This is quite possibly the first ever Angela Carter/BtVS crossover. This story owes an immeasurable debt to Angela Carter. Those interested in the redoubtable Fevvers should look for a copy of Angela Carter's novel Nights at the Circus (1984).
“Oh, William, look!”
The poster stood out among its smaller, lesser neighbors, which teemed across the wall like a great swarm of pallid, sluggish cockroaches. It dominated the space due both to its centrality and the stunning nature of its lone image: the spectacular visage of a winged giantess, more brassy East End than stately Nike, swooping across the poster at a rakish angle. The tips of her bright red and violet plumage spilled right off the edge of the tawdry paper, the newly rain-spattered inks seeping onto the filth-darkened brick.
In staunch, massive black Egyptian slab serifs, the poster exclaimed: “FEVVERS!”
Underneath, in a smaller, more decorous font: “Exclusive London Engagement! The Alhambra, Leicester Square, presents: Fevvers, the most spectacular aerialiste of the Age!”
William sighed. Drusilla did so love the circus. Drunken punters were easy pickings. The grandiose, colorful display made for the perfect backdrop. Dru rarely had to resort to putting her victims in thrall. They were already spell-bound, intoxicated; all she had to do was sidle into the seat adjacent and lean in, as if to whisper seductively in their ear… On those evenings when coarse, heavy-lidded adults bored her senseless, she would buy a child an ice lolly or some other sweet enticement before luring them into an alley-way or waiting carriage.
To William, the circus hardly held the same level of fascination. To have seen one jongleur, lion-tamer, false conjurer or dancehall siren was to have seen them all. If it meant entertaining his wayward muse, he thought ruefully, then he was perfectly willing to attend the tiresome spectacle.
They arrived at the theatre fashionably early, and —after paying the princely sum of four (purloined) shillings apiece for balcony seats— retired to the Canteen below, a subterranean bar-room where flirtatious shop-girls on the make and drunken accountants flush with their week’s pay met in a sodden, awkward clinch. The smoke-filled, inelegant place was the very picture of indiscretion.
William smiled. He hadn’t much understood mating rituals in life, but now that he was observing from the other side —so to speak— he was quite amused by the entire ridiculous spectacle. He leaned languorously against the bar, his eyes following Drusilla as she made her way towards him through the anonymous crush of bodies. She shone like a beacon amongst them, an alabaster Lippizaner amid slumped dray horses.
Suddenly, she bumped rather aggressively into a venerable bewhiskered gent, causing him to spill his whiskey. She fluttered her eyelashes coyly. Blushing, he stammered out a clumsy greeting. Ignoring him, she whisked soundlessly past, gliding up to the bar next to William —where she deposited a care-worn wallet into his hand.
“He was a bad bad man, my dear. He deserved a little reversal in fortune,” she whispered into his ear, smiling wickedly. Her arms snaked around his waist, and she leaned in to kiss him.
The barkeep ahem’d pointedly in their direction.
William paused long enough to order: “Whiskey and water for me, a Kir for my darling Sibyl.”
At precisely 11:15, the massive red velvet curtain of the Alhambra pulled back to reveal Fevvers, perched high above the stage in a shoddy tinsel cage, swinging slowly to and fro in time to the orchestra. William recognized the strains of “Only A Bird in a Gilded Cage.” He looked over at Drusilla, who, blood-sated thanks to a chance encounter with a rather rude yob in the bar not an hour earlier, was already swaying in time to the music, eyes closed, muttering her usual nonsense under her breath.
He turned his attention back to the creature onstage. She had stepped out of her confining cage, and was now standing on its miniscule ledge, gripping the trapeze with both hands. The poster hadn’t exaggerated; if anything, it had erred on the side of caution. Fevvers herself was indeed a giantess: 6’ 2” in her stockinged feet, he surmised, while the headdress of red and violet plumes teetering upon her head added another good foot and a half. Her costume was spangled stockinette, which glimmered and shimmied like a second skin. Beaming broadly, her wings outstretched in full display, she was quite a sight to behold.
Her wings rustled impatiently, pinfeathers wavering, as she elegantly rose en pointe. Letting go of the trapeze, she forcefully threw her head and arms back before leaping, gaudy pinions outstretched, out over the void. One somersault, two, then a third —a collective, convulsive shudder of awe ran through the crowd, as though they’d been struck by a galvanic pulse. William was hardly immune: he was as thoroughly hoodwinked as the rest of them. Whether Fevvers was fact or fiction, authentic or counterfeit, hardly mattered.
Somewhere between Fevver’s second and third bow —which she took amid a plentiful shower of roses, nosegays, and sparkly pretty things that landed unceremoniously at her feet— William looked over to find an empty seat.
After scanning the crowd futilely for Drusilla’s whereabouts, he found himself wandering in the bowels of the theatre. He thought perhaps he would find her here, down amongst the dressing rooms and costumeries, which posed a veritable wonderland for a creature so prone to distraction as Dru. But he was thoroughly lost, and she was nowhere to be found. Trailing down the winding, poorly illuminated hallway, which was flanked by a seemingly endless series of doors, William searched in vain for an exit from this infernal place. For a second, he wondered if the famed Winchester Mystery House was right here in London after all.
The dim hallway was suddenly pierced by a sharp shock of light.
From within, a voice called out, “Are you lost?”
The still-disembodied voice invited him in. For some reason, William hesitated for a moment before stepping over the threshold. He found himself in a cramped rectangular boîte, crammed floor to ceiling with more stuff than he thought humanly possible. The furniture buried underneath these objets inutiles might have been elegant at one time, but it was difficult to discern, given that every available surface was covered with laundry in various states of damp —stockings of all colors, beribboned garters, and frilly unmentionables. Bouquets were thrown pell-mell on the velvet couch, the end table, the floor. Half-eaten boxes of chocolates littered the room. In the corner stood a cracked enamel washstand, and next to it a small hip bath, still brimming with tepid gray water.
