“All alone in the world, Billy?”
A shade of sadness passed over his face, and was gone again, as he smilingly answered, stroking the cat that purred and rubbed herself against his shoulder.
“Just puss and me and the guitar,” he said. “The happiest of families. Ah! Music’s a great thing of a lonely evening.”
And a sense of the brave loneliness of Billy’s days swept over me as we shook his strong hand, and he gave us a cheery godspeed on our way. I am convinced that Billy could earn quite a salary on the vaudeville stage; but—no! he is better where he is, sitting there at his bench, with his black cat and his guitar and his singing, manly soul.
The twilight was rapidly thickening as we left Billy, once more bent over his work, and, the fear of “supper-time” in our hearts, we pushed on at extra speed toward our night’s lodging at Mount Morris. The oak-trees gloomed denser on our right as we plowed along a villainously sandy road. Labourers homing from the day’s work greeted us now and again in the dimness, and presently one of these, plodding up behind us, broke forth into conversation:
“Ben-a carry pack-a lik-a dat-a—forty-two months—army—ol-a country,” said the voice out of the darkness.
It was an Italian labourer on his way to supper, interested in our knapsacks.
“You’re an Italian?”
“Me come from Pal-aer-mo.”
The little chap was evidently in a talkative mood, and I nudged Colin to do the honours of the conversation.
“Pal-aer-mo? Indeed!” said Colin. “Fine city, I guess.”
“Been-a Pal-aer-mo?” asked the Italian eagerly. Colin couldn’t say that he had.
“Great city, Pal-aer-mo,” continued our friend, “great theatre—cost sixteen million dollars.”
There is nothing like a walking-trip for gathering information of this kind.
The Italian went on to explain that this country was a poor substitute for the “ol-a country.”
“This country—rough country. In this country me do rough-a work,” he explained apologetically; “in Pal-aer-mo do polit-a work.”
And he accentuated his statement by a vicious side spit upon the American soil.
It transpired that the “polit-a work” on which he had been engaged in Pal-aer-mo had been waiting in a restaurant.
And so the poor soul chattered on, touching, not unintelligently, in his absurd English, on American politics, capital and labour, the rich and the poor. The hard lot of the poor man in America, and—“Pal-aer-mo,” made the recurring burden of his talk, through which, a pathetic undertone, came to us a sense of the native poetry of his race.
Did he ever expect to return to Palermo? we asked him as we parted. “Ah! many a night me dream of Pal-aer-mo,” he called back, as, striking into a by-path, he disappeared in the darkness.
And then we came to a great iron bridge, sternly silhouetted in the sunset. On either side rose cliffs of darkness, and beneath, like sheets of cold moonlight, flowed the Genesee, a Dantesque effect of jet and silver, Stygian in its intensity and indescribably mournful. The banks of Acheron can not be more wildly funebre, and it was companionable to hear Colin’s voice mimicking out of the darkness: