OLD NEWS: Bernie Babcock’s 1922 ‘Billy of Arkansas’ falls in love, but is her soldier true?

This is part 7 in a series

Old News is attempting to paraphrase "Billy of Arkansas," a love/temperance novel set in Little Rock after World War I and written a then-famous Arkansas writer, Bernie Babcock (1868-1962). Babcock, who founded the museum that became today's Museum of Discovery, was known for her bestsellers including "The Soul of Ann Rutledge," a novel about Abraham Lincoln's first true love. The Arkansas Democrat serialized her Billy story in 1922.

To catch up on the plot so far, see:

Feb. 13, arkansasonline.com/213start

Feb. 20, arkansasonline.com/220two

Feb. 27, arkansasonline.com/227three

March 6, arkansasonline.com/36four

March 13, arkansasonline.com/313five

March 20, arkansasonline.com/320six


"Bishop," Aunt Nan said one day. "Billy has always been pretty, but it seems to me she is growing more beautiful every day. I look at her and wonder. And she does not act the same either. She was always unselfish and thoughtful, but there is now some strange sweetness, some tenderness, something I don't know what, but Billy is changing."

About halfway through the Arkansas Democrat's 1922 serialization of Bernie Babcock's love story "Billy of Arkansas," its sensible heroine, Billy Camelton, suffers the grand indignity of losing her mind to love.

It's a month since Mrs. Benton-Gordon's luncheon introduced the beautiful young heiress to Capt. Sidney Larvante, of Camp Pike in North Litle Rock. Not much is happening at Camp Pike since the war ended.

What makes this idle soldier worthy where so many Little Rock men failed?

"Worthy? Of course he will prove worthy," Aunt Nan assures the Bishop, who is skeptical — and rightly so. Billy met Larvante through a woman readers know as unreliable, to say the least. First Mrs. Benton-Gordon spiked the punch at Billy's coming-out ball (illegal during Prohibition), and then she introduced her to a string of unsuitable men. And she spread gossip about Billy.

Aunt Nan is thrilled.

"Did you ever see anyone with better shaped shoulders? And look how straight he is, and how dignified. And his manners — isn't he a Chesterfield? And then, Bishop, look how much time he will have to devote to Billy. When other men are working in banks and offices, he can be playing whist. An ideal condition."

Chesterfield is a sturdy sort of sofa. Perhaps that's what Aunt Nan means.

But the Bishop doubts Billy wants an idle life. Also "Billy is rich, Miss Nan. As a rule, army officers draw rich prizes in a matrimonial way. A fortune in exchange for square shoulders and brass buttons is a better deal for the man than the women, ofttimes."

"But Billy loves Captain Larvante. Money is no consideration."

"Not with her, of course."

■  ■  ■

Just before Christmas, Billy and Larvante become engaged. This announcement throws Aunt Nan into a state of happiness bordering on panic.

Billy's engagement is to be announced at a splendid military ball. Then will come a season of complimentary parties, and then plans for a fancy, fancy, fancy wedding. Everything Billy has ever done amiss passes out of remembrance.

Billy also is forgetting things, like why she returned from Europe determined to work for world peace.

■  ■  ■

Her pal Jane Bierce arrives for a long stay a few days before the ball. Friend Reader will recall that Jane fell in love with a socialist, "the Doktor," when she and Billy visited London.

"Now Billy," she said when they were alone for the night. "Tell me how you escaped the others and how you know this is the one, the real one."

Billy's in an expansively romantic mood, so she has plenty to say. But first she reminds Jane that her brother, the still unseen John Bierce, sent her a little ring when she graduated. It's decorated with a scarab, an Egyptian emblem of rebirth, regeneration, immortality.

Billy says, "'Do not be deceived,' he wrote, 'you will know your Antony for with his coming you will recognize the immortality of love.' The immortality of love means that it lasts always and forever. Nothing can destroy it, not distance, nor suffering, nor lack of riches, nor even time, for there are those who have loved each other through long years, even until the silver threads have crowded out the gold. It was an inspired writing he sent me as I crossed the threshold of my girlhood into life. If I shall ever see your brother, I will thank him. If I shall not see him, thank him for me, Jane, and tell him the little ring shall be kept as an heirloom for my children."

"But what I want to get at is this, why didn't you love some of the rest of them, and how do you know you love him?"

"I cannot explain. I can only feel. For one thing, I have always had in my heart the hunger to be a mother, to have little ones of my own. But never have I imagined of any man who has loved me that with him I was standing beside a cradle saying, 'It is ours,' until he came. Now I dream of the time when we can kneel beside a tiny bed and I can say to him as we hold the baby hands, 'It is ours, dear, yours and mine. Our united blood runs in its veins. The gold in its hair, its dimples, all of its beautiful little self exists because we love each other.'"

Jane takes this in. Then she asks: "Is he fond of children?"

"I suppose so, I never heard him say. But aren't all good men fond of children — all men who love?"

At this point, I think we ought to get up, walk over to the skeptics bench and sit ourselves down with the Bishop and Jane Bierce. Billy hasn't even asked this guy if he wants children. And here is why:

"Never before have I wanted a man to put his hands on me. ... But Jane, I want this man who is to be my husband to take me in his arms and hold me close. And the closest is never close enough. I do not understand it, nor myself. I seem to have awakened to some new bounding, pulsating life I had not dreamed existed."

Babcock nicely allows the brain-fogging irrationality of desire to speak for itself, and in Billy's case it babbles on and on. Jane — the pacifist socialist — isn't impressed.

"Your lover may be an exception," she says, "but as a rule, even officers in a government's standing murder corps are not worth their salt unless they are killing somebody or trying to. The rest of the time they are a useless burden to the taxpayer. I should think you would want a man who is contributing to the development of civilization instead of existing for no purpose but to tear it down. To me a hoe anytime is a better symbol of prosperity and progress than a sword."

"You think so because you are a socialist," Billy replies. "They are dead set against war. Captain Larvante says the virility of nations and national honor will soon play out when socialists come into power since they will make war impossible."

"Has the virility of the individual man played out because disputed property rights are settled in courts of law instead of brickbats or guns? Has the honor of the individual man entirely disappeared because honor is no longer determined by the outlawed duel?"

Jane continues her indictment of war, winding up thus: "I tell you, Billy, you may have found an exception, but brass buttons and blue breeches never did appeal to me as brains do, and they do not often go together. So don't expect me to fall over your lover in adoration. I'll treat him decently unless he starts something on socialism. If he does that, let him look out!"

"Hurrah for Jane Bierce!" Billy laughs. "Fate has marked you for the soap box. But wait until you see him. You cannot help loving him. ... I would give my last cent for him."

Would Larvante love a penniless Billy?

"That is the beautiful part about it," she cries. "He has vowed a hundred times it is me he loves, just plain Little Billy Camelton, and that it would be the same if I were a pauper. And he is so sincere, so honest, to doubt him would be a sin. ... He is the only man and I am so happy it seems sometimes it cannot last. It is too much like the heaven of my childish imagination."


Next week we'll go to that military ball.

[This is a series. See part 8 at arkansasonline.com/43men/]

Email:  cstorey@adgnewsroom.com