In the little shop parlour now sat a woman and her husband, at their five-o’clock tea.
“John Ashford, Grocer,” was the inscription over the shop door; and these were John Ashford and his wife Lucy. They had two children, now playing by the river side; and were, as the bargemen’s wives expressed it, “doing comfortable.”
The man’s face was a good-humoured one, round, honest in expression, and commonplace. His wife was not so ordinary; a fair-haired, small-figured little woman, she showed traces of having been a “village beauty” in her young days, of the pink-and-white, shallow type. But in her eyes, and along the corners of her somewhat weak-looking mouth, there were signs of an ever-present fear.
Even now, as she sat pouring out her husband’s tea, her habitual nervousness showed itself in the restless movements of her unoccupied hand, and the sudden start with which she would greet the slightest unexpected sound, or the knocking of a customer on the little counter. From where she sat she could see her children, and once or twice she smiled gently as she waved her hand to them, where they were playing with an elder girl who was in charge of them.
“I say, Lucy,” said John, as he drank his tea noisily, “how’s the girl going on? Getting over her shyness a bit, ain’t she?”
His wife started; but he was evidently too accustomed to this to notice her.
“Yes,” she said, reaching out for his cup. “Poor girl, she’s seen some trouble, I’ll be bound; and for one so young, too, and innocent. The world’s a hard place!”
“Yes, indeed,” agreed John Ashford, with a glance through the window, where the little group of three were playing. “Let me see, she’s been here a matter of four weeks, hasn’t she—since I went over to Walton. Rum thing me finding her at all. If I hadn’t come across the moor instead of along the road, she’d ’ave been in that furze bush still.”
Mrs. Ashford shuddered at the suggestions of his words.
“She hasn’t given us no account of herself now,” he continued in his hearty, good-tempered voice. “Not even her name, ’cept—what d’ye call it?”
“Jessica,” put in his wife. “I call her Jessie, sounds more homelike.”
“And hasn’t she told you anything more as to why she tramped out of London?”
“No, nothing more,” said his wife, “except that she couldn’t bear the crowds. I haven’t asked her either, John. She’s a good girl, you can see that; and penniless as well as homeless. I should hate to send her to the workhouse, or perhaps worse,” she half whispered. “If she’s got a secret in her heart, we’ll let her keep it, dear. Perhaps we all have a little corner in our hearts marked ‘Private,’” she added in a low voice.
“Excepting you and me, my dear!” said John, wiping his mouth as he rose from the table, and coming round to kiss her.
She started again and paled a little.