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Eric Cato wiped his glasses and placed them on the pile of papers in front of him, a habit he had when feeling stressed. Handling a multimillion-pound business was enough to make anyone stressed. He looked across the polished boardroom table at his two employers then poured himself a glass of water from the crystal jug sitting on the silver tray.
"Gentlemen, as far as I can see, this brings you up to date on all your investments."
He felt quite exhausted and glanced at the clock on the wall amazed to see he'd been talking for two hours.
Eric felt like a midget compared to the two men sitting opposite. His stature was no more than five foot eight, and he had the kind of average looks most people wouldn't notice in a crowd. His hair was thin and straight, more fair than dark, but it was his rimless spectacles that gave him a studious look. He could easily be mistaken for a shy schoolteacher. He'd worked hard to educate himself to his present position. Born in eighteen ninety four in Sydney, he'd lived with his middle class parents where his father owned a corner store in North Sydney, and worked in the shop until nineteen fourteen.
At the outbreak of the war he'd tried to enlist along with thousands of other Australians, but was rejected because of his poor eyesight. As the casualty lists rolled in from Gallipoli and the Western Front he'd felt frustrated, as his efforts to enlist had been constantly turned down. He'd offered his services in any way the Government saw fit, but still his offer was rejected.
A very patriotic man, Eric resented his exclusion from the war. He was small in stature but had one of the sharpestminds in the country. He'd put his rejection to good use by enrolling at the University of Sydney and graduating with a degree in economics.
He'd attained his Degree in 1918 and by the conclusion of the war, had worked at several jobs around the country ending up in a small, nondescript accounting firm in Melbourne.
One day he'd chanced upon an advertisement in the Melbourne paper offering a job as an accountant and financial adviser for a firm called, Bailey and Stevens Holdings of Sydney. Glad of the opportunity to maybe once again work in his hometown, he'd applied for the position.
The younger partner, Daniel Stevens thought he'd be too young for the job but the senior man, Jonathon Bailey had a feeling about him. He'd seen honesty and commitment in his manner and Eric was accepted.
Eric very quickly showed his worth and with sound advice, he helped build the business to such an extent both men were now extremely wealthy. The partners showed their appreciation by paying him a top salary and a generous annual bonus. He had a big responsibility in his role of helping to oversee a large and still growing financial empire.
It had all begun over fifteen years ago and he now regarded these two men as his closest friends as well as his employers. Danny looked across at his father-in-law, Jonathon, who nodded his acquiescence, and then Danny turned his friendly smile to Eric.
"Now let me see if I understand what you've been saying to us for the last two hours, Eric. First our knitting mills are producing top grade cloth and are on a sound financial footing. Our Abattoirs are now the second largest in the State and in fact the largest in Northern New South Wales, our gold shares in South Africa are performing quite adequately and our cattle and sheep stations seem to be in very good shape. The Queensland coal deposits are turning in a good profit, but you advise us to sell off the properties in Melbourne. The other smaller companies are doing well but there's one thing you haven't told us."
"What's that?" asked Eric furrowing his brow.
"We want to know how much we're worth all up."
"Of course," said Eric, picking up his glasses again and examining the figure at the bottom of the last sheet. "The nearest estimate I can come to, give or take a million, is fifty million pounds, maybe even fifty three million if the properties in Melbourne sell at a good price."
Jonathon felt extremely satisfied as he looked with affection at the small man across the table. He remembered when Eric had started with the firm and had checked over their business procedures. At the time Jonathon and Danny were partners in a sheep and cattle station and had the good fortune to buy some surrounding properties from the owners, who were forced to sell after three disastrous drought years.
By acquiring these properties they had trebled the size of their existing station and when the drought finally broke, they'd made a killing in both wool and beef sales. Eric had suggested they eliminate the middleman in the wool industry and build their own knitting mills. The success of the mills was outstanding, and then Eric's next suggestion was why not buy abattoirs, giving them total control of their beef from station to wholesaler.
Surrounding stations made use of the premises and again the profits rolled in enabling them to follow more of Eric's suggestions including buying some gold shares. By the time the depression hit the world in the nineteen thirties, the partnership was in excellent shape to survive and had gone from strength to strength as the economy slowly recovered.
Eric had made one or two mistakes over the years, but each time his resourcefulness had enabled the firm to escape without being badly hurt, and now in nineteen thirty nine the partners were on a sound financial footing. Both men were regarded as two of the richest men in Australia.
Jonathon leaned forward in his chair and stroked his chin as he asked. "Eric, what do you know about cotton and flax?"
