Eliza Jumel Burr
Vice Queen of the
“Now that he’s president, he’ll be judged by every newspaper and politician and citizen down to the beggars on the streets.” James held his empty tankard up to the barmaid as she scurried by. “It comes with the territory. And the best thing about not having a King George the First here is that if he don’t serve us right, we can kick his arse out!” James guffawed as the barmaid stopped and refilled his glass, suds spilling over the rim.
“Will you be painting another portrait of the president, Will?” Sim asked my escort.
“Another portrait?” Fisher’s eyes bugged out at William. “You painted the president?”
Oh, here we go. I needed another drink to sit through this. Much as I admired William’s endless artistic talents, he needed no goading to brag about his painting General and Mrs. Washington at age 17.
“Ah, yes, at Princeton, the winter of eighty-three. Besides a crayon sketch, I painted a full-length oil portrait of the general. I took it to England to study under Ben West.” He shook his head. “Alas, it’s still there. I hope to fetch it back. Would be a befitting tribute to him in the theatre lobby.”
As we toasted our future, some men across the room burst into song.
Sung to the tune of God Save the King, which everyone knew, more joined in. “God save the thirteen states! Long rule the United States! God save our states!
Make us victorious, happy and glorious, no tyrants over us, God save our states!”
It seemed Hamilton led the singing, raising his glass as his cronies clapped. Another song followed, sung to Rule Britannia’s tune.
Then to my utter astonishment, William stood and belted out a song that brought me to tears. The entire room rose to its feet and joined in.
“Great Washington the hero’s come, each heart exulting hears the sound,
Thousands to their deliverer throng, and shout him welcome around.
Now in full chorus join the song, and shout aloud, great Washington!”
We sang it thrice, and by then, all knew the words. It ended in a burst of applause, a rollicking roar and a huzzah! for our new president.
I wept with pride for my country, my president—and my papa.
“Where to this eve, Betsy?” William strode into my space where I’d changed back into my homespun, pinned my hair under my bonnet, and slid into my comfy leather mules.
I was good at hiding my feelings, so I didn’t show my disappointment over Mr. Burr. But I couldn’t feign interest in a lively tavern row. Neither potation nor eating appealed to me. Truth be told, I wanted to crawl under the nearest rock. “Can we go home, Will? My home, that is…and do something quiet like play chess?”
That familiar spark shone in his eye when I suggested we go “home” but this time I had no naughty motive. A game of chess was what I needed, not a romp.
“You don’t look too fit, Betsy.” He stepped forward and embraced me. “Mayhap I’d best see you home and let you rest up.”
“Yeah, I can’t argue with that. ’Sides, there’s something I need to do.”
Before we left, I asked to borrow his good pen. “Mine broke, and I need a writing tool that don’t look like a chicken hopped across the page.” He gave it to me, but warned, “I need it back in the morn. I must write to creditors.”
“You shall have it back,” I promised. He always owed money to someone or other. The theatre was not very profitable, and rich or poor, men always lived beyond their means. “I’d never spend money I ain’t got,” I told William once, and he scoffed as he penned another begging letter to a creditor.
, perched on William’s lap, I told him my bold plan. “Mr. Burr backed out last time. So this time, I’m making sure we meet in a private room, not an opera house. Armed with my new knowledge of his pet subjects.” I tossed my head. “I’m rather chuffed that I took matters into my own hands.”
He squeezed my thigh. “Ah, but Betsy, inviting him to rendezvous alone in a room with no escorts? That’s untoward. Don’t forget, he’s not a young’un like you.”
“I see nothing untoward about it. It’s a public house. I ain’t inviting him to my boudoir.” I stared him down, my heart racing at the thought of meeting Aaron on a level playing ground, but also because William tried to throw a wrench into it. “Don’t toss salt into my coffee, Will.”
Standing, I smoothed my new evergreen skirt. “How do you like it? I bought it because it matches the jacket Aaron wore the first time I saw him.” I twirled round for him.
He straightened some papers on his desk. “I’m not salting your coffee. But you can be . . . uh, forward at times and don’t want this to backfire on you, alone in a rented room with the object of your ardor.”
“You needn’t worry. I’ll mind my p’s and q’s. And whatever else needs minding.”
After telling him he needn’t worry
I threw open the shutters to the newborn morn and sat at the rickety table. I dipped my pen in my ink pot and on my precious stationery, I relived that magical evening.
Aaron wants to be seen in public with me! I wrote. It proved I was respectable enough for his company, making me feel worthwhile. I want to sing it from the rooftops, to the tune of the Figaro overture, I wrote. But for now I could only share it with my dear leaves of writing paper.
