The Song of the Butcher Bird | 11 Chiddington Park
Charlton, the perfect private secretary, detached Mr Kidman smoothly from his wife and daughters as soon as they returned from their rooms to the Park’s echoing great hall. As the butler led Mrs Kidman and her daughters eastwards towards Lady Saltwood and the drawing rooms, the secretary whisked the tall Australian smartly out of sight along a gallery that led to Lord Saltwood’s offices at the west end of the great house.
“I hope you don’t mind, Mr Kidman, but Lord Saltwood suggests that it might enable you and Mrs Kidman to enjoy your stay at the Park more completely if we discuss business matters immediately.”
Sid Kidman extended his long stride down the stone flagged gallery. “I don’t reckon his lordship let’s any grass grow under his feet?”
The secretary laughed ruefully. “No sir. Carpe diem is very much our motto. Lord Saltwood believes in seizing the day.”
At the end of the gallery, Charlton opened an arched, iron-studded oak door that the Australian estimated must have weighed a good half-ton, and stood aside for Kidman to enter another large and lofty room. Did they have any small rooms here, he thought? What kind of money did it cost to run a place like this?
On initial impressions he couldn’t decide what this room might be called. Library? Study? Office? The entire wall to the right of the door was lined with bookcases. There were mahogany cupboards on either side of the magnificent stone fireplace on the left-hand wall, a fire burning despite the warm September weather. Above the fireplace was a large and beautiful painting in oils of a large and beautiful racehorse. There was a trestle map-stand in front of the bookcase nearest the window, beyond the fireplace, and Kidman noted with amusement that the map on display was of Australia. In front of the stone-mullioned bay window and facing the door stood a massive kneehole desk with a green, Moroccan-leather inlaid top. Except for two buff folders, a pen, a candlestick telephone and a bell-button, the expanse of immaculate desktop was bare. At right-angles to the big desk and close to the side wall of bookshelves on the right-hand side of the room stood another, smaller but still impressive desk, comprehensively covered with neatly squared folders, a sheaf of papers, another upright telephone speaker and handset, a large leather-bound diary, three huge ledgers and the assorted paraphernalia of a secretary to one of Britain’s wealthiest and most successful businessmen.
On the oriental carpet that covered almost the entire expanse of parquet floor, half-turned towards each other in front of the bigger of the two desks, stood two big leather armchairs and an occasional table carrying a silver cigar box and a large crystal ashtray. Charlton gestured to one of the chairs. “If you would care to be seated, Mr Kidman,”‘ said the secretary, “I will tell Lord Saltwood that you are here. He will be with you immediately.”
Charlton walked across to the middle of the far wall, pulled open a door set deep in the shelving, and disappeared into what was clearly a busy working office. Sid Kidman caught a glimpse of another male secretary standing next to a cloth-covered table where two young women were typing at an extraordinary speed on gleaming, black, metal-framed Underwood typewriters, the latest word in office technology.
The Australian visitor heard the murmuring of Charlton’s voice in the next room, his own name the only words he could distinguish against the background clatter of the busy typewriters. He had time to take a look around the room, and he stood up to admire the oil painting above the fireplace just as Lord Saltwood emerged through the bookshelf doorway. Charlton followed, pushing the booklined door closed and seating himself unobtrusively behind the smaller desk. The metallic rattle of the typewriters dropped to a muffled thumping, punctuated by the faint pinging of their carriage return bells.
Lord Saltwood strode across the room towards Sid Kidman with his hand outstretched and a smile that looked, thought Kidman, more like the expression of a bull terrier eyeing a lame cat than a host welcoming a guest. Lord Saltwood was in fact making a conscious effort to look as pleasant as possible, but it did not come naturally to a man who very rarely found it useful or necessary in his business dealings to smile at people.
“Mr Kidman. I am very glad to see you again. Welcome to Chiddington. And Mrs Kidman and your daughters are with you? Good. Good. Your son remains in London, I think. I am sorry not to meet him.” Lord Saltwood was at least three inches shorter than his Australian visitor, but stockier and somehow more condensed. He gave off a sense of barely contained, impatient energy very like the Cheltenham Flyer, and he shook hands with three precise piston strokes that left Kidman’s hand tingling with the static electricity of power.
