When we left Bernice Babcock's 1914 temperance love story "Billy of Arkansas" on March 6 (arkansasonline.com/313series), we were standing in the foyer of a fine Little Rock home with two high-toned elderly ladies and an angry evangelist from Texas who expected to marry one of them.
Aunt Nan's quavering voice summons the culprit in this misunderstanding. "Coming, Auntie," Billy calls down from the second floor landing, sweetly.
Looking up, they see the young teetotaler come down the stairs, her shoulders gleaming bare above a low corsage. Long strings of pearls dangle from her ears, and the thin draperies of her evening gown display rather than conceal the outlines of her body.
"How do you do, Mr. Bumpest," she says, holding out her hand to the astonished visitor. "You see, I did not know you were coming tonight." Then to her aunts, "Mr. Bumpest is a gentleman with whom I have had some business correspondence. He has called to see me."
"But he said it was a matrimonial paper," Miss Nan gasps.
"And here's the document to prove it was," Bumpest answers, taking Billy's letter from Miss Nan's hand.
"Perhaps there was a little misunderstanding," Billy says, "but it can be easily straightened out. If you will excuse us we will attend to business."
IN THE PARLOR
Mr. Bumpest gazes at Billy a moment, meditating on the inscrutable ways of Providence. Refusing to understand that she did not apply for marriage, he informs her she is unacceptable, to him and to God.
"The brethren at Goose Gap never saw nobody that looks like you. I couldn't get a crumb of religion into them Texas sinners if you was sitting in the front looking like you do now. I couldn't pound the gospel into them. I couldn't shoot salvation into them with a shotgun if they once got their eyes set on your nakedness and them worldly baubles hanging to your ears."
"My nakedness!" Billy exclaims. "This gown cost $100 and I like it better than any I've got."
They spar over the significance of clothing to salvation.
"Sister, your deluded mind does not get my point. Let me illustrate. Suppose, my sister, that God Himself should come walking in that door. Cannot you experience the way your eager hands would struggle for a shawl or other covering to hide your nakedness?"
"Really, Mr. Bumpest, if God should come walking in I should not fear that his unhallowed eyes would feast on my bare shoulders. To be sure, if I had such [a] disreputable neck as some of my acquaintances have, I would show God the respect to cover it with a layer of lace. But he did a good job on my neck and I wouldn't hesitate to have him know I appreciate his work enough to let it be seen occasionally."
"Sister," he says after staring at Billy a moment, "you are going to hell. Satan has you bound hand and foot."
Billy is bantering with Ezekiel, but she also appreciates that he is in earnest.
When she suggests that his clerical collar is a "worldly embellishment," he decides to wrestle for her soul:
"Sister, your time is short. You are in the last stages. When a sinner can make no other answer to the convicting powers of the Spirit, he takes to argument. The only thing that can now reach your heart is prayer — the mighty and fervent prayer of a man of God who can cleave the sinful heart asunder by the Word and bring penitential tears. I have that power, bless God. Your soul is swinging in the balance with Satan lighting his torch and hell yawning directly underneath you. You are all but lost. And yet, sister, with your heart purged of worldliness, your nakedness covered, and holiness written across your brow, you would make a flaming torch before which Texas sinners would tremble. The Spirit leads me to pray. Will you allow this last hope?"
"How long will it take? I have an engagement for the evening."
"Let no engagement tempt you to neglect your soul's salvation. Kneel — cast yourself down in supplication," and he points to a spot on the floor before a vacant chair.
In response to his command, Billy kneels, placing her arm across the chair with her watch in sight.
For a moment she closes her eyes. Then she looks through her fingers at Mr. Bumpest. He is telling the Lord why he has come from Texas and what he has found, the peril Billy is in and what a power she would be at Bull Holler if she could be snatched from the Devil.
As he warms up to his subject, he forgets her and gets down to real work. For some minutes she listens. Then she glances at her watch. Again she listens, watching through her fingers.
He sways and gesticulates. After a while, she quietly gets up and finds the family servant in the hall.
"Dinah," she whispers. "That is a mighty man of God from Texas. He is praying. I don't know how long it will take him to run down, but I have an engagement and I'm going to wait on the porch for my escort, so as not to disturb him. He is a good man and terribly in earnest. He has come a long way on a cold trail. Set a nice lunch on for him and when he gets done telling God all those things, if he's not too weak to eat, feed him.
"It might be well to keep an eye on him meantime. So you just slip in and take my place by that chair. When he comes out of it, explain to him that I had a previous engagement for a dance."
Dinah enters the room and without taking her eyes from the mighty man of God, who is making the room ring with importunings, she kneels where Billy had been.
Twenty minutes later the end comes, and Ezekiel turns about, expecting to see the fair form of Billy prostrated and weeping. Instead, he sees Dinah staring up at him.
"Is you done?" she asks after they measure glances a moment.
"What are you doing here?" he demands when he can speak. "And where is the sinner for whose soul I have been wrestling with God?"
Dinah (in Babcock's awkward rendition of dialect) explains where Billy went, adding that she objects to his calling Miss Billy a sinner. Such dirty talk has a powerfully nasty sound in the mouth of a man of God, she says, and it wasn't Miss Billy's fault the dance arrived before he did.
"Dance! Has she gone to a dance even as I poured out my soul in sweaty agony for her salvation? She will land in hell, there is no hope for her."
Dinah tells him she does not like what he says or the way he says it, but Ezekiel insists, "The Devil is fixing the furnace for her at this moment."
Outraged, Dinah asks how he knows so much about what the Devil is doing. She commands him to shut his mouth and come to the kitchen to eat the fine lunch Billy has ordered for him.
"Eat? Eat under this room? This is the Devil's headquarters. I feel his presence in the very air I breathe. When that ungodly sinner that you call 'Miss Billy' gets home tell her she is doomed. Even tonight hell maybe her portion. ... And you, my black sister, the Devil will get you, too, if you don't leave this place."
"The Devil is going to get me, is he? The Devil going to get me," she shouts. "It's you the Devil is going to get and going to get you now." Dinah lunges at him.
Skipping away he cries, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem! And would you lift your hand against a man of God?"
"Man of God!" Dinah says with a sneer, "don't tell me a person who knows the Devil as well as you do is a man of God." And she orders him out of the house.
Next week, to her aunties' vast relief, Billy travels to Europe with her best friend from school.
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