For the Term of His Natural Life

By Marcus Clarke
723 pages

Sir Richard Devine, knight, shipbuilder, naval contractor, and millionaire, was the son of a Harwich boat carpenter. Early left an orphan with a sister to support, he soon reduced his sole aim in life to the accumulation of money. In the Harwich boat-shed, nearly fifty years before, he had contracted—in defiance of prophesied failure—to build the Hastings sloop of war for His Majesty King George the Third’s Lords of the Admiralty. This contract was the thin end of that wedge which eventually split the mighty oak block of Government patronage into three-deckers and ships of the line; which did good service under Pellew, Parker, Nelson, Hood; which exfoliated and ramified into huge dockyards at Plymouth, Portsmouth, and Sheerness, and bore, as its buds and flowers, countless barrels of measly pork and maggoty biscuit. The sole aim of the coarse, pushing and hard-headed son of Dick Devine was to make money. He had cringed and crawled and fluttered and blustered, had licked the dust off great men’s shoes, and danced attendance in great men’s ante-chambers. Nothing was too low, nothing too high for him. A shrewd man of business, a thorough master of his trade, troubled with no scruples of honour or of delicacy, he made money rapidly, and saved it when made. The first hint that the public received of his wealth was in 1796, when Mr. Devine, one of the shipwrights to the Government, and a comparatively young man of forty-four or thereabouts, subscribed five thousand pounds to the Loyalty Loan raised to prosecute the French war. In 1805, after doing good, and it was hinted not unprofitable, service in the trial of Lord Melville, the Treasurer of the Navy, he married his sister to a wealthy Bristol merchant, one Anthony Frere, and married himself to Ellinor Wade, the eldest daughter of Colonel Wotton Wade, a boon companion of the Regent, and uncle by marriage of a remarkable scamp and dandy, Lord Bellasis. At that time, what with lucky speculations in the Funds—assisted, it was whispered, by secret intelligence from France during the stormy years of ‘13, ‘14, and ‘15—and the legitimate profit on his Government contracts, he had accumulated a princely fortune, and could afford to live in princely magnificence. But the old-man-of-the-sea burden of parsimony and avarice which he had voluntarily taken upon him was not to be shaken off, and the only show he made of his wealth was by purchasing, on his knighthood, the rambling but comfortable house at Hampstead, and ostensibly retiring from active business.

His retirement was not a happy one. He was a stern father and a severe master. His servants hated, and his wife feared him. His only son Richard appeared to inherit his father’s strong will and imperious manner. Under careful supervision and a just rule he might have been guided to good; but left to his own devices outside, and galled by the iron yoke of parental discipline at home, he became reckless and prodigal. The mother—poor, timid Ellinor, who had been rudely torn from the love of her youth, her cousin, Lord Bellasis—tried to restrain him, but the head-strong boy, though owning for his mother that strong love which is often a part of such violent natures, proved intractable, and after three years of parental feud, he went off to the Continent, to pursue there the same reckless life which in London had offended Sir Richard. Sir Richard, upon this, sent for Maurice Frere, his sister’s son—the abolition of the slave trade had ruined the Bristol House of Frere—and bought for him a commission in a marching regiment, hinting darkly of special favours to come. His open preference for his nephew had galled to the quick his sensitive wife, who contrasted with some heart-pangs the gallant prodigality of her father with the niggardly economy of her husband. Between the houses of parvenu Devine and long-descended Wotton Wade there had long been little love. Sir Richard felt that the colonel despised him for a city knight, and had heard that over claret and cards Lord Bellasis and his friends had often lamented the hard fortune which gave the beauty, Ellinor, to so sordid a bridegroom. Armigell Esme Wade, Viscount Bellasis and Wotton, was a product of his time. Of good family (his ancestor, Armigell, was reputed to have landed in America before Gilbert or Raleigh), he had inherited his manor of Bellasis, or Belsize, from one Sir Esme Wade, ambassador from Queen Elizabeth to the King of Spain in the delicate matter of Mendoza, and afterwards counsellor to James I, and Lieutenant of the Tower. This Esme was a man of dark devices. It was he who negotiated with Mary Stuart for Elizabeth; it was he who wormed out of Cobham the evidence against the great Raleigh. He became rich, and his sister (the widow of Henry de Kirkhaven, Lord of Hemfleet) marrying into the family of the Wottons, the wealth of the house was further increased by the union of her daughter Sybil with Marmaduke Wade. Marmaduke Wade was a Lord of the Admiralty, and a patron of Pepys, who in his diary [July 17,1668] speaks of visiting him at Belsize. He was raised to the peerage in 1667 by the title of Baron Bellasis and Wotton, and married for his second wife Anne, daughter of Philip Stanhope, second Earl of Chesterfield. Allied to this powerful house, the family tree of Wotton Wade grew and flourished.

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