"If you want the truth" Alex smiled "I rather liked that 'swinging banker' bit."
But the smile was false and he sensed that Margot knew it. The real truth was that the column item had jolted and depressed him. He was still depressed tonight, though he had been pleased when Margot telephoned earlier to say that she was coming. He asked, "Have you talked to Edwina today?"
"Yes, I phoned her. She didn't seem upset. I suppose we're used to each other. Besides, she's pleased that Forum East is back on the rails again all of it. You must be glad about that, too."
"You always knew my feelings on that subject. But it doesn't mean I approve your shady methods, Bracken."
He had spoken more sharply than he intended. Margot reacted promptly. 'There was nothing shady in what I did, or my people. Which is more than I can say for your goddam bank."
He raised his hands defensively. "Let's not quarrel Not tonight." "Then don't say things like that." "All right, I won't." Their momentary anger disappeared.
Margot said thoughtfully, 'Tell me when it all started, didn't you have some idea I was involved7"
"Yes. Partly because I know you very well. Also, I remembered you clammed up about Forum East when I expected you to tear me and FMA to shreds."
"Did it make things difficult for you while the bank-in was going on, I mean?"
He answered bluntly, "Yes, it did. I wasn't sure whether to share what I'd guessed or to keep quiet. Since bringing in your name wouldn't have made any difference to what was happening, I kept quiet. As it turned out, it was the wrong decision."
"So now some of the others believe you knew all the time."
"Roscoe does. Maybe Jerome. I'm not sure about the rest."
There was an uncertain silence before Margot asked, "Do you care? Does it matter terribly?" For the first time in their relationship her voice was anxious. Concern clouded her face.
Alex shrugged, then decided to reassure her. "Not really, I guess. Don't worry. I'll survive."
But it did matter. It mattered very much at FMA, despite what he had just said, and the incident had been doubly unfortunate at this time.
Alex was sure that most of the bank's directors would have seen the newspaper item which included his name and the pertinent question: Did Alex know and approve the siege of his own home plate? And if there were a few who hadn't seen it, Roscoe Heyward would make certain that they did. Heyward had made his attitude plain.
This morning, Alex had gone directly to Jerome Patterton when the bank president arrived at 10 A.M. But Heyward, whose office was nearer, had got there first.
"Come in, Alex," Patterton had said. "We might just as well have a threesome as two meetings of deuces."
"Before we talk, Jerome," Alex told him, "I want to be the first to bring up a subject. You've seen this?" He put a clipping of the previous day's "Ear to the Ground" on the desk between them.
Without waiting, Heyward said unpleasantly, "Do you imagine there's anyone in the bank who hasn't1"
Patterton sighed. "Yes, Alex, I've seen it. I've also had a dozen people direct my attention to it, and no doubt there'll be others."
Alex said firmly, "Then you're entitled to know that what was printed is mischief-making and nothing more. You have my word that I knew absolutely nothing in advance about what happened at the downtown branch, and no more than the rest of us while it was going on."
"A good many people," Roscoe Heyward commented, "might consider that with your connections" he put sardonic emphasis on the word “connections"such ignorance would be unlikely."
"Any explanations I'm making," Alex snapped, "are directed at Jerome."
Heyward declined to be put off. "When the bank's reputation is demeaned in public, all of us are concerned. As to your so-called explanation, do you seriously expect anyone to believe that through Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, over a weekend and into Monday, you had no idea, no idea at all, your girl friend was involved?" Patterton said, "Yes, Alex; how about that?"
Alex felt his face flush red. He felt resentful, as he had several times since yesterday, that Margot had placed him in this absurd position.
As calmly as he could, he told Patterton of his guess last week that Margot might be involved, his decision that nothing would be gained by discussing the possibility with others. Alex explained that he still had not seen Margot since more than a week ago.
"Nolan Wainwright had the same idea," Alex added. "He told me earlier this morning. But Nolan kept quiet, too, because for both of us it was no more than an impression, a hunch, until the news item appeared."
"Someone will believe you, Alex," Roscoe Heyward said. His tone and expression declared: I don't.
"Now, now, Roscoe!" Patterton remonstrated mildly. "All right, Alex, I accept your explanation. Though I trust you'll use your influence with Miss Bracken to see that in future she directs her artillery elsewhere." Heyward added, "Or better still, not at all."
Ignoring the last remark, Alex told the bank president with a tight, grim smile, "You can count on that." "Thank you."
Alex was certain he had heard Patterton's last word on the subject and that their relationship could revert to normal, at least on the surface. As to what went on beneath the surface, he was less sure. Probably in the minds of Patterton and others including some members of the board Alex's loyalty would, from now on, have an asterisk of doubt beside it. If not that, there could be reservations about Alex's discretion in the company he kept.
Either way, those doubts and reservations would be in the directors' minds near the end of this year, as Jerome Patterton's retirement neared, and the board reopened the subject of the bank presidency. And while directors were big men in some ways, in others, as Alex knew, they could be petty and prejudiced. Why? Why did it all have to happen now?
His dark mood deepened while Margot regarded him, her eyes questioning, her expression still anxious and uncertain.
She said more seriously than before, "I've caused you trouble. Quite a lot I think. So let's both stop pretending that I didn't."
He was about to reassure her again, then changed his mind, knowing this was a time for honesty between them.
"Another thing that has to be said," Margot went on, "is we talked about this, knowing it might happen, wondering whether we could remain the kind of people we are independent yet stay together." "Yes," he told her, "I remember."
"The only thing is," she said wryly, "I didn't expect it all to come to a head so soon."
He reached for her, as he had done so often before, but she moved away from him and shook her head. "No, let's settle this." Without warning, he realized, and without either of them intending it, their relationship had reached a crisis. "It will happen again, Alex. Let's not fool ourselves it won't. Oh, not with the bank, but with other related things. And I want to be sure we can handle it whenever it does, and not just for one time only, hoping it will be the last."
He knew that what she had said was true. Margot's life was one of confrontations; there would be many more. And while some would be remote from his own interests, others would not.
It was equally true, as Margot had pointed out, that they had spoken of this before just a week and a half ago. But then the discussion had been in abstract, the choice less clear, not sharply defined as events of the past week had made it.
"One thing you and I could do," Margot said, "is call it quits now, while we've had fun, while we're still ahead. No hard feelings either side; just a sensible conclusion. If we did that, stopped seeing each other and being seen together, word would travel quickly. It always does. And while it wouldn't wipe out what happened at the bank, it could make things easier for you there."
That, too, was true, Alex knew. He had a swift temptation to accept the offer, to exorcise cleanly and swiftly a complication from his life, a complication likely to become greater, not less, as years went by. Again he wondered: Why did so many problems, pressures come together Celia worsening; Ben Rosselli's death; the struggle at the bank; the undeserved harassment today. And now Margot and a choice. Why?
The question reminded him of something which happened years before when he once visited the Canadian city of Vancouver. A young woman had jumped to her death from a 24th floor hotel room and, before jumping, scrawled in lipstick on the window glass, “Why, oh why?” Alex had never known her, or even learned later what were her problems which she believed beyond solution. But he had been staying on the same floor of the hotel and a talkative assistant manager had shown him the sad, lipsticked window. The memory always stayed with him.