C arnival was over. February had passed, like January, for most of the fellows, in a bad dream of unpaid bills. March was going in much the same way. This is the best account Clifford, Elliott and Rowden could have given of it. Thaxton and Rhodes were working. Carleton was engaged to a new pretty girl -- the sixth or seventh.
Satan found the time passing delightfully. There was no one at present to restrain him when he worried Mrs Gummidge. The tabby daily grew thinner and sadder-eyed. The parrot grew daily more blasé. He sneered more and more bitterly, and his eyelid, when closed, struck a chill to the soul of the raven.
At first the pups were unhappy. They missed their master. But they were young, and flies were getting plentiful in the studio.
For Braith the nights and the days seemed to wind themselves in an endless chain about Rex's sickbed. But when March had come and gone Rex was out of danger, and Braith began to paint again on his belated picture. It was too late, now, for the Salon; but he wanted to finish it all the same.
One day, early in April, he came back to Gethryn after an unusually long absence at his own studio.
Rex was up and trying to dress. He turned a peaked face toward his friend. His eyes were two great hollows, and when he smiled and spoke, in answer to Braith's angry exclamation, his jaws worked visibly.
``Keep cool, old chap!'' he said, in the ghost of a voice.
``What are you getting up for, all alone?''
``Had to -- tired of the bed. Try it yourself -- six weeks!''
``You want to go back there and never quit it alive -- that's what you want,'' said Braith, nervously.
``Don't, either. Come and button this collar and stop swearing.''
``I suppose you're going back to Julien's the day after tomorrow,'' said Braith, sarcastically, after Rex was dressed and had been helped to the lounge in the studio.
``No,'' said he, ``I'm going to Arcachon tomorrow.''
``Arca--- twenty thousand thunders!''
``Not at all,'' smiled Rex -- a feeble, willful smile.
Braith sat down and drew his chair beside Gethryn.
``Wait a while, Rex.''
``I can't get well here, you know.''
``But you can get a bit stronger before you start on such a journey.''
``I thought the doctor told you the sooner I went south the better.''
That was true; Braith was silent a while.
At last he said, ``I have all the money you will want till your own comes, you know, and I can get you ready by the end of this week, if you will go.''
Rex was no baby, but his voice shook when he answered.
``Dear old, kind, unselfish friend! I'd almost rather remain poor, and let you keep on taking care of me, but -- see here -- '' and he handed him a letter. ``That came this morning, after you left.''
Braith read it eagerly, and looked up with a brighter face than he had worn for many a day.
``By Jove!'' he said. ``By Jupiter!''
Rex smiled sadly at his enthusiasm.
``This means health, and a future, and -- everything to you, Rex!''
``Health and wealth, and happiness,'' said Gethryn bitterly.
``Yes, you ungrateful young reprobate -- that's exactly what it means. Go to your Arcachon, by all means, since you've got a fortune to go on -- I say -- you -- you didn't know your aunt very well, did you? You're not cut up much?''
``I never saw her half a dozen times in my whole life. But she's been generous to me, poor old lady!''
``I should think so. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars is a nice sum for a young fellow to find in his pocket all on a sudden. And now -- you want to go away and get well, and come back presently and begin where you left off -- a year ago. Is that it?''
``That is it. I shall never get well here, and I mean to get well if I can,'' -- he paused, and hesitated. ``That was the only letter in my box this morning.''
Braith did not answer.
``It is nearly two months now,'' continued Rex, in a low voice.
``What are your plans?'' interrupted Braith, brusquely.
``I'm going first'' -- he answered rather drily, ``to Arcachon. You see by the letter my aunt died in Florence. Of course I've got to go and measure out a lot of Italian red tape before I can get the money. It seems to me the sooner I can get into the pine air and the sea breezes at Arcachon, the better chance I have of being fit to push on to Florence, via the Riviera, before the summer heat.''
``I don't know.''
``You will come back?''
``When I am cured.''
There was a long silence. At last Gethryn put a thin hand on Braith's shoulder and looked him lovingly in the face.
``You know, and I know, how little I have ever done to deserve your goodness, to show my gratitude and -- and love for you. But if I ever come back I will prove to you -- ''
Braith could not answer, and did not try to. He sat and looked at the floor, the sad lines about his mouth deeply marked, his throat moving once or twice as he swallowed the lump of grief that kept rising.
After a while he muttered something about its being time for Rex's supper and got up and fussed about with a spirit lamp and broths and jellies, more like Rex's mother than a rough young bachelor. In the midst of his work there came a shower of blows on the studio door and Clifford, Rowden and Elliott trooped in without more ado.
They set up a chorus of delighted yells at seeing Rex dressed and on the studio lounge. But Braith suppressed them promptly.
``Don't you know any better than that?'' he growled. ``What did you come for, anyway? It's Rex's supper time.''
``We came, Papa,'' said Clifford, ``to tell Rex that I have reformed. We wanted him to know it as soon as we did ourselves.''
``Ah! he's a changed man! He's worked all day at Julien's for a week past,'' cried Elliott and Rowden together.
``And my evenings?'' prompted Clifford sweetly.
``Are devoted to writing letters home!'' chanted the chorus.
``Get out!'' was all Rex answered, but his face brightened at the three bad boys standing in a row with their hats all held politely against their stomachs. He had not meant to tell them, dreading the fatigue of explanations, but by an impulse he held out his hand to them.
``I say, you fellows, shake hands! I'm going off tomorrow.''
Their surprise having been more or less noisily and profusely expressed, Braith stepped decidedly in between them and his patient, satisfied their curiosity, and gently signified that it was time to go.
He only permitted one shake apiece, foiling all Clifford's rebellious attempts to dodge around him and embrace Gethryn. But Rex was lying back by this time, tired out, and he was glad when Braith closed the studio door. It flew open the next minute and an envelope came spinning across to Rex.
``Letter in your box, Reggy -- good-bye, old chap!'' said Clifford's voice.
The door did not quite close again and
the voices and steps of his departing friends came echoing back as
raised a black-edged letter from the floor. It bore the postmark:
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