Part 16 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.
Refresh your memory of last week's installment at arkansasonline.com/522baby.
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Bernie Babcock's heroine, Billy Camelton, has made some impetuous, naive moves in this novella we are paraphrasing, "Billy of Arkansas,'' but what she did last week has to top the cake.
Under the guise of charity, she almost pried a baby from its sobbing mother's arms. Although Billy was somber in and immediately after the act, she was gleeful as John Bierce drove her home with her possession.
Along the way, John endured two ludicrous incidents in which he waited in the car with the baby while Billy went shopping. These scenes belong in some 1940s screwball romance, with Cary Grant as the clueless male. (Who would play Billy? Hmm, Katharine Hepburn played a few headstrong ditzes in her day ... .) First, John tried to blow off a humane officer attracted by the baby's anguished wails. Then he stuffed the sleeping baby under the rear seat of the car and was suspected of bootlegging. Each time, Billy arrived to save him from arrest.
We have one more shopping stop to get through. She wants to order a bed.
"But, Billy," he protests when she tells him where to park, "this is within a block of my club. I'm as likely as not to see a dozen members, and I never could explain things."
"You will not need to explain anything. The baby is sound asleep. I'll leave it on the seat so neatly covered your whole club might parade past and never suspect anything alive here but you."
A few minutes later, John Bierce finds himself in front of a Fifth Avenue shop. The robe across his knees also drapes the baby in innocent folds. Hardly has Billy disappeared than three men stop.
"Hello, Bierce!" As they exchange pleasantries, one of the clubmen steps into the car and is about to take the vacant seat when John Bierce, with a wild gesture, says hoarsely, "Don't sit down!"
The man straightens up. "What's the matter? What is it?"
"You are about to sit on something and mash it."
"What is it?" his friend asks, looking at the robe. "Something alive?"
"Yes — yes — a dog I am taking home to Jane."
"A dog, eh. What kind is it?"
"I didn't hear them mention the breed," John says.
"Let's look at it."
"Come up to the house — you see — fact is, I had orders not to uncover it for fear its nose would get frost bit."
"Oh — a young one?"
"Yes, a few weeks old, and the confoundest nuisance you ever heard of."
"Whine, does it?"
"Whine? Well, you ought to hear it."
The blanket emits a smothered squawk. John Bierce emits a mild curse. "I believe it is going to tune up again."
His friend knows that sound. "What kind of a dog did you say it is?" he asks, slyly.
"I didn't say."
"And you don't know the breed? Well, I do. My youngest sister has one. I heard them ordering paregoric for it at 1 o'clock last night. But on the square, Bierce, where did you get it? What is the mystery?"
John drops the dog pretense. "No mystery about it. Its mother is buying a bed, and I'm waiting for her."
Here comes Billy, happy, happy. "I got it," she exclaims. "The prettiest thing you ever saw!"
Having just identified her as the mother of the baby, John now introduces her as "Miss Camelton."
"It is a new experience I'm having," she says, "this buying things for a baby. But I like it so and the baby — it is a beautiful darling. I don't dare uncover it here, but come sometime and see it — Judge Bierce's you know." (She means come to the Bierces' place, but that's — of course — not what the clubmen hear.)
"Congratulations, old boy," the friend says, shaking his hand. "But how did you ever keep the thing a secret so long?"
"What in thunder is he congratulating me for?" John Bierce asks as they get underway. "I told him plain enough you were Miss Camelton."
"I don't suppose he really knew what it was for," Billy suggests.
And Billy's right. As John Bierce's car passes out of sight, the friends stand looking. Then one says, "Don't it beat the Dutch how he's kept the thing still? But what was his purpose in introducing her as Miss Camelton?"
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Everybody in the Bierce household declares Billy's baby a beautiful child.
While the babe is sleeping in its blue-trimmed bed the first night, Billy calls John Bierce:
"You haven't seen it good yet. Look at its cheeks, soft like satin and velvet and pink as the heart of an apple blossom. And look at its tiny dimpled hands. Its hair is like finest silk and see its long, dark eyelashes. God bless its little heart!"
John Bierce looks at the sleeping baby dubiously.
"I am going to teach it to love you better than anyone else except me and tell it how good you have been to help me," Billy says.
"Will it have to be taught to love me?"
"Not if you are near. It couldn't help loving you. But after a little time, I will take it away, you know."
Again, John is silent. Then he says, "Is there anything else I can do for you — or the baby — before I go?"
"One thing. You can kiss the baby."
"Kiss it! Kiss it? I don't know how to kiss anything so small."
Billy laughs — quietly, we assume. "Then put your cheek against the baby's cheek — just for a minute. It will make you good."
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Shortly before dinner, Billy finds John in the library and asks him to mail a letter to Aunt Nan. She reads him the playful contents: "Dear Aunt Nan, I have the most surprising news for you you ever heard. You may not believe it at first. I hardly expect you to. I never heard of an Alexander doing such a thing as I have done and I hope you will not take it too seriously, but I have a baby.
"It is the loveliest little creature you ever saw. It has dark hair like mine and violet eyes with long lashes. It is a girl and I have chosen as a name Nancy Marie, after my mother and you, my dear Aunt Nan. I suppose there will be some gossip about what I have done but I do not mind. Everybody will love my baby when I bring it home.
"I bought it the loveliest bed you ever saw, a big Swan lined with blue satin and white lace with the odor of wood violets. And its clothes, you will like them, all handmade, you know. I'm feeling quite well again."
There was silence after the reading of this letter. Then John says, "Billy, didn't you tell me your Aunt Nan is rather conventional in her views and opinions?"
"Yes, indeed, the least deviating throws her on the mercy of smelling salts, and the Bishop works overtime fanning her if he happens to be about."
"Don't you think you had better add a postscript telling her where you got your baby?"
"Do you mean which hospital?"
"I didn't think it would interest her, but I will."
A moment later she reads her postscript: "I got my baby at Bellevue. Its mother was brokenhearted at letting it go. But she is poor and cannot take care of it. I promised to give it back if by any stroke of luck she should be able to care for it before I take it away from New York. I am hoping this may not happen.
"It may seem selfish but this other mother has the baby's father to love. I have none."
Seem selfish? Something in here surpasseth "seem." But I think we can trust that goodness will come along to set things right for the poor baby and her brokenhearted mother, and also for Billy and John. Tune in next week for — oh, can it be?! — our final installment of The Great Old News Paraphrase of "Billy of Arkansas."