The Savage Fortune
I set Aunt Minnie’s glassware down... on the floor by my left foot and... received a verbal shotgun blast of a family tale from Helen... that was actually more substantive, more revealing and ...proved over time... more accurate than I normally garner from this... rather frequent in my line of antiquarian work... ‘family saga told’. Although not rehearsed, it was clear to my ear that Helen had pontificated the tale... many times before it reached my ears.
“MY great, great.... great... OH WHO CARES GRANDFATHER was JOHN Horatio SAVAGE. ‘ONE John’ they called him. Also ‘HICK’ or ‘Hickey’. He was from Shapleigh (Maine). The Savage family had a farm up there. Maybe it’s OVER there. Anyway. He ran away from home. Actually; he didn’t run away. He just left. He was only seventeen or something. He went to Portland and got a job on a boat to BOSTON. Then he went down to NEW LONDON. ON a WHALE BOAT. Maybe it was on a whale boat FROM New London. Anyway. It was a whale boat and he was on it. Just this farm boy. Went to sea on this WHALE BOAT. They were gonna be gone FOUR YEARS or something. So there he was.
“FINALLY they found some whales and killed them. They’d tie them to the side of the boat and cut them up to haul them up on to the boat to BOIL them into OIL. WHALE OIL. They’d put it in barrels. ONE John didn’t know anything about this; he’s a FARM boy. So they said to him to go down over the SIDE of the boat and stand on the whale and CUT IT UP. Well what did he know about doing THAT. NOTHING. So he’s down there with these sharp cutters on poles and he starts cutting that WHALE up. And no one says anything to him or how to do it or anything. So he cuts that whale up just like he cut ICE on the POND at the FARM in Shapleigh. He’d cut off this long square sheet and they haul it up onto the boat deck and BOIL IT into OIL over the FIRES on the deck. He didn’t have anything to do with that; he was down STANDING on the WHALE. SO he did that EVERYDAY for months; any time they killed a WHALE he stood on it and cut it up.
“So one day after about a YEAR he goes to the side of the boat to go down and stand on the whale and cut it up. But when he gets there; to side of the boat, the second MATE is standing there in his uniform. He say ‘One John: TAKE this uniform and go aft and take a bath and put this on and come back here’. So Hickey don’t know what that’s about but does what he’s told; takes a bath and puts on this new BLACK WOOL uniform and goes back to the side of the boat. The MATE then says to him to STAND THERE at the side of the boat and TELL THE MEN down on the WHALE how to cut it up like the way HE’S BEEN DOING IT. ‘Oh ME?” said One John. ‘Yes YOU’ says the mate and ‘when it’s dinner time you come back and eat with US’ he says too. So Hickey don’t know what THAT means either so he stands there at the side of the boat and tells the men on the whale how to cut it up. Then he goes back for dinner like he’s TOLD TO. Well he’s sitting with the CAPTAIN and the MATES. The carpenter TOO. He eats with them and does from then on. AND he SLEEPS BACK THERE TOO. They tell him to bring his chest aft and STAY THERE. So from THEN ON that’s what he does; stand by the side and tell them how to cut up the whales. And stays back with the CAPTAIN. For THREE YEARS. Then they go back to New London. And he’s PAID OUT.
“He goes home to Shapleigh to the farm and SEES everyone. He has more money then they’ve ever seen. He brings them GIFTS. But he’s going back to sea with the whale boat to work just the SAME so LEAVES again. And does it again just the same with this captain and mates. He does that for eighteen YEARS with them. THEN the WHALES are getting hard to FIND and also the other boats are STEAMBOATS now. SO after all of those years they STOP hunting WHALES. But NOW he’s PARTNERS with these men on the boat AND has saved his MONEY. So these men are OLDER now TOO; older than One John. So they say to him they have money and he does too so we are going to stick together and you can stick with us too and they get an OFFICE in a building right down town here and ....I’VE BEEN THERE SEVERAL TIMES to LOOK AT IT. It’s FOUR FLOORS up in a building with FIVE floors. Right on COMMERCIAL STREET. There’s nothing there anymore. IT’S EMPTY. I just wanted to see it. So I went there.
