‘And what did you do then?’ Charles James Fox said.
‘I eat them.’
He gawped at me. ‘You ate the despatches?’
‘What, all of them?’
I nodded. Fox leaned back in his chair and laughed until his belly trembled beneath his buff waistcoat.
‘I wouldn’t like to be around when you next have a shit, Basilico. Tell me, what did they taste like?’
To please him, I tried to remember. With French horsemen advancing towards me, the flavour had been the last thing on my mind.
‘Tasted,’ Fox interrupted. Correcting my grammar had been a favourite pastime during my time in his service, except on those occasions when my accent and stumbling speech could be called upon to amuse his guests.
‘They tasted…same as ship’s biscuits, except for the one on…how do you say…vellum. That made me…’ I mimed a gagging motion. ‘It was like raw chicken skin. I spit…spat out the seals.’
Fox grunted and scratched vigorously beneath his wig. ‘You’ve earned the King’s thanks, that’s for sure. Not that you’ll get it. Now, you must take great care on your next journey.’ He wagged a finger at me. ‘The King and Shelburne still wish to thwart American freedom; they are bound to try one last manoeuvre. The French will be desperate to find out.’
I knew that. I had seen it in the soldiers’ eyes: a longing to run me through. They would have done so, if not for the Messenger’s badge pinned to my cloak. The Crown and Royal shield had glinted in the setting autumn sun, rivalling their drawn swords. I had cleaned the badge the night before, taking special care with the silver-gilt greyhound that hangs from the shield; dirt tends to collect around its paws.
Fox glanced at his pocket-watch and rose from the desk. ‘Well, it’s always entertaining to hear your tales.’ He slapped me on the shoulder. ‘Even though you abandoned me for him.’ He meant the King. I knew that his joviality was only half-felt. ‘Why don’t you come back and work for me? I need protecting from my creditors, and from my constituents. The new man’s no good.’
Silently, I agreed with him. His study was in chaos: Parliamentary papers piled haphazardly on the desk, letters scattered on the unswept rug, cobwebs around his favourite Dutch seascape. This pained me.
Fox smiled regretfully. ‘No? I can but try. Ah, I forgot to ask, how is the delectable Lydia?’
‘She is well.’
‘Any little Basilicos on the way?’
‘What’s the matter with you man?’ Fox’s unshaven bulbous cheeks reddened. ‘You not getting enough? Just give me the nod and I’ll introduce you to a lady who’d only be too happy to have a burly foreigner inside her.’
‘No,’ I said, too abruptly.
Fox raised his bushy eyebrows. I think he was rather hurt. I bowed and took my leave. On Clarges Street, I stood for a moment looking up at the elegant four-storeyed townhouse that I had lived in for so many years. My two little rooms on the top floor had been preferable to the lodgings that I occupied now. But no, I could not go back.
A cold drizzle began to fall, the sort of English rain that is imperceptible at first but which swiftly soaks and chills to the core. I set off across Green Park, reaching Fludyer Street in less than ten minutes. The Abbey’s backbone loomed above the rooftops, yet the street was a world away from the grand villas and pavements of St James’s. It was so narrow that I had once seen a woman push a ladder between the top floor windows and then climb across it to visit her lover. I rented one large room from a barber who ran his business from the shop below. Sometimes I would be woken by screaming as rotten teeth were wrenched from unyielding gums. I did not mind too much. This was not home; it was a place to lay my head until the next journey.