Lord Saltwood had inventoried his guest thoroughly in the few seconds between entering the room and shaking hands, and noted his interest in the painting. “Crecy,” said Lord Saltwood. “Should have won the Derby for me in ’88. Boxed in on the rails and beaten by a short head making ground on the outside. Another three strides and he would have had it. Jockey never rode for me again. Or anyone else for that matter. You know your horses, I believe.” It was a statement, not a question.
“I like to think I know a good horse when I see one,” said Sid, with sincere admiration. “But that’s a long way out of my league, your Lordship.” He smiled at Lord Saltwood. “Mind you, I could get round the cattle pretty quick on a horse like that.”
Lord Saltwood made an abrupt barking noise that his startled guest realised some time later passed for a laugh on his host’s part. “You could indeed,” he said, “and the remarkable thing about him is that he would have let you. He was an exceptional racehorse and he sired forty-four winners for me at stud here. He died of the colic last spring, and we buried him in the park just beyond those oaks.” He gestured towards the window, and about a hundred yards away from the house Sid could see a carved headstone enclosed in smart iron railings, framed by two ancient oak trees and the view of the park beyond them.
“I’m sorry you lost him”‘ said the Australian, “although that makes him a good sort of an age. Twenty-three, if he ran as a three-year-old in ’88.”
“Just so.” Lord Saltwood looked appraisingly at the Australian. “He was a very special horse in every respect. Exceptional turn of foot and as kind as a lamb, which is not always the case with thoroughbred stallions.”
“Not much beats a good horse, I reckon,” said Kidman. “I’ve had a few over the years that I miss to this day.”
He was still gazing at the Derby winner, but in his mind’s eye he could clearly see the bony, one-eyed screw that had carried him across half of South Australia when he had run away from home looking for work. Not much in common with the shining creature in the ornate frame, but it was the first horse he had ever bought and owned himself and he’d been ridiculously proud of it. What had he been? Thirteen or fourteen? About half the age of the horse, anyway. They’d laughed at him when he walked into the Burra leading the poor old crock, but he’d traded him to a drunken bushman for ten shillings and the bushman’s new boots, and walked on north into the beginnings of his new life. Those blokes wouldn’t be laughing if they could see him now. The few that might still be alive and kicking.
He suddenly became conscious that Lord Saltwood had been watching him while this train of thought rattled through his mind, and he knew that he was dealing with a man who would miss absolutely no sign that might be of advantage to him. Lord Saltwood smiled his tight, brisk smile again. “Forgive me Mr Kidman. Why don’t we sit down? Let us get our business done, and then later I’d like to show you the Park and the stud if you are interested. Perhaps the stud tomorrow,” he added as an afterthought.
“I am entirely in your hands, your lordship,” said Sid Kidman. “You fire away.” He sat down in the leather chair Lord Saltwood had indicated and crossed his legs.
Lord Saltwood seated himself in the other chair, and placed his hands with careful symmetry flat on the arms. He looked across at his guest.
“Some people in the world can see beyond the normal horizons, Mr Kidman, and you are certainly one of them.” Sid smiled and tilted his head.
“I hope I can count myself with you on that score,” went on Lord Saltwood.
Sid smiled again and nodded his agreement. His agent in London had put together a file on the Saltwood empire very like the two he had noticed on Lord Saltwood’s desk when he entered the office, the upper of them showing his name clearly, and presumably on purpose, on the front cover. On the other file, half hidden by his own, he could make out only the letters W.M.G… which meant nothing to him. The file with his name on it was close to half an inch thick, so Lord Saltwood or his minions had clearly been doing their homework too. Knowledge is as good as money in the bank, Sid, his late older brother Sackville used to say, and he never spoke a truer word, God rest his soul.
For a few seconds the two men sat in silence, and then Lord Saltwood spoke again. “I have read your views on the development of the outback, and I agree with them completely. It is a big country, and it demands a big vision.”
Kidman nodded again.
“Let me see if I understand you correctly.” Lord Saltwood rose from his chair and walked briskly across the room to the map. Then he spoke without pause for nearly fifteen minutes, proving to his guest that he did indeed fully understand Kidman’s ambition to establish a chain of stations north to south across the Australian outback. He demonstrated that he understood in considerable detail why this would work, capitalising on the river drainage system that carried the semi-tropical rainfall of the north into the parched heart of a vast, island continent. His grasp of the detail was fluent and comprehensive, and he cited property values and stocking levels and Australian cattle market prices with decimal-point accuracy, and without a single prompt from his secretary.
When Lord Saltwood finally paused, Kidman nodded genially. “That’s about it,” he said.
Lord Saltwood continued. “You are seeking to expand your landholdings and achieve your chain of stations, and as I indicated to you in London, I lead a syndicate prepared to invest the capital to speed your plans along faster than you presently find possible.” Kidman said nothing. He had learned to say little and listen hard in London. Doing business in the capital of global finance had proved to be much more complex and Machiavellian than he was used to, but he had learned fast, and there were at least two other syndicates close to clinching investment deals even as he sat watching his host across the quiet room.
As if he had read his guest’s mind, Lord Saltwood nodded abruptly. “I am not joining Brassey and Wittenoom the Bovril consortium. I have met John Doherty and considered the Connor, Doherty & Durack proposition in the north west, but I do not think you would be selling so much of your holding in Victoria River Downs if you believed there was a serious future in the Kimberleys. But I have encouraged Brassey and the others, and I believe that at least some of their enthusiasm is due to their very vague knowledge of my interest in your enterprise.”
Kidman digested the many implications behind Lord Saltwood’s remark about the supposedly confidential Bovril land deal, but he tried to give no sign that he was in any way impressed or disconcerted by Saltwood’s inside knowledge. He had learned that the financial world in London was an impenetrable bramble patch of lacerating corporate infighting, tortuous alliances, mutual backscratching and poisonous feuds, and he knew that Lord Saltwood was one of the most powerful players in this murky, high-stakes game. It also occurred to him that Lord Saltwood almost certainly must know that the Vesteys’ Union Cold Storage Company had been sounding him out only a week earlier on the subject of investment in the north west. So he sat in silence and waited for his host to put his money where his mouth had been for the past quarter of an hour. He had no idea how much or how little Lord Saltwood was prepared to invest, but he knew he had not been invited to this colossal country house merely merely to make polite small talk.
Lord Saltwood returned to his seat and his hands returned to their places on the arms with a soft smack.
‘I am the controlling partner in a syndicate prepared to provide up to ten millions of capital over the next five years. We are not interested in the Kimberleys. Our interest is in your expansion in Queensland and the Northern Territory, and the development of the north east coast meat industry. We can provide the shipping interests and an important degree of …’ he paused for a moment, searching for the appropriate word, ‘…preference in access to the markets here in England.’
Kidman managed to keep a straight face, but his heart had jumped in his chest like a shot wallaby at the figure Saltwood had just offered. Ten million pounds? He could hardly prevent himself from leaping out of his chair and thumping his lordship on the shoulder.
“I hope that would be of some interest to you?” The end of Lord Saltwood’s sentence lifted interrogatively in a way the Australian found reassuringly familiar.
Sid Kidman nodded again. “Certainly,” he said equably, as if they were discussing the loan of a pound or two.
With a million pounds on the table the Australian minded not at all that Lord Saltwood was dominating their discussion so completely. The shipping and the market access were not significant, but the capital to buy so many more acres was another billy of tea altogether. It was enough to buy half the State of Queensland, a flash flood of money. It may also be a big enough sum, he suddenly thought, for Lord Saltwood to believe that he was buying a controlling stake in this joint venture, but the Australian reminded himself that no matter the size of his lordship’s wallet, or his desk or this country pile, in this deal the Englishman was doing the courting, and he gave no sign of the elation that flooded through him at the mention of that magical figure. If Lord Saltwood changed his mind, Kidman could find the money he needed somewhere else. It would take much longer and far more tedious bargaining, but he’d raise the money one way or another. Amongst the many, many things he had learned in England, it turned out there were plenty of potential investors tantalised by the sheer scale of his vision, the acreage in its tens of millions, the cattle and horses in their hundreds of thousands. There were other powerful men in England inviting him into their panelled city boardrooms. There were other businessmen with hefty chequebooks or big refrigerated shipping interests, and big feet holding open doors to eager markets.