"Good grief, absolutely nothing, Jonathon, should I?" Eric asked. He knew when Jonathon asked questions like this one, he had something in mind.
"Danny and I have been toying with the idea of spending around one million pounds, buying up some properties around New South Wales or Queensland and going into the cotton business."
"Whatever for? It seems an awful lot of money to spend on a business you know nothing about. Until I investigate what return you may expect I can't say I'm in favor of the idea."
Danny looked at Eric and smiled mysteriously. "Do you know what cellulose is, Eric?"
"I'm afraid my specialty is economics, not biochemistry," replied Eric.
"Cellulose is obtained from plants, and cotton and flax are two plants from which it's easily extracted, and in large quantities. When you mix it with sulphuric acid and nitric acids, it turns cotton cellulose into nitro cellulose and then if mixed with ether and alcohol and pressed, it forms a colloid. Nitro cellulose is colloided with nitro glycerine, then processed to a nitro cellulose powder. Next petroleum jelly is mixed as a stabilizer to form cordite."
"That's an explosive isn't it?" said Eric, his eyes widening.
"Actually it's referred to as a propellant and is used in the manufacture of bullets and shells."
"You want us to get into the armament business?" asked Eric incredulously.
"No, we want to get into the cotton business," answered Danny.
"Then why all this talk about explosives?"
Jonathon interrupted the conversation and gathered the attention of the two men.
"Eric, Danny and I are very concerned about the present situation in Europe. We both agree there's a war coming and if England is involved, then Australia will be involved too. This country is not well prepared for a war and if it comes, then there'll be dark days ahead. Everybody will be on a war footing and each will be asked to make sacrifices. Danny certainly made his at Gallipoli in the last war, as did the entire population one way or another. We think the government is going to want access to large amounts of propellants and explosives. We feel this will be a way to fulfill these needs and make a profit at the same time. Remember we have a large empire to protect now, and we're responsible for the employment of thousands of Australians. If our boys are sent away again they'll want the support of everyone back home, and in our case, it will be by helping to supply the ammunition they'll need."
"How will you manage the farms?" Eric turned the suggestion over in his quick mind. When it came to detail, he was an expert.
"As we know very little about cotton growing, we'll have to employ competent people to handle the properties. What we want to know is, does it seem feasible, and if so, we want you to investigate the possibility of acquiring some property in the best area. It may be possible to buy the properties but keep the previous owners on as managers. We'll leave the finer details to you."
Eric nodded. "Leave it with me and I'll report back as soon as possible, it may take a month or two to sound it out."
"As soon as you can, Eric," said Danny.
The intercom buzzer rang and Danny answered. "Yes, Alice."
"Mrs. Stevens is here and has been waiting patiently for some time."
"Tell her I'll be out in a few minutes, we're almost finished."
Seconds later the buzzer rang again.
"Mrs. Stevens asked me to give you a message as she told it to me."
Danny smiled to himself. "What's the message, Alice?"
"Quote, if he's not out here in two minutes, I'll come in and show him who wears the trousers."
Jonathon looked at Danny and smiled. "You'd better go, I don't want blood all over the boardroom carpet. My daughter probably means what she says."
"Tell her I'm on my way, Alice, I haven't recovered from the last beating she gave me."
Roberta Stevens or "Robbie" as she was known laughed when she heard his reply.
"He doesn't mean it, Alice, actually it's he who beats me constantly."
"Somehow I don't believe either of you," Alice said as she turned off the intercom. She was used to the banter they threw at each other.
Danny emerged from the boardroom with his hands up in mock horror.
"Please don't hit me again, Robbie, I promise I'll be good."
Robbie walked over to him with her fist raised and then planted a kiss on his lips.
"Come on you stupid oaf we'll be late, the car's waiting down below."
Danny returned the kiss and walked out holding her hand as he winked broadly at Alice.
"Do I really need a new suit to go to an eighteenth birthday party?"
"Yes you do, it's a very important party for Peter, especially as he's leaving to go to Agricultural College next month. I know what it's like to have to leave home to go to school."
"He's a very mature boy for his age and I'm sure he's not in the least upset at the thought of leaving home."
"Well I'm upset, he's my first born and I'm going to miss him, and another thing, I'm choosing the suit. Your taste is all in your mouth. If I left it to you, you'd choose something that made you look like a country yokel."
Danny sighed. "Okay you can have your way if I can have my way."
She leaned across and kissed him lightly on the lips. "That sounds like a fair bargain to me," she said smiling, "but the car is not private enough, maybe tonight."
"Wait, I'll get Alice to put it in my appointment book."
"Like hell you will," she said punching him playfully on the arm.