“Anyway. These five men with Hickey stick together in this office and bet their money on business deals. BOAT CARGO, SEA VOYAGES and even WHOLE BOATS. They buy and SELL BOATS. All five of them at this table in that office. All day except when they all went out for lunch together. For YEARS. And they did well. REALLY WELL because they’d all been to SEA and understood the RISKS and KNEW ALL the CAPTAINS. When the Civil War came they speculated on TOOLS and RAILROADS. So One John sat there for rest of his life making money doing this. He died in 1871. Most of the others had already died. He built this HOUSE for his WIFE MOLLY. He made a fortune. They even had their own BANK in Boston. They MADE a BANK to put their MONEY IN. That’s how come that idiot bank is in BOSTON NOW; they got their hands on One John’s BANK somehow. I don’t about THAT. I don’t’ know how they did it. I’ve BEEN to the bank but it’s... you’d never know that it was STARTED on a WHALE BOAT.
“One John and those first generations were different. FROM the WAY I was raised. I had to find out about Hickey. I didn’t know anything about him. THAT’S because after the money was MADE the family just kept it in that BANK. There was always lots of MONEY. THAT’S what Aunt Minnie would always say; ‘there’s lots of money’. SHE knew how to SPEND it. I known now... and Mama knew...where the money came from. Hickey would never spend any money. Only Aunt Winnie spent money. SHOPPING in NEW YORK. They’d take the train to NEW YORK. And go shopping. When I was young I went too. It was fascinating; to be in New York. And go shopping. NOW things are different. And THAT was different TOO. I just don’t do it the way Aunt Minnie did. I’d rather go to Florida and be with my friends. I don’t really care about shopping. This house is already full anyway.
“I’m gonna tell you one more thing. You already know about this. It’s OVER here. “This; this house, the clutter. It’s not clutter. You know that. Eileen (the first appraiser, Part Two): She didn’t know. She didn’t know I have a bank in Boston. She doesn’t know. This; this is ALL CLUTTER to her. Well... you know it isn’t. And I’m gonna say right now that there’s a real lot of it. I even got One John’s old BOOTS. This family never threw ANYTHING out. Well I WILL. Some of it; it can’t be any good. But BEHIND THAT; all that clutter. THAT’S WHAT REAL. That chair (she said gesturing at the chair I was sitting in). That came from MOLLY’S FAMILY. How do I know that? Because Aunt Minnie told me it did. EVEN SHE liked that chair the way it is. Molly’s daughter made the upholstery. You see; this is real here. Not pretend. NOT ARRANGED like Eileen does. She’d put SEA lavender in that compote. She wouldn’t know STEW-Ben from HAS-BEEN. But if you told her... SHE’D TAKE IT. Try to make it hers. Special. You can’t. I know it. YOU know it. You can’t fake this. That’s what makes this... even if you take it all to the DUMP...: This is real. You can’t go shopping and BUY IT!”
I didn’t come back to see Helen for three weeks. I thought it would be longer. Actually... Helen was dead serious about... what she has continually called... “cleaning out”. That was fifteen years ago and ...we... are “still cleaning out some more” (Helen’s words). I have been ‘in there’ ever since this first audience (?) with Helen. That day I took the olive dishes and pair of goblets home. I told my wife the whole story. “Maybe she IS crazy” my wife said.
“I don’t think so.” I said.
My wife is now used to my trips to Helen’s. When I bought the teapots and green aperitifs (Part One), that was no surprise although she marveled appropriately at their ‘old sea captain stuff’ qualities. Helen is also why she’d put the Eileen Fisher profile (Part One) at my place at the kitchen table.
From this first meeting... to this day... as I write this, Helen has never pretended, teased or flaunted her estate to me. She is not shy or reserved around me. She makes decisions rapidly and follows through on them. She bluntly speaks her mind on every subject. I have never seen her act this way around anyone else. To every other person Helen is the OPPOSITE in behavior. No one but I, that I know of, has ever been inside Fort Helen and seen the... Savage fortune. The Savage fortune is NOT money or antiques.