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OLD NEWS: At long last, Bernie Babcock’s Billy of Arkansas finds true love. The end.

by Celia Storey | June 5, 2023 at 7:27 a.m.
Democrat-Gazette artist Carrie Hill researched fashions from the years just before and after World War I to create her characterizations of Billy Camelton and John Bierce, the lovers in Bernie Babcock's 1922 novella "Billy of Arkansas." (Democrat-Gazette illustration/Carrie Hill)

Today Old News wraps up a four months' effort to paraphrase a novella written by Bernie Babcock and published in 1922 by the Arkansas Democrat.

Babcock began "Billy of Arkansas" as a shorter work, a temperance tract published in 1914 by The Arkansas Progress, a short-lived paper that advocated restrictions on the sale of alcohol. Her heroine, Billy Camelton, forcefully rejects as old-fashioned the notion that alcohol was essential to society and that well bred folks were not subject to the evils of overuse.

In the longer version published in 1922, Billy's quest to find a real man begins with her rejection of drinkers but expands to embrace other desirable manly virtues. Today we take on her final chapter, in which the impetuous and charming Little Rock socialite finds love at last in New York.

That Billy's story should take her so far from home isn't surprising when we consider her author's life.

As a young woman, Babcock was an activist for women's suffrage and Prohibition. She is remembered as defending Arkansas against H.L. Mencken's mockery in the 1930s; but she was her state's champion for decades before. Her 1909 book "The Man Who Lied on Arkansaw — And What Got Him" ripped Marion Hughes and his 1905 "Three Years in Arkansaw" (read Hughes here:

The idea that Arkansas was too backward to keep up with older states galled her. She had worked in Chicago and spent winters in New York — where she wrote an influential report on injustices done to "submerged people," impoverished workers trapped in unhealthy slums.

And so the author is making a statement about her state when readers see exuberant Billy go toe-to-toe against sophisticated Europeans and New Yorkers.

Two weeks after Billy Camelton took the baby of a poor woman she met while visiting the sick in a New York charity hospital, she's thrilled with motherhood. The entire Bierce household sees her enjoying herself, including her schoolmate Jane and Jane's big brother, the teetotalling, capitalistic, biased and hunky Judge John Bierce.

Returning home one evening at dusk, John hears Billy singing as she rocks the baby in the firelight. She has him sit, puts the baby in his arms and kneels beside the chair.

"Look!" she says. "I believe it sees me! It is smiling. God bless its little heart. Don't you think, Judge Bierce, a woman should be good, very, very good to dare to mother a child? I have always tried to be decent. Now I am going to be really good.

"I know I shall for I have the baby to help me."

John gazes into her earnest face. "You really love the baby?" he asks.

"Yes, I love it, don't you?" There is surprise in her voice.

"Not a bit, Billy. I pity its helplessness, would protect it against harm and care for it if it were my duty. But I have no love for it -- not even the grandfather kind."

"Not even that much? It does not seem possible you should not have."

"It does not seem possible I should have, you mean. There are intermediate steps between being a bachelor and a grandfather that I have not taken, you remember."

When she doesn't answer, he hands the baby back and goes looking for his sister.


"Jane," he says, "Billy has had that baby two weeks and I have not seen her two hours of the time. I had planned several evenings out with her. She has turned my invitations all down and cut out all my home visits. I am tired of it."

Jane says, "She says the baby will be passing through each of its baby stages but once and she wants to watch it grow. It is her latent instinct of motherhood asserting itself."

"She is not the mother of the child," he counters, "and there is too little genuine motherhood in the world now to allow the real thing wasted in make-believe. I am going to see that the baby gets back to its lawful and natural mother."

"You are going to interfere in Billy's business and make a lot of trouble. Why do you not let well enough alone? The other mother cannot care for the baby. Billy can. Besides, it will break Billy's heart to give it up."

"Have you forgotten the ­real mother has a heart?"

"Admitting she has — does she want the baby to starve?"

"I will arrange that. In fact, I have already looked into the case of the crippled brakeman. I find his accident was due solely to the lack of safety appliances. It will be no trouble to get a settlement for him."

"Perhaps if you would interest yourself in 10,000 other men who are crippled annually by railroads, you could find a few more cases from like causes instead of as you insist, 'man's stupidity and carelessness.'"

"This is not the time for a lecture. I merely wanted to say motherhood is too sacred and valuable a social asset to be sacrificed as an imitation. The baby will go back."