Without any false modesty, Kidman believed that he was quite possibly the only man who had the knowledge, the vision and the head start to exploit the immense resources of the Australian outback to the full. He could do it without Lord Saltwood, but even a wolf like Saltwood wouldn’t stand a lamb’s chance among a pack of starving dingoes without Sid Kidman. Besides that, he told himself sternly, in his offer Lord Saltwood had used the words ‘up to’, which his previous dealings with men of finance had taught him meant the million could be adjusted downwards in subsequent negotiations, possibly as far downwards as the figure nought, so there were no chickens to count until this deal was signed and sealed. There were going to be thousands of spidery words of detailed terms to negotiate, too, thought Kidman, scanning Lord Saltwood’s equally inscrutable face across the desk. There was the matter of Lilliann Downs that Lord Saltwood had touched on the other day. There was a lot more behind this proposition than met the eye, and in any case, a businessman like Lord Saltwood was not going to commit a million pounds of investment capital without gaining as much advantage for himself as possible.
Lord Saltwood returned Sid Kidman’s gaze with a similar lack of any emotion. He was, however, irritated to find that in this meeting he felt that, perhaps for the first time in a deal of this magnitude, he was not entirely in command. He was not accustomed to discussing business deals in which he did not hold an overwhelming whip hand. Or in which he would need to ask a favour.
Lord Saltwood advanced further into uncharted territory. “As you know, I own… ah, Lady Saltwood owns a substantial property in Queensland. Lilliann Downs. We discussed it briefly in London. If you will manage it, we will include Lilliann Downs in your chain while you secure other properties in the area. I believe it is close to one of your own stations already. So as well as capital I can bring at least some land and livestock to the table.”
Kidman gave no indication of being impressed by this unexpected four-thousand-square-mile bonus, and its very handy proximity to the Townsville meatworks and shipping facilities. He suspected that it might be a sweetener for something less palatable that accounted for Lord Saltwood’s sudden awkwardness. Lord Saltwood cleared his throat. “There is a favour I would like to ask you in return. It touches on our arrangements in as far as it relates particularly to Lilliann Downs. This is a matter that has come up only very recently and it is by no means essential to our business, but I believe it would …ah… strengthen our relationship.”
The Australian raised his eyebrows and smiled again. “I’ll be glad to help if I can.” He could not imagine what kind of a request could be making someone like Lord Saltwood go beating round the bush like this. Lord Saltwood leaned forwards, and Kidman noticed the immaculate manicure of the fingers now curled over the ends of the leather armrests.
“Mr Kidman, I see in the newspapers that you are offering to take some of our London horse bus drivers back to Australia with you.” Kidman agreed cautiously that he had indeed made that offer but he couldn’t see how this might concern Lord Saltwood or affect their deal. Lord Saltwood cleared his throat again and came to the point. “I would be grateful if you would take my younger son, William, back to Australia with you. I would be very glad if you would train him to manage Lilliann Downs at some point in the future. I believe that this is not unusual in Australia. I was thinking of sending him out when he finished at the university next year, but circumstances have changed and he is… ah… this is an appropriate time for him to go with you when you return home. I would like him to be involved in the restoration of Lilliann Downs. It would be an excellent opportunity for him to make himself useful in a sphere that offers fewer distractions than his present way of life.”
Lord Saltwood finished this with another smile that Sid Kidman noticed did not reach any further north than his moustache, and he also noticed that the regular sound of Charlton’s pen taking notes at the desk behind him and stopped suddenly. The Australian looked at his host for a moment of two. Even if it really did have no bearing on their deal, the request carried some potentially troublesome implications. There was indeed a tradition of upper class Englishmen packing their sons off to Australia, and usually for the same reasons. A hundred years ago it was British judges dumping their unwanted crooks in Botany Bay, thought Kidman, and now the toffs are dumping their unwanted larrikin younger sons in the outback.
The Australian leaned forward in his chair and rested his elbows on his knees. It was his turn to blow a bit of smoke.
“Well, Lord Saltwood, first things first. I appreciate your confidence in me and my plans. You are quite right. I don’t believe the Kimberleys have a great future in the cattle and meat industries. Not until they can sort out a meatworks somewhere handy on the north west coast there. So as you said, I’m concentrating on the east and north, and with your investment we can jump ten years ahead and fill in the top of the chain in Queensland and the Territory. As you quite rightly said, that’s where the water mostly comes from, and that’s our insurance against the drought. But you’ll be aware that raising livestock in the outback is a risky business. I reckon I lost over a hundred thousand head of cattle and half a million sheep in the big dry five years ago. That’s over a million pounds worth of stock in just one drought.”
He mentioned the figure to put Lord Saltwood’s investment into perspective.
