Eliza Jumel Burr
Vice Queen of the
Stinking-rich Edman Roche accosted me on the street. “Bouncin’ Bet,” he rumbled, baring clean but feral-looking fangs, “tonight you’re bouncin’ wit’ me.” He clamped a meaty hand round my arm and squeezed. If I didn’t know him, the fear of death would’a gripped me. I never met him proper, but his swarthy swagger and tailor-cut clothes made up for his brass.
All I wanted was a meal. “It’ll cost you a steak dinner and a bottle of Malmsey Madeira,” I cooed, stroking the hand clamped to my arm. Oh, how my mouth watered for a steak. My empty tum rumbled.
His crawling fingers sent shivers up my arm, yet he aroused my primitive urges. My secret parts warmed.
He pulled me over the muddy cobblestones to a spit-shined carriage.
I slid inside the coach and sank into the plush seat cushion. Stroking the red velvet sides and top, I marveled, blimey, if his rooms are half as posh …
As the coach rolled along, an easy chat cooled our ardor. To my delight, he told me he saw Who’s the Dupe? by Hannah Cowley, on a New York stage.
“I love reading The Scottish Village,” I gushed about one of Hannah’s poems.
The carriage slowed to a halt at his three-story mansion, a symbol of wealth and luxury. No knee-tremblers for me tonight.
He led me through a marble foyer into his parlour. I ogled the velvet draperies, the artwork in fancy gold frames.
As I gawked, he answered my wordless question: “My late wife did the décor here. She perished of fever three years ago. Or was it four?” He gave a dismissive wave.
“Oh … I’m sorry,” I mumbled.
“I’m not.” He plucked my fingers betwixt his, as in a minuet, and sat me next to him on a plush sofa. “The strumpet, she gave me a dose …” He paused and placed his thumb under my chin to shut my gaping gob. “No worries. I got cured.”
I heaved a relieved sigh. Rich, handsome, cultured … and pox-free.
He lit a cheroot. I inhaled the sweet smoky fragrance. “Now, business before pleasure.” He slid a hand into his trouser pocket, pulled out a fistful of bank notes and tossed them on the table. “It’s more than your usual take, but I’m taking more than usual.” The leer returned with a cock of his brow.
Bloomin’ blazes, money too! This’ll pay a week’s rent, with some left over for flub dubs. I wiped my sweaty fingers on my gown, leaving streaks. “And you’ll have it, sir.”
“Ed to you, Bets,” he rumbled as we leant toward each other, our arms entwined in a crushing embrace.
I shucked off my clothes and stripped him bare. We mated on the sofa, lusting, clawing, growling. I earned it, all right. I could get used to this … and the money. As I caught my breath, hunger gnawed at me.
He poured me a glass of dark liquid. That Malmsey Madeira I’d requested?
I sipped. Warm sweetness coated my tongue. After I swallowed my head reeled. “Thish ish heady shtuff,” I slurred, the glass now a blur. My thirst demanding I quaff more, I drained it down my parched throat. Dizzy and delirious, I dropped the glass and fell into a dead stupor.
I woke alone on the sofa, my skirt covering my lower half. I struggled to sit up, but gasped in horror at my wrist handcuffed to a chain.
I tugged at it with all my strength, but it bound me like a slave. It clanked, mocking me, holding me fast to the sofa leg. I yelled, screamed, begged for help. But the echo of my pleas faded into the expanse.
I squared my shoulders. I’ll break free somehow. Meanwhile, I clasped my hands and passed endless hours in prayer.
As I dozed, weak with hunger, the front door opened and shut. My tongue curled, ready to give him a lashin’ he’d never heard from his dead cheating wife. He glided in and half-leered, half-sneered as I narrowed my eyes into slits of rage.
“What’s the bloody idea?” I shook my shackled fist. The chain rattled. “Bondage was not part of the deal. I demand you release me.”
“Or what?” His eyes smoldered with lust. As he lunged forward in an attempt to grope me, I clenched a fist, socked his jaw and slammed my knee into his groin.
He doubled over. “You’ll pay for that,” he rasped and lumbered out, leaving me chained. My stomach growled as I lay lightheaded and famished.
In the dead of night, he slunk back in, did something disgusting to me, and unlocked the chain. He drug me down a hallway, shoved me down a staircase into a root cellar and chained me to a wall. He plunked a chamber pot in the corner.
I lost track of time. Days slid into nights. When he felt like it, he threw me a stale hunk of bread with a tin cup of putrid water. Too weak to yell, scream or pound on the walls, I curled up on the thin pile of straw and prayed. As I squatted over the stenchy chamber pot, someone answered my prayers in the most unlikely way.
The next time he entered, I bolted for the pot and knelt, as if retching into it.
“You sick?” He approached me.
In one swift move, I grasped the pot and flung raw sewage into his face. As he staggered, sputtering, I slammed it against his head. He crumpled to the floor. I bashed his face to a bloody pulp with that pot till his dead eyes stared up at me.