The evening after this conversation, while Billy with Jane and John Bierce are waiting for dinner, a note arrives from the baby's mother: "Some uptown lawyer interested himself in my baby's father and made his company come across with a fortune. There's a splendid little restaurant on the Jersey side that we are going to buy — think of it. So I want my baby. She is mine, you know, and you said you'd give her back. I'm sending my address. Bring her tomorrow. I'm crazy to feel her again in my arms. God bless you for your kindness to her and to me, and may you have one of your own someday. That's the only way it makes them different from all the rest."

"Jane! Jane!" Billy cries, "She's going to take my baby!"


It's storming as John and Billy set out to return the baby. He has a driver take them.

As he sits beside Billy in the half-dark car, he only sees her face as they pass under bright lights, but he knows she is not crying.

And she doesn't cry when she hands over the baby. She seems to sincerely share the mother's joy and also delight in her feverish excitement as she looks at the beautiful garments Billy has brought and hears about the swan bed that will be delivered later.

But once in the car again, she shivers.

"Are you cold, Billy?" John Bierce asks, tucking the robe about her.

"Yes, cold and lost."

"Lost? What do you mean?"

"That I am alone. I do not know what to do. I do not know where to go -- I am lost in a world where nothing is worthwhile."

"How strange," John muses. "You have youth, you have beauty, you have a fortune, you have a social standing, you have friends, you have lovers, yet nothing is worthwhile?"

"Nothing. Nothing, Judge Bierce, except that which it seems fate has decreed I may not have. My heart is hungry, is starving to be loved and to love. It was for this I got my baby. And now they have taken it away," and in spite of her efforts, Billy's speech ends in a sob.

"To love and to be loved," John Bierce repeats, slipping an arm around her. "Yes, little girl. This is the only immortal part of life, the only thing that when it lasts makes all the rest worthwhile. But I was not sure you knew it."

"I have always known it," she says. "I have tried to make myself believe different, but it is useless. God made me needing love and to think about going through life just being admired, or even working for some good cause makes me wish I were dead."

"But you are not going through life without being loved, dear," he says. "Has it ever occurred to you that I love you?"

"I think you do, in a way, and one should be thankful for even grandfather love but --"

"But what?"

"It is so unsatisfying — that is, when one is no longer a little girl."

"What a tragedy it would be in my case if it were not so," he says, making the circle of his arm about her smaller, drawing her close.

"I do not know just what you mean," Billy says.

"Are you sure?" He takes her hand. "Well, you will know in a minute, for you, my little girl, are the one woman in all the world I want to be all, all mine. The one woman I want to be my bride, my wife. You, Billy of Arkansas, are the woman I want to be the mother of my children."

"The mother of your children!" Billy exclaims. "Oh, John Bierce, do you think I am good enough to be the mother of children — your children and mine?"

"Good enough— yes, good enough. But goodness alone is not enough. There must be fitness -- and there must be love. Tell me, Billy, do you love me?"

"Do I love you?" she cries with a half sob, "Do I love you? Yes, and had I known you first, by a comparison of men, I could not have mistaken the counterfeit for the genuine. Do I love you, John Bierce? If I could be sure you love me one-half as I love you, God himself could not find fit words to tell it in."

John holds Billy so fiercely it almost hurts.

After a moment she whispers, "John Bierce, is this true, or is it only a beautiful dream? Are we here together, you and I, or do we only think we are? Will the quiet of the night and the coming of a new day prove this, too, but a heavenly illusion?"

"Do you want to sign?" he asks. "An emblem — a ring?"

From his inside pocket he takes the silver scarab ring. "My beautiful, my beloved Egypt!" he whispers as he slips it on her finger.

 Gallery: Bernie Babcock and Billy of Arkansas

[Gallery not showing? Click here to see photos:]


A few moments later they arrive home and Billy runs in calling, "Jane! Jane! Jane!"

Alarmed, it takes Jane a beat to absorb their news, but then she hugs them both. Soon she's on the phone with their classmate Peg in Baltimore.

Meanwhile, Billy plops down to write a telegram.

Taking it to John Bierce, who sits by the fire, she drops onto his knee and together they read. "Bishop Wendell Warren, Little Rock, Ark.: I have found my Antony. His name is John. Your services are hereby engaged to say the ceremony that shall give us the right before the world to prove the immortality of love. Billy"

John Bierce drapes the paper over the arm of the chair, and taking Billy's happy face between his hands, looks into her shining eyes a moment before saying, "Who ever dreamed it would come to this?"

"God," she says, "Your Honor."



Print Headline: A union is formed


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