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OLD NEWS: Billy of Arkansas gets swept off her feet and does not like it one bit

by Celia Storey | May 15, 2023 at 2:23 a.m.

Part 14 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:

Continuing our trek here through Bernie Babcock's 1922 ... oh, let's call "Billy of Arkansas" a novella. Today we come to a moment of romantic peril.

Our impetuous heroine, Billy Camelton, has spent a month in New York with schoolmate Jane Bierce and Jane's brother. Billy sees the idle rich wrapped in ermine and blazing with diamonds squandering fortunes uptown, while on the East Side, the toiling poor exist in disease-breeding tenements, on bread bought by the penny.

Herself at ease on Fifth Avenue and upper Broadway, Billy finds these contrasts glaring, bewildering and inhuman.

Meanwhile, John Bierce is studying her.

He dislikes her intensely during a dinner party when she teases and mocks the new rector of the church where John is vestryman. The conversation starts with an invitation to Sir Winfield Burton's new yacht but then veers sharply to women's suffrage and from thence into war and child labor.

"Jane is getting ready to make a speech about child labor or wage slavery," John Bierce observes.

"And are you getting ready to defend both?" she answers.

"You don't mean," says Billy, "there's a civilized person living who would attempt a defense of child labor, do you?"

"Yes — John over there," Jane says, nodding his way.

"To be fair, Jane," John says, "we must always remember that theories and conditions are not the same. It would be well if all children could play with dolls in fields of daisies, but the world is not built on an ideal plan. Pseudo-reformers wax hysterical about child labor. I maintain it is better for children to work, and to work hard, than grow up on the street as such children would otherwise do. The fact that children have a part in the world's work is itself a sign of civilization. There was a time, you recall, when babies were bred by mistresses for their lords to feast on at banquets."

Billy studies him with unconcealed perplexity and disgust. "So," she says, "the only evidence of civilization you can discover in the child labor problem is that changed opinion makes it now seem barbarous to devour them at banquet tables? Again comes the question of choosing how we shall be devoured. Would you mind telling me just how much more humane it is to roast a child before consuming it, than to consume it on the installment plan by microbes spread of poverty and disease? For my part, kill me at once and eat me after death, but don't let me be living while the painful process of devouring my life is going on."

They also clash over labor unrest in which mine owners' gunmen attacked strikers. John sees anarchy in strikers' violations of law and order; Jane and Billy see the mine owners' creation of their own thug-armies as anarchy.

John is a cannibal and an anarchist, Billy says.

Jane laughs. John frowns.


But after a couple of weeks, he asks Billy to a "character ball" — a costume party. Billy decides she will be Cleopatra and John will make a splendid Antony. Besides being intellectual, he was an athlete at Yale.

But before that ball, they go skating in Central Park. As Billy describes it in a letter to the Bishop back home in Little Rock: "I never felt so well in my life nor so happy. I forgot all about wailing infants on the East Side and dead love affairs and lived -- lived."

And they go sledding. Having an uproarious good time, she is on front of the sled with John Bierce behind, steering, when someone bumps them, throwing her off. Her ankle is run over by another sled.

John picks her up.

"You cannot imagine how strong that man's arms are," she writes to the Bishop. "Thinking maybe he could carry me easier, I put my arms around his neck. 'Poor little girlie,' he said in my ear. 'Does it hurt very much?' And then, Bishop, I'm ashamed to confess it but I hid my face against his sweater and cried."

It wasn't that her leg hurt: "Nobody has picked me up as he did and been sorry for me since my granddad went away, and he seemed so strong, so sincere, so honest, I felt little and trustful. He called a taxi and a doctor and they made quite a lot of senseless fuss over it. Since then, I have been upstairs having the time of my life for John Bierce has been a cavalier, a granddad, an angel and everything else nice."

She adds that she's ready to say not every man is a liar because even though he doesn't like her, John is truthful.


On the night of the costume party, John attends solo but promises to return early to give Billy all the gossip. She's not to move, he says. But Billy decides she will assert her independence by meeting him downstairs in the library.

When John comes in from the ball, Billy is crooning a lullaby to herself. And then she sings "The Rosary." Composed in 1898 by Ethelbert Nevins and Robert C. Rogers, this is an art song exalting romantic love — not God or religious beads. It's about the grief of being parted from a lover (see Extra Credit! below). Perry Como sang a nice version:

Quiet as a statue, John stands behind the curtain and is transported beyond admiration by a strange, half-fierce tenderness. Here is a new Billy, singing a heart song for somebody. He wonders who. John feels ... jealous.

Stepping behind her, he waits until she finishes and then puts his hand on her shoulder to say, "Thank you, Billy. One such song is worth a season of Grand Opera. Sing again."

She's startled out of her skin. "Turn on the light!"

As he reluctantly turns up the light, Billy hurries into, "In Dixieland, where I was born ..."

"That's good," he says, "but it is sentiment that grips the heart." She says Dixie is sentimental where she comes from; and then they're arguing about music.

Finally he asks how she got downstairs.

"What do you think I am, a ball? A bird? I walked down — that is — part of the way. The rest I came on the balustrade."

"You walked on your foot?"

"Yes, why not? There has been a lot of fuss made about a very insignificant matter." She says she only cried because "it made me utterly lonesome to be picked up in strong arms. Nobody has done it since my granddad went away. I've had lovers always expressing sympathy at a sneeze and sending me roses and chocolates if I had a headache, but you are no lover. You are just comforting, like granddad. So if you will, forgive me, and forget you ever thought my foot was much hurt? I'll feel obliged."

"So I'm still making you think of your grandfather, am I?"

He informs her he will carry her back upstairs.

"Don't speak in that tone of voice to your grandfather," he says, and sweeps Billy up over her protests.

At the door of the sitting room, he pauses to look into her face. Her cheeks are flushed and her eyes bright. She is angry.

"I have carried you upstairs and your feet are not yet on the floor," he says.

"Just to show what you can do," she says indignantly. "But remember, there is a hereafter for this kind of an affair."

"Little girls should not pout," he says. He kisses her on the mouth, and pushing the door open, sets her down in a wide chair.

"You will sit there now," he says. "There is really nothing else to do since you can neither escape, murder me or commit suicide."

"This treatment is outrageous."

He calls her "a funny little grandchild. ... I will ring for lunch now and then tell you about the party, a lonesome place for Antony because Cleopatra's ankle was run over by a fat man in the shadow of the obelisk."

When he returns, she is leaning back. "Are you tired, Billy?"

"Disappointed," she says. "Disappointed in you, John Bierce. I thought you were an honorable man, one who would not take advantage of a cripple or a sick person or a woman half your size. I am greatly disappointed in you. I had come to believe in you.

"And now you have spoiled everything."

I can see what she means, too.

Next week, unhappy Billy steals a poor woman's baby. I kid you not.


Here are the lyrics to the song Billy sings, “The Rosary”  by Robert Cameron Rogers

  • The hours I spent with thee, dear heart
    Are as a string of pearls to me;
    I count them over ev’ry one apart,
    My rosary, my rosary!
    Each hour a pearl, each pearl a prayer
    To still a heart in absence wrung:
    I tell each bead unto the end,
    And there a cross is hung!
    O memories that bless and burn!
    O barren gain and bitter loss!
    I kiss each bead and strive at last to learn
    To kiss the cross, sweetheart, to kiss the cross.

[To read Part 15, see]

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Print Headline: Billy talks, Jane laughs, John frowns


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