As his blood soaked the straw, I rummaged through his pockets, begging, please, the key, please …
No key. In my rage I kicked him with the bit of strength I had left.
Legs buckling under me, I stumbled from my prison till the chain strained taught.
A square of daylight shone through a small window. I yelled for help through a scratchy throat. No help came. I groped in the near-darkness back to the corpse and the only other object in sight, the chamber pot. I hurled it at the window. The glass shattered, but the pot clanged to the floor. Straining against my shackles, I screamed at the top of my lungs and rattled the clanking chain. Outside sounds floated in – the crunch of wheels on gravel, a horse’s neigh – but no one heard my desperate cries.
I staggered back to Edman Roche’s corpse, dragging the chain on the dirt floor. I yanked the boots off his feet, dripping with sweat in my struggle. I faced the broken window and hurled one boot at the gaping hole. It missed.
I flung the other boot, but in my weakened state, it landed way short of its mark.
Shattered with despair, I crawled back to the straw and clawed through it for something to eat – a bug, rotted fruit – anything.
My fingers grasped a hard object. I pulled it out – leg irons. I shuddered. He’d shackled another victim down here. But this instrument of torture could be my saving grace.
I tottered back to the window. The sun sank as a steady rain pounded the ground. I prayed. At dusk, footsteps slogged down the street. Here goes my last chance. I hurled the leg irons through the gaping hole.
It struck the passerby outside. “Hey!” he yelled.
“Help me!” I stomped on the dirt floor and rattled the chain.
A man peered in, startled at the sight of me. “Hold tight, lass.”
The front door crashed open. Footsteps pounded above my head. “I’m down here, down here!” I stumbled to the steps as two figures clattered down.
“What happened?” A man in shipyard worker’s clothes approached me.
I pointed to Roche’s body. “He kidnapped me, starved me, raped me, tried to murder me …” I gulped as my voice faltered.
The other man knelt to get a closer look. “Roche, you piece of filth.” He turned to me. “You’d ’a been the fourth woman this year.”
“He … killed before?” I rasped, my mouth too dry to speak.
“Aye, but he bribed his way outta prison. Not ’ny more.” He kicked the bloody head. “Take that, ya scum.” He gave me an earnest look. “He strangled me sister. A prostitute, but she didn’t deserve that. I’m gonna chop his body in pieces and feed it to my pigs. He ain’t nothin’ but pig slop anyways.”
The other man smashed the chain apart with a hammer. I pulled free and collapsed into their arms.
“Thank you, thank you …” I gasped. “You saved me.”
They helped me up the stairs to light and sweet freedom. But first things first. I ransacked the pantry.
As I stuffed my belly with bread, raw carrots, turnips and onions like a starving animal, voices floated down the hall. I took a few cautious steps to see a horrific sight: two constables handcuffing my rescuers.
“You’re under arrest for the murder of Edman Roche,” one of the constables barked. Cuffs clinked.
“No!” I burst into the hall, waving my arms. “No, they saved me! They’re innocent!”
Four pairs of eyes froze on me. The other constable looked down at me with a sneer of disgust. “A filthy streetwalker? Lay off the booze, you tawdry whore.”
They pushed me away and herded my saviors out the door.
“You’ll go free, I swear, as God is my witness!” I wailed as the constables loaded their captives, alive and dead, into a cart and rumbled away.
I stood on the pavement, shivering. I needed my shawl but couldn’t bear to re-enter that house of horror. I took a deep breath. The odor of horse dung smelt like sweet roses after that suffocating dungeon.
I read in the Providence Gazette that Judge David Howell was to preside over their trials. I begged an audience with him.
“Your honor, I killed Edman Roche in self-defense. Go to the house, look at the place, he chained me up, look at the prison in the cellar he kept me in.” I gulped air. “He raped me, starved me, beat me …”
He listened, rapt, his eyes fixed on me in morbid fascination. I went on, “He killed before. When I got the chance, I smashed his head with a chamber pot …” I paused for breath. “Those kind men rescued me. Please let them go. They saved my life, they didn’t take his!”
He stood and gestured at a bench. “Wait there.”
When the judge went to that house of horror and saw my cellar prison, saw the chain that bound me, saw the vermin-infested bed of straw and smelled the filth, he believed me.
He released the innocent men awaiting the trial that would’ve resulted in their hanging.
I promised to reward my rescuers someday, and kept my promise. Now I’m stinking rich, and I shared my wealth with them. I bought Roche’s mansion and knocked it down to build the Providence Home for Orphans.
After I killed that monster, New York was the only place I wanted to go for one reason: to meet my father, George Washington.
I ached to look up into his blue eyes and hear him say, “I love you, Betsy.” So I paid three of my five shillings to a ship captain in Providence Harbor and sailed up the coast to New York. Papa and I live four blocks apart. But those blocks may as well be oceans.
I planned to seek a private audience with him – but will he deny he ever knew Mamma and throw me out? How will he feel looking at his own image, the same sturdy build, red hair and blue eyes? Most of all, I want to ask, Papa, why did you leave us?