OLD NEWS: Billy of Arkansas gets herself a baby, and John gets suspicious looks

(Democrat-Gazette illustration/Carrie Hill, Celia Storey)

Part 15 in a series

Old News is paraphrasing "Billy of Arkansas," a novel by Bernie Babcock that was serialized by the Arkansas Democrat in 1922. To catch up on the plot, follow the links beginning with: arkansasonline.com/213start.

John Bierce has just carried Billy Camelton upstairs against her will, kissed her full on the mouth and plopped her into a sitting room chair in a most un-grandfatherly manner. "You have spoiled everything," she tells him.

With a touch of tenderness that belies his only half-concealed smile, he asks, "What have I spoiled?"

"You have spoiled all the plan of the beautiful secret I was going to tell you about. For I could only trust a very good man — only ask a very good man to help me. I thought you were the man I was looking for."

"And I am, Billy, the very man. All I need is a chance to prove it."

"And I have given up hope after your abominable conduct of this evening," she says wearily. "I had such happy dreams of a home and babies, which should be all my very own— dear, live, warm babies with soft dimpled hands and dear little round bald heads."

Instead, her life is an empty, continuous round of operas, frothy parties and the bewildering depths of human misery on the East Side. She knows now she doesn't want work. She wants someone to love her — "someone in all the world of people to love me best of all. This was how I was going to ask you to help me."

"You were going to ask me to love you?"

"Ask you to love me? No, I was not going to ask you to love me. What kind of a girl do you think I am?"

Because she will never marry and have a baby of her own, she says, she wants to adopt a baby. And she has found one on the charity ward of Bellevue Hospital. "It is a beautiful darling," with a beautiful mother who can't afford to keep it.

"Is she a married woman?" John asks.

"No — not yet. She was nearly married but had bad luck."

John doesn't see why Billy should want an illegitimate child — he uses the term "not well born." Billy tells him that a nurse who has seen all kinds of people's babies told her that the happiest babies are the first offspring of couples in love — married or not. And Billy knows that this baby's parents were deeply in love.

"She was a waiter in a restaurant," Billy says. "He was a brakeman without a job when she met him. They were each alone and fell in love and thought they could not get married until he secured work. At last he got back on the road, but their joy was of short duration. He was caught between two cars and his legs crushed.

"He has had a terrible time — three different amputations, blood poison, fever, I do not know what all."

If he survives, the girl intends to support him.

"She declares she will stand by her crippled lover to the last and work her fingers off trying to do something for him," Billy says. "Her face shone when she told us how much she loves him. John Bierce, never again will I doubt there is such a thing as love — not when I discover the first-water diamond in the mire — it is the most wonderful thing in all the world that a woman can so love."

Judge Bierce is silent for a few moments. Then he says, "I am glad you have met this girl, Billy. God never intended you to be a cynic. I shall be glad to help you. But I would not think she would want to give the baby away."

"She does not. She loves the baby," Billy says, but this poor woman cannot care for it and also work. "She cried until the pillow was wet when she spoke of giving it to me, and she kissed its little hands and its soft hair, but she loves its father more."

Billy has promised to return the baby if the girl can somehow find means of support. But Billy intends to get the baby right away.

"Let me see now," John jokes. "I will be the great grandfather to this baby — is that right?"

■  ■  ■

The next day John drives a very excited Billy to the hospital and waits outside in the car. When a while passes and she doesn't reappear, he goes inside.

He sees the pale-faced young mother holding the baby in her lap. Billy kneels beside her chair.

The mother suddenly hugs the baby to her face and cries, "Baby! Baby, you are mine. I want you!" And bending over, she sobs.

Rising, Billy puts an arm around her. "Poor little mother," she says tenderly. "It is a shame -- a sin that it has to be so. But I will take good care of the baby. I will love it."

"But it is not your baby. It is my baby — I cannot let it go!"

"What shall I do?" Billy asks the nurse who stands by with a shawl, impatiently.

"Ask her what she is going to do with it," the nurse says.

"I'm going to give my baby away," the mother wails. "What else can I do? Tomorrow I must go to work and then every hour of every day it will be work, work, work with never a minute of my own — no time, no place, no money for my baby because I am poor! Take the baby."

Then drawing it back she kisses its hands, head and cheek. "My God, how wicked it is that mothers cannot have their babies," she sobs as she again hands the baby to Billy.

■  ■  ■

Once they're well on the way home from this upsetting scene, Billy snuggles her precious bundle and gives herself over to the joy of possession.

"We must make two or three stops," Billy tells John, "first at a drugstore to get some food. You know, Judge Bierce, if you don't feed them, it is something fearful the way they yell, and this one has a wonderful vocal apparatus."

This begins a farcical series of scenes as John — clueless — is trapped in his car with a screaming infant and mistaken by passers-by for a kidnapper. Outside a drugstore, he nonchalantly lights up his cigar, triggering the first round of shrieking wails.

A humane officer suspects him of cruelty when John appears unconcerned that his baby is hungry. And then the clueless judge becomes annoyed: "What affair is it of yours, if I may ask?"

Billy returns just in time with a warmed bottle of milk, and the officer assumes she's John's wife and lets them go. As they drive away, Billy tells him they must stop at a clothing store so she can get a pretty blanket to replace the hospital's tatty shawl. He grudgingly agrees but this time pulls around to the side and parks behind some trucks.

Then, to make doubly sure that no disturbances can occur, he moves the bundle under the rear seat — in the process dislodging the glass baby bottle so it falls on the pavement and shatters.

A beat cop witnesses this. "What you've been hiding under that seat?" he asks.

"A bundle of old dry goods," John says.

"What's that got to do with it?" and the officer points his club at the bits of broken glass.

Long story short, he thinks John's a bootlegger. Climbing into the car, the officer discovers the sleeping baby. Now he suspects John of kidnapping. He whistles for backup, which arrives on the double.

"Do I look like a child stealer?" John asks.

The second officer immediately agrees they should arrest him.

"A bit of advice," John begins. "You had better do it first and talk about it afterward, I am —"

"It makes no difference who you are. Law is law, and if you don't take it easy, you'll have to answer the charge of resisting an officer."

"Very well, make your arrest. In 30 days you will be looking for a new job and it will be well. Such blockheads are no credit to the system, a little —"

"What are you going to do with my baby?" Billy cries, coming up behind them. She tells the cops John is a district court judge, and they are stunned, and then worried.

"No explanation is necessary," John Bierce said, shortly, turning away. To Billy he says, "You arrived just in time to save me from being arrested for a kidnapper. Discrimination seems to be a faculty entirely lacking in the average policeman."

"I've had occasion to think that myself," she says with a broad smile, "but in my case nobody came to identify me and I went to jail."

John laughs. Then, with Billy and the baby in the car, they motor off once again.

"Billy," John Bierce says when they are well on their way.

"I want to be obliging. I want to help you with your baby, but for heaven's sake let's not stop again."

Alas, she has one more stop in mind. We'll see what happens there next time. [Read Chapter 16 here: arkansasonline.com/529joy]

Email:  cstorey@adgnewsroom.com