But now he was finally about to make that grand conquest—me. I considered it no more than a business transaction. I humiliated him by asking for payment up front—it was against protocol, ’specially in an establishment as this, but he deserved even less.
Eyes fixed to my décolletage, he counted out the bank notes. Rather than hand them to me, he placed them beside him on the table, wordlessly saying, “Come and get it.”
I knew better than to engage him in witty banter while he stood there, the bed looming twixt us. With military precision, he stripped off his velvet jacket and laid it over the chair back. He removed not another stitch but lunged at me rather than walk round the bed.
He grabbed my wrist and pulled me to the downy mattress. “Why did Sukie never tell me you worked here, Betsy?” He struggled to unbutton my blouse. I remedied the awkward fumbling by plucking his sweaty hand away and doing the deed myself.
“Sukie don’t know. No one does. You are my first gentleman caller. For that I should charge you double. And for calling you a gentleman I should charge you triple.”
“Call me anything you wish, Bet.” By now my top was off and he started pushing my skirts up. “Cannot you get this blasted thing off?”
but gave him another brilliant idea—he could apply that same principle to magnify men’s privy members. This he told me over Samuel Adams’s own brand of ale. “I need a woman’s take on the idea, no better woman than you, lass.”
I looked into his eager eyes, hating to pour cold water all over his invention. But what kind of friend would I be to encourage something so dotty? “All well and good, Jim, but how will your customers explain themselves when they remove the magnifiers?” So fell that brainchild to pieces.
No, I could not ask any men for advice on how to invest a growing nest egg, and being a woman, Sukie wouldn’t know.
After a night’s rest I needed to earn my keep. I didn’t mean only sweeping and dusting—I had to go back to earning my living as I always had. Aunt Free’s was the best place in Providence for that.
Next morn before breaking my fast, I sat down at Aunt Free’s desk and with her borrowed paper, ink and quill, I wrote to Sukie. “I miss New York so, but I returned to my happiest childhood home with a woman I believe is kinfolk. I needn’t worry about meals nor shelter nor a midwife to birth my baby—what will happen beyond that point, I know not.” I couldn’t help but ask after Aaron. Realizing this was too forward, only having been gone a few days, I tried to cross that part out but ended up ruining the entire page, so I began again. But once again I couldn’t help myself. My sweaty hand smudged the ink as I told Sukie to give him my regards. “Please keep my secret for the time being,” I repeated. Writing about him made my hand tremble so the lettering looked as shaky as I felt.
By the time I’d folded and sealed Sukie’s letter,
No one famous came to Providence as a matter of course—only on official visits. They passed through on their way to the major cities, Baltimore, Phila., New York. So I had no fear of having to entertain the likes of Tommy Jefferson or Jemmy Madison. Just randy gents out for a romp came here.
. One night, I couldn’t help but ask her to do a spell for me.
“Who will I marry, Aunt Free? The soothsayer Jean Alliette told me I’d marry for love, but can you tell me more?”
“I ain’t no fortune-teller, my child, but I can send my life force out into the ether to attract that right man to you.”
My heart leapt. Of course I hungered for that right man to be Aaron. “Let’s do it this eve!”
“Why so intent on knowing who you’ll marry? I thought you wanted to storm the world yourself.”
“I intend to, but I want to find true love. I believe I’ve found it, but—my being here, and—” I glanced down at my now-bulging middle, “—I’d hardly expected to ever leave New York. I was just wondering if—” My hands fluttered and I stumbled over my words, which I never did, ’specially with Aunt Free. But every time I thought of telling Aaron he had another child, I needed to know the next step, so desperate, it hurt.
“Go fetch a crow’s egg from out back and the juice of the crow’s foot plant, and I will mix them with honey and say the chant.” She fetched some spoons.
“Mix them with honey and then what?”
She arched a brow at me. “That is the part most women shy away from, but I know you will not. You must anoint your—” She waved in the general direction of my nether region, “honey pot with them.”
“What?” I shuddered. “Isn’t there a less messy one?”
“Mayhap, but this has been known to work.”
“On who?” I smirked. “Grizzly bears?”
She grasped my hands and shut her eyes. “My child, I’ve never felt what I’m feeling now, but a vibrating sensation nearly felled me. I’m as if lit afire. Look at my hands.” She let go and I watched her hands quiver. I grasped them again to steady them, but that strange charge she described ran through me. “What is that, Aunt Free?”
“The life force, my child. It lives all around us. We bring it to ourselves, either good or bad, with our thoughts. Right now, this is all good. Positive. Something good will happen to you. I don’t just feel it, I know it. Oh, you will marry a prominent man. A love match, and it will change your life. Your names will survive in history together.”
“What’s his name? What is it?” I squeezed her hands so tight, my knuckles turned white.
