on his infant daughter. So Kate handed her over to the gypsies, who must have abandoned her.
Lucy tries to escape again and give warning, but gets into trouble when she tries to climb a ledge. John saves her. He says he turned to being a highwayman because he was “crazed” by his wife’s death. He knew from the first who Lucy was, but her disapproval of him being a highwayman prevented him from revealing himself to her. He agrees to give up being a highwayman if Lucy will live as his daughter, and she says she knew he was not a highwayman at heart.
The splash panel of the highwayman in the first episode would immediately have anyone hooked into this story. There is something so romantic about the highwayman (though I’m sure the reality must have been very different), and possible spooky connotations as the highwayman is often associated with ghosts and hauntings. The story has a lot to keep the reader engaged. It’s a tight, engrossing plot with a heroine who not only suffers cruelty but also superstitious prejudice, a mystery to be solved, fugitive elements, exploitation, dastardly plots, and an animal to be nursed back to health. The heroine is determined to keep up her nursing of Gentlemen John and his horse even when she is collapsing from a hard day’s work at the mine or enduring the severities of the orphanage. But will she be cut down by a witch-hunting mob or something the way they think about her being left-handed?
The scary thing is, this story is not far wrong in the superstitious prejudice Lucy encounters because she is left-handed. In earlier centuries, being left-handed really could get you accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Lucy also has other skills that could also get her accused of witchcraft, such as her skills with nursing and herbal remedies, the way she handles the gypsies’ dogs, and how the black cat at the orphanage befriends her. It is fortunate for Lucy that she was born too late to become a victim of the witch persecutions themselves or be charged with witchcraft, but the witch superstitions still linger among the lower and less educated classes. And they are enough to make Lucy’s life an additional misery to what she suffers at the orphanage and the coal mine. If not for those superstitions regarding her left hand Lucy would have some helpers and friends among her fellow victims at those places. Ironically, that same reputation also helps Lucy to get out of those same situations by making her oppressors too frightened of her to bother her much further.
From the moment we meet Gentleman John and the kindness he shows Lucy we know he is not a bad sort, even if he is a highwayman. He’s the hero in the story while everyone else Lucy meets (the aunt and uncle, the orphanage staff and children, the coal mine people, the gypsies and the cut throats) is villainous, and he dishes out comeuppances to several of them. We have to wonder why he is a highwayman at all and what made him one when he clearly has no criminal mind. It isn’t hard to guess that it’s something to do with Lucy’s the bracelet from the way he reacts to it, and unlocking the mystery of the bracelet will also unlock the mystery of the highwayman. Like Lucy, we want him to give up being a highwayman, especially when he starts plotting something downright criminal with the evil conspirators. It is at this point we begin to despair of him, and even more so when it looks like he will proceed with the plan when Lucy catches up with him. It becomes even more imperative to unlock that mystery.
It’s certainly a bombshell when Gentleman John is revealed to be Lucy’s father, and he rejected her as a baby because of a bad reaction to his wife’s death. However, this being the reason for him becoming a highwayman sounds less plausible if he using it as a form of crusade, to get ill-gotten gains off unsavoury types. Some other explanation would have worked better, such as him being cheated and robbed by an unscrupulous type who got away with it. But it’s a relief all around when Lucy finally succeeds in getting her father to stop being a highwayman. Let us hope the law does not catch up with him all the same.