'For troubles wrought of men,Patience is hard.'—J. Ingelow.
The firelight shone upon a comfortably-furnished drawing-room in one of the quiet London squares, and upon four girlish figures grouped around a small tea-table. Agatha Dane, the eldest, sat back in her chair with a little wrinkle of perplexity upon her usually placid brow. Rather plump and short of stature, with no pretensions to beauty, there was yet something very attractive in her bright open countenance; and she was one to whom many turned instinctively for comfort and help.
Gwendoline, who sat next her, and was doing most of the talking, was a tall, slight, handsome girl, with dark eyes that flashed and sparkled with animation as she spoke, and there was a certain stateliness of carriage that made some of her acquaintances term her proud.
Clare was toying absently with her spoon and tea-cup; she was listening, and occasionally put in a word, but her thoughts were evidently elsewhere. She had not the determination in her face that was Gwendoline's characteristic; and perhaps the varying expressions passing over it, and so transparent to those who knew her, formed her chief charm. There was a wistfulness in her dark blue eyes, and a look of expectation that one longed to see fulfilled; and her dreamy preoccupied manner often made her friends wonder if she spent all her time in dreamland.
Elfrida sat on the hearth-rug with her sunny hair glistening in the firelight. She was the youngest and prettiest of the four, and had only just returned from Germany that same day. It was her eager questioning that was making them all linger over their tea.
'But I don't understand,' she said, a little impatiently. 'How does Cousin James happen to be here at all? Aunt Mildred never cared for him. She said last year when I was home that he was a regular screw, and that he only came on a visit to save his housekeeping bills. Now I come back and find dear Aunt Mildred gone, and he in full possession of our home, ready to turn us out to-morrow, you say! Aunt Mildred always told us we should never want after her death.'
'We shall not actually do that,' said Agatha quietly, 'for she has left us a legacy each, which will at any rate keep the wolf from the door.'
'But hasn't she left us Dane Hall? She always said she would.'
'No; a codicil to that will has been added since James has been here.'
'Yes; he has managed it beautifully,' put in Gwendoline, with scorn in her tone. 'He came down here directly he heard she was ill, and established himself in the dressing-room next to hers. Clare has been away, but Agatha and I were virtually shut out of the sick-room from the time he entered the house. He got a trained nurse; said Agatha was worn out, and must rest; and told Nannie she was too old and too near-sighted to be left alone with her mistress. The poor old soul has been weeping her eyes out since! Then he took advantage of Aunt Mildred's state of weakness, and worried and coaxed her into making this unjust codicil....