At Dower House, Lady Louisa and her companion Anne received Aurelia and Millicent with evident pleasure.
“I had only just commented to Anne about how quiet things seemed today.” Lady Louisa motioned to her butler. “Tea and cakes, Hartley.”
As soon as he had gone, Aurelia leaned forward in her chair. “We have come with our suspicions, Lady Louisa. Our suspicions of what that Frenchman is up to.”
“Frenchman? Do you mean Tournell? You know he is here to paint my granddaughters.” Lady Louisa wore a look of wariness.
“Well, yes,” said Millicent. “That is just our concern.”
“You see, Lady Louisa, we have learned that he is also painting some of the village girls.” Aurelia gave a decisive nod of her head. “He has asked one to pose for him, and we saw him riding in the Rector's donkey cart with Miss Newton and they appeared to be talking in earnest."
Lady Louisa's mouth formed a concerned frown, “And you are concerned that this will interfere with his work on the portrait of Daphne and Valeria?”
Seated on a nearby chair, Anne, her hand pressed to her heart, also looked concerned at the news.
“Not exactly,” said Millicent. “But neither Aurelia nor I feel that he would be a good influence on any of the local girls, your granddaughters included. I assume they will be well chaperoned while they are with him.”
A cloud darkened Lady Louisa’s features. “I assume their mother will be with them, though I sometimes wonder about how closely Elizabeth watches over them. At times, she seems to be far more interested in her garden than in her daughters.”
Anne’s voice was thin. “You said Miss Newton was driving Mr. Tournell?”
“She was!” Aurelia could not fathom what made Anne so anxious, but there was no use pussy-footing about the situation. “Little Polly, a maid from the inn, brought us some mail yesterday. Poor little dear was confused. It seems that Frenchman asked her to pose for him, and she did not know what to do. Seeing that he is French, I advised her to be very careful and be sure that if he were to draw her at all, it should be in the presence of other people. Do not be alone with him, I said.”
“To you, Mrs. Gammersgill, an artist’s model is of questionable character?” Lady Louisa inquired.
“Not at all. Many people sit for their portraits. But as he should be occupied with working on his portrait of your granddaughters, I cannot see why he would he ask a pretty young girl, a virtual stranger to him, to pose as well.”
“Perhaps he needs a pretty girl for another of his pictures." The Dowager raised her eyebrows. "Most artists paint portraits, I have been given to understand, in order to make money. They also paint pretty pictures to show at exhibitions, and there are usually young girls in them. Perhaps that is all it is about.”
Aurelia nodded. “I sincerely hope that is the case. Polly did not mention he’d asked her to, ah, well, appear in less than her full complement of clothing.”
Lady Louisa could not help smiling. “But you, Aurelia, my dear, suspect that he wants to paint her au naturale?”
Aurelia sniffed. “I have to admit the possibility occurred to both Millicent and myself. I believe some artists like to include nymphs and goddesses in their works, some in a state of undress. I do not care for these pictures myself.”
“Of course we don’t," Millicent added. “But one never knows…” She let the conclusion of her thought hover in the imaginations of her listeners.
Anne made a little sob.
Lady Louisa gave her a cautionary look before saying, “I am under the impression that there are women in London who hire themselves for such modeling. Women of less than moral character.”
Aurelia nodded. “I believe I have read the same kind of information. In a book, of course.”
“The point is,” Lady Louisa directed her remarks to Anne. “That that is the kind of model Tournell would engage if he was interested in nudes. Not maids at a village inn or an innocent miller’s daughter.”
“I suppose so, and everything is probably above board if it is done at the inn or in the presence of other people. But if he wanted her to go with him to Major Twydall’s house, where he is using the old conservatory, I’m suspicious.”
Once the two ladies had left, Anne gave way to a spate of tears.
“My dear,” Lady Louisa said, “I do not think there is a particle of concern here. However, when Prudence comes to us tomorrow, we shall be sure to warn her.”
But Lady Louisa was too late. Prudence had already spent an hour with Tournell, an hour in which he had sketched her face from several angles, including a profile. And for which she had modestly slipped the bodice of her dress low on her shoulders so that he might capture the beauty of her neck.
And she had agreed to come back another time. Tournell assumed it would be only a matter of time before she would agree to remove the bodice altogether.
When Prudence arrived at Lady Louisa’s the next afternoon, the dowager had shed her air of unconcern. After the initial pleasantries were concluded, she peered at Prudence through her rarely-worn spectacles. “I think you are aware of the presence of a Frenchman, an artist in Bloxley Bottom.”
Neither Lady Louisa nor Anne was prepared for the blush that appeared on Prudence’s cheeks as she squirmed in her chair. “I, ah, I gave him a ride to Major Monty’s the other day. And he made some sketches of me...”
“What!” Lady Louisa’s sharp retort came at the same moment as Anne’s groan.
“I asked him to draw a picture of me, for my mother’s birthday.”
Lady Louisa settled back on the sopha, relief evident on her face. “You asked him?”
Prudence looked from Lady Louisa to Anne and back again. “Was that not all right? Did I do something wrong?”
Anne found her voice. "Where, I mean in what location did he draw you. At your home?"
"Oh no, then it would not be a surprise for Mama.
Anne grimaced, but Prudence did not notice.
"We went to Major Monty's house. Monsieur Tournell has a sort of studio there."
Lady Louisa gave Anne a warning look. "And was Major Twydall there?"
Prudence decided she could tell most of the truth. "Yes, and his manservant too." She left out the fact they had left the studio after only a few moments. "Was that wrong of me?"
Lady Louisa summoned a smile. “No, dear. But I hope you will be careful not to be alone with him. I think it is quite lovely that you want a picture for your mother. I must say, I would welcome one also, if he can make a replica.”
“Yes, indeed.” Anne said, able now to manage a smile. "A portrait of you, Prudence, would be most welcome to us."