“I know not. You’ll have to find out. But believe me, my child, once your name becomes linked with his, it will live on without his. And will never be forgotten.”
Oh, please, I begged that invisible vortex surrounding us. Let me be the next Mrs. Burr!
The days grew and hotter and I grew larger. Aunt Free let me spend lazy days lounging on the porch chaise. In the eves I read aloud to her other ladies and servants on the porch, all in wide-eyed fascination. I took them to the worlds of kings, queens, palaces and castles—the worlds of my fantasies.
“Aunt Free, let me write the letter. I’m ready to contact him myself.” I waved the newspaper through the air to dry, wanting to cherish it as my most prized keepsake.
“Not a good idea, Betsy.” She shuffled round the table and leant against her sideboard, folding her arms across her ample breasts. “Too abrupt. He would doubt it’s genuine. But from Reuben and me, he already knows who we are. Then when he does arrive, we shall present you to him—just as when you were a child—and this time we will make sure he knows who you are. So it is your good fortune you haven’t yet called on him in New York. Mayhap that’s why your fate brought you back here for a meeting that bears fruit.”
That made sense to me. If Aunt Free hadn’t voiced her reason, I’d have dashed to the desk, scrawled out a letter and run to the post. But I knew this would work out and he would come here.
“A hogshead!” Aunt Free quit her sweeping and held the broom like a rifle. “You think these men are lushes, Mr. Reuben? They’ll roll outta here in hearses after swilling that much!”
“I’d rather too much than suffer the embarrassment of coming up short,” came his terse answer, but we both knew he’d be the sole imbiber long after our presidential party departed.
Reuben suggested they play some patriotic songs. They knew a few and began rehearsing Washington’s March at the Battle of Trenton, and Norah, Dear Norah from an English opera The Poor Soldier, papa’s favorite. If only I could sing. But it was a man’s part, sung by Pat, the poor soldier himself.
I enjoyed myself at the party despite my attempts at witty repartée with the ladies. Mrs. Hamilton was a charming hostess. When close up, I noticed her hair wasn’t powdered but gray. I chalked that up to the humiliating public ordeal her straying husband put her through. The closest I came to drollery was with the bubbling Dolley Todd. She introduced me to her suitor James ‘Jemmy’ Madison, such a great man, and yet so diminutive. I felt uneasy looking down at him in my two-inch heels. Though he was a founder of the Democratic-Republican party, who opposed Hamilton and his cronies, Mr. Madison authored almost the entire Constitution and our Bill of Rights—and do we need that Bill of Rights! as Senator Mac convinced me.
“Did you know that Aaron introduced Jemmy and me?” the buxom Dolley gushed, clinging to Jemmy’s arm and casting him an adoring gaze.
“No, I didn’t. He never mentioned it.” I suppose Aaron hadn’t wanted to tell me, lest his matchmaking went blooey and Dolley went on to greener pastures. But from the doe-eyes she cast upon Jemmy as he nuzzled her nose with his, it looked the perfect love match.
“It was quite by design,” Jemmy explained, his eyes lighting up as he focused on his fond memory. “Aaron was already living in Dolley’s mama’s boardinghouse and helped her draw up a will leaving all her property to her son Payne—”
“Aaron is the executor,” Dolley chimed in.
Jemmy continued, “I offered to back Aaron as the next ambassador to France and persuaded James Monroe to support him.”
“Aaron did tell me that Monroe considered him too young.” I nodded, secretly glad Aaron hadn’t been appointed.
“Yes, ironically, Monroe is two years younger than Aaron,” Jemmy said. “When I took the proposal to President Washington, he rejected the idea.”
I knew why but didn’t say a word. Aaron and papa never got along. Some things were better left unsaid.
“Having tried to do this enormous favor, I asked Aaron if he’d formally introduce me to Dolley. We only lived three streets apart, and I’d bowed to her many times in the street. Now here we are!”
With Dolley the most eligible widow in town, Jemmy couldn’t tarry much longer to pop the question.
Later as I refilled my punch glass, not wanting to bother the ragged-run servants, I overheard Mrs. Hamilton and Mrs. Monroe chattering. My ears pricked up as Aaron’s name came up in the same sentence as Dolley’s—“Oh, yes, Senator Burr was going to propose to Dolley the moment he heard the news of his wife’s demise. Poor dear.”
I recoiled as if shot. Who was the poor dear? I wondered. Mrs. Burr, Dolley, or me?
I didn’t plan to bring this up with Aaron. Why would he introduce Jemmy to Dolley if he wanted her for himself? Convinced it was mealymouthed gossip, I shook my head, dismayed at the levels these ladies stooped to, in the name of entertainment. Did they have nothing else to occupy their time? Whist or growing lilies or—perish the thought—learning something?