Thorne stood at the weather rail, letting the wind and spray clear his head of the brandy. One task was completed, but the rest were still before him. He hoped that the Clarkes would take the news as calmly as the Major had. Somehow he doubted it; Rockingham seemed possessed of an almost preternatural calm. He'd had the urge to shatter it with a blow, before; now his thoughts strayed in another direction. What would that smooth face look like, if he grabbed the base of Rockingham's queue and pulled him down into a rough kiss? Would his hazel eyes look startled and widen? Would they narrow in anger? Or would they close, yielding to desire? Any of those would be a welcome change, but the last one especially so.
He shook his head. Even if Rockingham shared his tastes—and he suspected that was true, given the remarks he'd made about Marcus and Alexander—it was too much to expect that a peer of the realm would want the advances of an officer who was only a gentleman by courtesy. Even if he had invited him to dinner. Even if he'd seemed, once or twice, to be studying his face with more than ordinary attention. Even if he'd invited him to address him without rank... well. They'd meet again in London, something else my lord had invited. Maybe he'd get a chance to test his suspicions then.
It was filthy city fog, not salt spray, which blew against Thorne's face as he made his way along Bruton Street. He mounted the step at Number Twenty-Six and knocked at the door.
"May I help you, sir?" The Clarkes' butler spoke the words as if helping him would be very much against his wishes.
"Lieutenant William Thorne, of His Majesty's Navy," Thorne said. He supposed he'd be saying that phrase often enough, these next few weeks. "I have a letter for Sir Henry, from Admiral Lowell."
"I shall make sure he receives it."
"I was charged to give it directly into his hand," Thorne countered.
"If you will wait, I shall see if Sir Henry is at home, sir," the butler said, closing the door firmly enough to set the crape ribbons on the mourning wreath trembling. Thorne did not fail to notice that he hadn't been asked to wait inside. Either the man had a very high opinion of the Clarkes' importance, or, as seemed more likely, they weren't inclined to welcome anyone in a naval uniform just now. If that were the case, it gave him hope for how they might take his news.
The door opened again. "If you will come with me, Lieutenant? Sir Henry will be down to see you presently." The butler led him to an empty sitting-room with no fire lit, and departed without offering him refreshment or inviting him to sit. No, there was no love for His Majesty's Navy here.
It was the better part of a glass later before a square-set man in a mulberry-coloured coat with a broad black armband came in. "What's this about a letter?" he said without preamble. "If it's the official one, we've had it already; you're behindhand. I don't care to have it again."
"I assure you, sir, this is not in the least official," Thorne said, producing the letter from his coat. Sir Henry took it, running an impatient thumb under the seal. He read its few lines and snorted in a way that could just barely be passed off as clearing his throat.
"Well?" he said. "The Admiral sends a letter to say there's news he can't put in a letter? I suppose that means you're to tell me. Out with it."
"The news is this, sir." Thorne kept his voice measured, choosing not to react to Sir Henry's abruptness. He'd had practice enough at that, in the service; command made tyrants of many a man. "Your nephew Alexander lives."
Sir Henry blinked, his expression lightening. "Does he, then. You'd best sit down and tell me more about it. No, wait—come into my study, we'll be more comfortable there. May Lady Clarke hear it as well?"
"By all means." Well. There was a rapid change, if ever he'd seen one. His earlier hopes seemed even more likely.
Sir Henry rang the bell, and a footman appeared. "Pray ask Lady Clarke to attend us in my study," he said. "And bring us some refreshments—biscuits, or cake, or whatever Cook thinks is suitable."
"Very good, sir," the servant said, and withdrew.
Sir Henry's study was panelled in dark walnut, very much in the style of the last age; no delicate gilt chairs or sofas in the Egyptian taste here, just solidly upholstered armchairs and a settee, along with a desk well piled with letters and papers. There was a tiger rug before the hearth, where a good fire was lit against the dampness of the day. That made sense; Thorne remembered Alexander mentioning that his uncle had been with the East India Company. "Would you care for a glass of Madeira or perhaps some sherry?" Sir Henry said, going over to a side table with decanters and glasses ranged on its top.
"Madeira would be fine, thank you."
"Ah, my dear, there you are," Sir Henry said, as a woman came in. It was clear she had been a beauty in her youth, but now her face spoke of as much sorrow as her black dress and cap. He handed her a glass of sherry. "May I present Lieutenant Thorne of the Navy?" She inclined her head to him, murmuring the shortest of polite greetings.
Thorne bowed in return. "Your servant, madam."
"Sit down, sit down," Sir Henry said, gesturing to the chairs, and turning the one at his desk around to face them. "The lieutenant has some news for us that you will be pleased to hear."
"Yes, ma'am," Thorne said. "Despite the admiral's official letter, your nephew lives."
"Oh!" Lady Clarke exclaimed. "Do tell us, if you please."?
"Gladly," Thorne said, but before he could continue, he was interrupted by a footman bearing a tray of what proved to be Shrewsbury cakes. When the cakes had been passed around and the footman had withdrawn, Thorne once again unfolded the tale of the compounding disasters on the Royal Oak. When he reached the events of the court-martial, Sir Henry harrumphed.
"That explains the letter we had from Birtwhistle. Knew there had to be some story behind it."