That afternoon, my room hardly felt warmer than the street outside. A bill from Lydia’s glove-maker had been pushed under the door. I tossed it into a corner, lit a candle and sat down at the mosaic table, the one piece of furniture that had travelled with me from Milan. Its surface was inlaid with an intricate design of summer flowers, smooth enough to write upon. Although it looked out of place on my shabby floorboards, I had been determined that Lydia should not have it. I picked up my pen:
A CAUTION. Whereas Andrew Basilico, of Fludyer Street, Westminster, and Lydia his wife, live separate from each other: this is therefore to caution all persons not to trust her on my account, as I will not pay any debts which she may contract. Witness my hand,
There, that would do; even Mr Fox could not criticise the grammar. I blotted the ink and tucked the notice into my waistcoat pocket. I had kept each of my four prior drafts in the same place until damp and dog-eared, and then thrown them away. Friends urged me to publish in every newspaper, else be taken for a fool. But why should I be the one to humiliate myself in public? Besides, we were not yet strangers to each other. When she had auctioned off the contents of our house - I say ‘our’; the house was owned by her father - she had used my name. Surely then, she might regret her decision and send for me. I had pinned her auction announcement from the Gazetteer to the wall above my desk so I could see it from anywhere in the room.
The genteel and genuine household furniture, linen, china and other valuable effects of Mr BASILICO (leaving off housekeeping) at his house in Bury Street, St. James’s; consisting of four-post and other bedsteads,
(The four-post was mine.)
fine goose feather beds and bedding, pier glasses, girandoles,
(I had insisted on withdrawing the girandola. It used to stand in pride of place on my mother’s dining table. Now it lit my bedside.)
glass lustres, Wilton carpets, a variety of excellent mahogany furniture,
(All purchased by me.)
table and tea sets of china, good coppers, and numerous kitchen utensils.
They had paid me my share at least.
I went to my bed and reached beneath it for my strong box, unlocked it and retrieved my badge of office. I held it close to the candle. A faint yellowy sheen of tarnish covered the greyhound and I began to polish it with my handkerchief. I had come to realise that this badge was why Lydia had married me. She thought that it would somehow raise her up in the world, that invitations to Court would follow. Instead, she found herself married to a man who stayed away for weeks, sometimes months, on end, returning filthy, lice-ridden and too bruised and exhausted to give her the physical attention she craved. The money was good though and she had been happy enough to spend it; she still was, and that justified my hope.
I started at a brisk knock on the door, my hand instinctively reaching for my sword’s hilt. Outside stood a footman dressed in the scarlet livery of the King.
‘You’re to come at once. I have a carriage waiting.’
‘There are despatches?’
‘Yes, of course,’ the footman replied, a little petulantly. He clearly did not know.
‘I will be down shortly.’
I blew out the candle and collected my small travelling trunk. I had re-stocked it the day before with the usual items: one clean shirt and a pair of breeches, two cravats, boot polish, wig powder, a bone-handled knife and fork, a toothpick, rum in a silver flask, and my flintlock pistol, powder and shot. I pinned my badge to my cloak, checked in my pockets for my purse, watch, snuff box and writing tablet, locked the door and then descended to the carriage.
‘Where are we going?’ I shouted to the footman.
‘Buckingham House: His Majesty is with Queen Charlotte.’
The carriage backed tentatively down Fludyer Street and then set off at a canter. I stared at the sodden grass and half-naked trees in St James’s Park. Excitement built in my chest. I would soon be away again.
I had always been content on a journey, even as a child. Home had never felt like a safe place, especially as my father used to sleep with his sword and pistol laid out on the floor beside the bed.
‘Andrea, you never know when the next army will come,’ he had been fond of saying. ‘Now we have the Habsburgs; God knows who will be next. You must be prepared.’
And so I would try to escape by pulling my toy cart into the wood at the end of the lane and setting up camp, until my mother came to rescue me. Years later, I escaped again, on a ship out of Venice bound for Dover. I can remember relief surging through me as the lagoon had faded from sight.
The British King reminded me of my father. Not in looks: my father was gaunt and hook-nosed; the King, rotund and round-cheeked. They were similar in manner, both quiet, serious, concerned for their family. I liked the King. Fox had ridiculed me for it, but I had stood firm.
‘A King has a duty to stop things being stolen,’ I always said. ‘He tries to stop the Americas being taken away; that is a good thing.’