“And about ten thousand horses and the same in donkeys. Maybe a million and a half head of livestock all told. That’s a big buster to take in one year, and I have to warn you in all good faith that it’s the kind of risk you have to be prepared for in the outback. In a long drought you could lose everything. But with access to the water in the north and a string of stations down the river country we can shift our stock and beat old man drought when he comes again, which he will, no doubt about it. In the good years we can stage cattle down from the north and get the best fat stock prices for ’em in the markets in Adelaide, and Melbourne and Sydney too for that matter. And we can ship beef to England from Townsville and Brisbane at a cost that will land it here at a competitive price. That’s the picture exactly as you sketched it out just now, and your investment would make it happen a jolly sight quicker than I had expected.’
Lord Saltwood nodded brusquely and looked as though he intended to speak, but Kidman held the floor.
“As for Lilliann Downs, well, it’s a big place with a powerful big potential but pretty run down you know, right now. She needs new fencing, new yards, tanks, boreholes and the like. You’ll find the drought and the duffers between ’em have pretty much wiped out your breeding cattle too, so it needs restocking. They reckon the Lilliann Downs horses were some of the best in Australia twenty-five years ago and maybe they will be again, but there isn’t a horse on the place you wouldn’t shoot out of hand right now, if you could get close enough to it. As you say, I’ve already got a place close by to the north of yours, and I’ve got a top man running it for me, Jack Gallagher. Jack will knock Lilliann Downs into shape standing on his head.”
Kidman sat back in his chair, but once again he continued before Lord Saltwood could speak.
“Now, your boy coming out, that’s different. I’d be the first to recommend the bush as a perfect place for a young fellow to grow up and learn a thing or two. It worked for me, but I have to be honest with you. Back home we call ’em pommie jackaroos, young fellows like your son coming out from England, and the stationhands are not what you might call tenderhearted and welcoming when a pommie jackaroo comes strolling down the track. Especially a jackaroo whose father is a lord and owns the station these men are working on. They don’t take kindly to it.” Not to mention the awkwardness he could envisage having the son reporting to his father on Sid Kidman himself. “I would strongly advise you to reconsider it, Lord Saltwood.”
He placed his own hands on the arms of his chair and sat quietly to let Lord Saltwood pick the bones out of what he had said.
“Thank you,” said Lord Saltwood after a moment. “The details of the investment and the exact schedules we can leave to the lawyers and our respective business people to finalise. Charlton will put it in hand, but I am delighted that our interests in Australia are to run hand in hand.”
Lord Saltwood and Sid Kidman rose to their feet and shook hands formally across the occasional table. The Australian took his cue from his British host and sat down again without any of the back-clapping and hat-slapping that would have followed had a deal of that size just been struck in dusty South Australia, and Kidman had to be content with a mental picture of the reaction this was going to cause in Kapunda. Wally Will was going to have a flying fit at all the paperwork he was going to have to do back in Adelaide. Come to think of it, Jack Gallagher wasn’t going to be exactly dancing a jig either.
“As far as my son is concerned,” Lord Saltwood went on, “I appreciate your words of caution and I understand your concerns. But I would like you to take him out with you, Mr Kidman. March, I believe, you are planning to return? I believe it is time to see what he is made of.”
Young Saltwood will be coming to the right place to see what he is made of, thought Kidman, but he smiled back at Lord Saltwood again. “Yes, we’re booked for March.”
He took a moment himself, looking at the painting over the fireplace. Perhaps with the Saltwoods in control of the station a horse like that would stand at Lilliann Downs one day. That would be an achievement to be proud of in itself. He liked the idea of that.
Kidman looked back at the financier. If the son was anything like his father he would be a double handful even for Jack Gallagher. “I’ll tell you what,” he said eventually, “let me meet your boy and take a good look at him over the next couple of days, and then I’ll tell you if I think he’s got it in him. If he has, we’ll take him to Queensland and see how he gets on at Warrigal. I can’t say fairer than that. Is he here now?”
Lord Saltwood shook his head. “He is on his way from my place in Lopndon. He will be here in approximately an hour. I would prefer it if he does not know about this conversation until I discuss it with him myself, but in the meantime I hope you will be able to form an opinion, and we will discuss this again tomorrow.”
Behind Sid Kidman, Charlton coughed discreetly, and Lord Saltwood glanced at his secretary over the Australian’s shoulder. “Ah, yes. It is time for us join the ladies for luncheon.”
12. Two against one