Austin's action was conflict of interest in its grossest form the same conflict of interest which Alex had attacked this morning over Roscoe Heyward's appointment to the board of Supranational. Alex had asked then: Whose interests would Roscoe put first? Supranational's or those of First Mercantile American shareholders? Now, a parallel question should be asked of Austin.
The answer was obvious. Austin was looking out for his own interests; FMA came second. Never mind that Alex believed in the plan. The support for selfish reasons was unethical, an abuse of trust.
Should Alex say so? If he did, it would touch off an uproar even greater than this morning's, and he would lose again. Directors clung together like lodge brothers. Furthermore, such a confrontation would end, for sure, Alex's own effectiveness at FMA. So was it worth it? Was it necessary? Did his duties require him to be keeper of the board's conscience? Alex wasn't sure. Meanwhile the directors were watching him and waiting.
"Yes," he said, "I did refer as Harold has reminded me to thrift and a need for leadership." Alex glanced at notes which, a few minutes ago, he had decided to discard.
"It is often said," he told the listening directors, "that government, industry, and commerce of all kinds are founded upon credit. Without credit, without borrowing, without loans small, medium, and massive business would disintegrate and civilization wither. Bankers know this best.
"Yet, increasingly, there are those who believe that borrowing and deficit financing have gone mad, and have eclipsed all reason. Especially is this true of governments. The United States government-has amassed an appalling mountain range of debt, far beyond our ability ever to repay. Other governments are in as bad, or worse, condition. This is the real reason for inflation and the undermining of currencies at home and internationally.
"To a remarkable extent," Alex continued, "overwhelming government debt is matched by gargantuan corporate debt. And, at a lower financial level, millions of people individuals following examples nationally set have assumed debt burdens which they cannot pay. Total U.S. indebtedness is two and a half trillion dollars. National consumer debt is now approaching two hundred billion dollars. In the past six years more than a million Americans have gone bankrupt.
"Somewhere along the way nationally, corporately, individually we have lost the ancient verity of thrift and husbandry, of balancing what we spend against what we earn, and of keeping what we owe within honest limitations."
Suddenly the mood of the board had become sober. Responding to it, Alex said quietly, "I wish I could say there is a trend away from what I have described. I am not convinced there is. But trends begin with resolute action somewhere. Why not here?
"In the nature of our times, savings deposits more than any other type of monetary activity represent financial prudence. Nationally and individually we need more prudence. A way to achieve it is through enormous increases in savings.
"There can be tremendous increases if we commit ourselves, and if we work. And while personal savings alone will not restore fiscal sanity everywhere, it is at least one major move toward that end.
"This is why there is an opportunity for leadership and also why here and now I believe this bank should exercise it."
Alex sat down. Seconds later he realized he had said nothing about his doubts concerning Austin's intervention.
Leonard Kingswood broke the brief, ensuing silence. "Sense and truth don't always make palatable listening. But I think we all just heard some."
Philip Johannsen grunted, then said grudgingly, "I'll buy part of that."
"I buy it all," the Honorable Harold said. "In my opinion the board should approve the savings and branch expansion plan as presented. I intend to vote for it. I urge the rest of you to do the same."
This time Roscoe Heyward did not display his outrage, though his face was tightly set. Alex figured that Heyward, too, had guessed Harold Austin's motivation.
For another fifteen minutes discussion swirled until Jerome Patterton rapped with his gavel and called for a vote. By an overwhelming majority Alex Vandervoort's proposals were approved. Floyd LeBerre and Roscoe Heyward were the only dissenters.
On his way out of the boardroom Alex was aware that the earlier hostility had not vanished. Some directors made it plain that they still resented his strong stance of this morning on Supranational. But the latest, unexpected outcome had made him more buoyant, less pessimistic about his continuing role at FMA
Harold Austin intercepted him. "Alex, when will you move on the savings plan?"
"Immediately." Not wishing to seem ungracious, he added, "Thank you for your support."
Austin nodded. "What I'd like to do now is come in with two or three of my agency people to discuss the campaign." "Very well. Next week."
So Austin had confirmed without delay or embarrassment what Alex had deduced. Though to be fair, Alex thought, the Austin Advertising Agency did good work and could be selected to handle the savings campaign on merit.
But he was rationalizing and knew it. By keeping silent a few minutes ago he had sacrificed principle to achieve an end. He wondered what Margot would think of his defection.
The Honorable Harold said affably, "Then I'll be seeing you."
Roscoe Heyward, leaving the boardroom just ahead of Alex, was accosted by a uniformed bank messenger who handed him a sealed envelope. Heyward ripped it open and took out a folded message slip. Reading it, he brightened visibly, glanced at his watch, and smiled. Alex wondered why.
The note was a simple one. Typed by Roscoe's trusted senior secretary, Dora Callaghan, it informed him that Miss Deveraux had telephoned, leaving word she was in town and would like him to call as soon as possible. The note supplied a phone number and extension.
Heyward recognized the number: the Columbia Hilton Hotel. Miss Deveraux was Avril.
They had met twice since the trip to the Bahamas a month and a half ago. Both times it had been at the Columbia Hilton. And on each occasion, as well as during that night in Nassau when he had pressed button number seven to bring Avril to his room, she had taken him to a kind of paradise, a place of sexual ecstasy such as he had never dreamed existed. Avril knew incredible things to do to a man which during that original night had at first shocked and then delighted him. Later, her skill aroused wave after wave of sensual pleasure until he had cried out in sheer joy, using words which he did not know he knew. Afterward Avril had been gentle, caressing, loving, and patient, until, to his surprise and exultation, he was aroused once more.
It was then he began to realize, with an awareness which had heightened since, how much of life's passion and glory the mutual exploring, uplifting, sharing, giving, and receiving he and Beatrice had never known.
For Roscoe and Beatrice his discovery had come too late, though perhaps for Beatrice it was a discovery she never would have wanted. But there was time still for Roscoe and Avril; on the occasions since Nassau they had proved it. He glanced at his watch, smiling the smile which Vandervoort had seen.
He'd go to Avril as soon as possible, of course. It would mean rearranging his schedule for this afternoon and evening, but no matter. Even now, the thought of seeing her once more excited him, so that his body was stirring and reacting like a youth's.
On a few occasions since the affair with Avril began, conscience had trouped him. During recent Sundays in church, the text he had read aloud before going to the Bahamas came back to haunt him: Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people. At such moments he consoled himself with the words of Christ in the Gospel of St. John: He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone… And: I judge no man. Heyward even permitted himself to reflect with a levity which not long ago would have appalled him that the Bible, like statistics, could be used to prove anything.
In any case, debate was immaterial. The intoxication with Avril was stronger than any stab of conscience.
Walking from the boardroom to his office suite on the same floor, he reflected, glowing: A session with Avril would consummate a triumphal day, with his Supranational proposals approved and his professional prestige at a zenith with the board. He had, of course, been disarm pointed at this afternoon's outcome and downright angry at what he saw as Harold Austin's betrayal, though he had deduced at once the selfish reasoning behind it. However, Heyward had little fear that Vandervoort's ideas would produce much real success. The plus-effect on bank profits this year of his own Supranational arrangements would be far, far greater. Which reminded him he must make a decision about the additional half million dollars requested by Big George Quartermain as a further loan to Q-Investments.