The carriage pulled up outside the southern wing of Buckingham House. The footman set off at a trot. I followed him up two flights of stairs and through three empty ante-rooms, all stripped of wallpaper. He paused before a set of plain double doors.
‘You know what to do?’
He knocked three times and I entered a large drawing room, furnished comfortably but simply, with four tall windows overlooking the Park. The King was seated behind a deep mahogany desk positioned between the two central windows. He had a pen in his hand. Prime Minister Shelburne – I recognised him from his portrait in the print shops – stood in front of the desk, watching the King’s hand intently, his thin lips pursed.
‘Are you quite certain Sir?’ Shelburne murmured. ‘There are no conditions, to speak of, in return for independence.’
‘I have no choice, Shelburne. There comes a time when a child must be set free and that time has come.’ The Prime Minister opened his mouth to speak again. ‘No, no more.’ The King glanced in my direction. ‘Ah, Basilico, come forward.’
‘Your Majesty.’ I bowed and came to stand a few steps behind the Prime Minister.
‘To business.’ The King contemplated the letter on his desk for a moment before sealing it and slipping it into a leather pouch. ‘I give this to you with a heavy heart, Basilico. It must be delivered to Richard Oswald in Paris.’
I took the pouch and slipped it inside my waistcoat. The King had surrendered. I told myself that I should despise him, but my heart was not in it. There was bravery in admitting defeat.
‘Have you heard what this man did, Shelburne?’ the King continued.
‘I have not, Sir.’
‘Tell him, Basilico.’
‘What you did with the last despatches. Go on, man.’
‘Yes Sir.’ I turned towards Shelburne. ‘I was obliged to eat the despatches, because I must save them from the French.’
The King slapped his hands down on the desk. ‘Is that all you can say? “I see.” None of my Cabinet would have shown such dedication. Now, Basilico, I have something for you.’ He fumbled in his pockets. ‘Ah, here it is. A small token….No other Messenger has two, I’m told.’
I found a silver greyhound in my palm. My eyes pricking, I managed to mumble, ‘Thank you Sir.’
‘Well then, off you go.’
Back in the carriage, I threaded the greyhound onto the badge’s loop where it hung side-by-side with the original. The new hound shone more brightly, except where smudges had been left by the King’s hands. I let them be.
I thumped on the carriage roof. ‘The road to Dover, and quickly. No, stop!’
Before I could change my mind, I beckoned to one of the bare-footed boys that always loitered outside the kitchens.
‘Hey, you want a job?’
The boy nodded. I removed the notice from my waistcoat pocket.
‘Take this to the offices of the Morning Herald, for tomorrow’s edition. Here are two shillings. One for them and one for you.’ The boy beamed and scampered away.
As the carriage set off again, a melancholy contentment came over me. I wondered what Lydia would do now. She could not marry again, not yet anyway. Her father was an attorney and no doubt he would find some way of releasing her: annulment on the grounds of abandonment or non-consummation perhaps. I would not object. If I was killed on this journey, he would be saved the trouble.
Though I intended to do my very best to return alive.
This story is inspired by the life of King’s Messenger, Andrew Basilico, based in part on contemporary newspaper reports and other records. Basilico was born Ambrogio Andrea Basilico on 30 November 1745 in Milan, the son of Francesco Basilico and Isabella Bellana. When he came to England is uncertain, but it is thought that he spent some time in the household of the politician Charles James Fox before being admitted to the position of Messenger in Ordinary in the King’s Household in 1782. Despite living through turbulent times, culminating in war with Napoleon’s France, Basilico survived to die a natural death in 1824, at the age of 78. As his newspaper obituary succinctly put it, for more than 30 years ‘he was at the capital of every country in Europe.’
The King’s Messenger badge belonging to Basilico forms part of an archive held by Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire. Two greyhounds hang from the shield, rather than one, usually seen on other badges, an acknowledgement perhaps of the exceptional risks encountered by Basilico in his duties.