In the midst of this unholy mess sat Fevvers herself, still larger-than-life, perched in an altogether ungainly fashion on a rickety piano-stool no doubt stolen from the rehearsal room. Her wings were stashed carelessly under her tatty pale pink dressing gown, creating a graceless hump. The already thin silk strained to contain their pent-up energy.
Not a delicate girl, Fevvers. Everything about her was overly emphatic, from her cascades of unruly flaxen hair to her broad, wholesome features. Without her makeup she looked positively American: apple-cheeked, bland even —a Lady Liberty on foreign soil. Once she opened her mouth, however, there would be absolutely no mistaking her for a Yank: she was East End through and through.
“How did you get down here? Ol’ Gibbs usually keeps the stage-door gawpers at bay. The Cockney Venus does have a few unwelcome admirers, you know.”
“I have no doubt. I was looking for my …partner-in-crime. We’ve misplaced one another.”
Surveying his fine wool jacket, pinstriped waistcoat, wire-rim glasses, and well-groomed appearance, she replied: “Oh? You look too well dressed to be a pick-pocket or the like. Unless you’re the diversion and she’s the hoister.”
“How do you know I’m looking for a girl?”
She gave him an appraising look. “Good looking fellow like you? There’s always a girl.”
His laughter was tinged with a hint of regret. “Not always.”
“Well, we all have our moments. Can’t always be the swan. I grew up in Wapping, dreadfully poor, never thought I’d amount to anything more than a flower-seller. Not in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I’d have my own dressing room in the finest theatre on the square.”
“I was going to be a poet.”
“And what happened?”
“Let’s just say that fate intervened and I traded one muse for another. And I realized that I was a bloody awful poet.”
“We must drink a toast, then. Some marquis or another sent me a case of bubbly and it shouldn’t go to waste.”
She reached into the bucket by her feet and pulled out a bottle of champagne. She brushed off the ice clinging to it, and fished around on her dressing table for a cork screw.
“Will you do the honors…Where are my manners? We’ve not been properly introduced. My Christian name is Sophia, but that will have to be our little secret. I really do prefer Fevvers, anyway.”
“If you don’t mind me saying—you hardly seem a ‘William’ to me.”
By then, he’d managed to open the bottle. Fevvers scrambled about the room to find two flutes. Her search yielded two nondescript teacups. She filled his cup exactly to the brim, and then followed suit with her own.
“To bloody awful poetry!” she exclaimed, then downed her refreshment in one lusty gulp.
William did the same. He hadn’t realized until that very moment how much he’d missed champagne.
Time stood curiously still in that musty room, with its clock stopped at permanent midnight. The curtains were drawn tightly shut, and the liquor was working its seductive will. He could no longer intuit what time it might be in the waking world outside this tiny unventilated space that smelled of various and sundry unguents, facial powders, and perfumes, mingled with stale sweat and the rank smell of macassar oil left under hot lights a bit too long. Drowsily half-listening to Fevvers’ promiscuous babble, he could almost imagine emerging onto dusky gray, fog-bound Charing Cross at the dawn of the New Century itself, so long did it feel as if he’d been cooped up there. He’d forgotten his cares and hungers, those petty lusts now seemed so unfocused. Everything had fallen away.
He poured a bit more champagne.
Some time later —he wasn’t sure exactly when, as his pocket watch had stopped some time ago— Fevvers lapsed into a brief, uncharacteristic silence, and he found himself babbling drunkenly to fill in the silence.
“I used to be a dreamer. Spent whole days on end composing useless odes that fell on deaf ears. I pursued beauty in my own misguided way, I suppose. Now it seems I don’t have that luxury. Dru and I — well, one of us has to have our wits intact.”
She snorted in a manner quite unbecoming a lady. “You’re hardly a pragmatist. Doesn’t suit you.”
“What then? Seems I’ve lost my compass.”
She stared at him intently for a moment before answering.
“You’re going to have to take that leap sometime or another, pet —you’ll have to decide who you really want to be. Me, I decided it for myself when I took my first leap off of Ma Nelson’s roof. I didn’t know if I was going to fly or make a spectacular bloody abstraction on the pavement below. Nothing is for certain, pet. Don’t waste precious time.”
A tiny sliver of milky dawn light made its way through a crack in the curtain.
“Oh! Is it that time already? Gawd, I must be off.”
Soberly, hastily, she gathered up her things and threw on her long wool coat.
She turned and blew William a kiss. The air shifted imperceptibly, the faint whiff of perfume and powder carried with it as she disappeared through the door.
The room was absolutely still, save for the slow trickle of condensation making its way down the side of the by-now lukewarm bottle of champagne. He hated the taste of room-temperature champagne —and cheap champagne at that. But he wanted to prolong the warm drowsy feeling that had begun to accrete in his belly. In frustration, he poured the last dregs into his cup, and downed it quickly. Champagne gone, he smashed the cup to bits in the fireplace.
He cast his eye around the room for souvenirs. His eye alighted upon a postcard tucked into the corner of the mirror.
It was a cheap reproduction of a crayon drawing, its edges creased and worn. William thought he recognized that languid, sinuous line —the syphilitic French dwarf?
There she was. Unfurled.
On the verso, scrawled in fading sepia ink: “To my ange anglaise, toujours.”
He smiled appreciatively. That pervert. He tucked the postcard into the pocket of his waistcoat.
He sauntered out into the gray, chill dawn. He’d find Dru sooner or later. He wasn’t in any hurry.