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DAVID WRIGHT O'BRIEN
(WRITING AS JOHN YORK CABOT)

MARLOW'S MALICIOUS MIRROR

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RGL e-Book Cover 2019©


Ex Libris

First published in Fantastic Adventures, December 1942

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2019
Version Date: 2019-07-22
Produced by Paul Sandery, Matthias Kaether and Roy Glashan

All original content added by RGL is protected by copyright.

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Cover Image

Fantastic Adventures, December 1942, with "Marlow's Malicious Mirror"



Illustration

"Look!" he said harshly. "How do you explain that?"



This mirror couldn't be trusted. It couldn’t keep secret
the things that were mirrored in its shiny depths...!




THE messenger boy looked up briefly at the small, ultra swanky lettering on the ornate, solid-glass door.


BENNET-HASTINGS & CO.


He sighed, then pushed his peaked cap defiantly back on his red locks, picked up the manila-wrapped, three-by-five package at his feet and strode breezily into the lavish, thick carpeted reception room beyond the door.

"I gotta package," he told the girl in the switchboard cubicle, "fer a Mister Scott Marlow. He work here?"

The girl at the board smiled. "Put it down, sonny. I'll sign for it."

Scott Marlow, Advertising and Promotion Manager for Bennet- Hastings and Company, sat at his very wide desk it his very big office and doodled worriedly with a crayon on a scratch pad.

Marlow was a tall, wide-shouldered man in his early thirties. His hair was dark, with the faintest sign of premature gray at the temples, and his friendly, regular features and clean gray eyes were at the moment wearing an expression of sober contemplation.

When the trim, lovely, blonde young woman in the tailored gabardine suit walked in, Marlow looked up sharply, startled out of his moody concentration.

"Eh, oh, Joan," he said. Damn, how I love you, he thought.

"That letter to Oberman and Company, Mr. Marlow," Joan Kenny reminded the boss. She held a shorthand pad and pencil in her hand.

"Oh," Scott Marlow said. "Oh, yes. That's right."

Joan Kenny took a chair on the other side of the desk, put the pencil to the ready pad, and looked up expectantly. Poor, poor, Scott, she thought. That she-wolf wife of his is driving him insane. It wouldn't be so bad if I didn't love him so!

Marlow cleared his throat and looked up at the ceiling. If I look at her directly I'll blurt out everything I feel about her. What a hell of a mess this is, he thought.

Clearing his throat a second time, Marlow still looking at the ceiling, flushed.

"What was that letter about, Joan?" he asked embarrassedly.

"Their contemplated national promotion scheme," Joan Kenny reminded him patiently.

"Oh yes. That's right, isn't it?" Marlow said. Her voice is like cool, clear little bells, he thought.

It was fully a minute before Marlow realized he'd been off in another fog, and then he looked down quickly, flushing still more deeply.

"Dear sirs," he said hastily.

That was as far as he got. A knock sounded at that instant on his oak paneled door. Grateful for the interruption Marlow swung slightly in his chair.

"Come in," he called.

An office boy entered, bearing a large three-by-five package wrapped in heavy manila paper.

"This arrived a few minutes ago for you, sir."

Marlow's dark eyebrows went up a notch in surprise.

"For me?"

"Yessir."

"That's funny," Marlow observed. He rose and walked around his desk, past lovely Joan Kenny. "I didn't expect any package."

The boy held onto the package as though his curiosity wouldn't permit him to release it.

"You can leave it here, Johnny," Marlow said.

The boy flushed and left the room.

Marlow had his hands on the package and it rested on one thin edge on the floor. Curiously, he inspected the lettering on it.

"For me all right," he said aloud. Then he grinned. "Well, I'll bet—Sure that's it. It's from old Julius Wolcott. I'll bet it's a picture."

Hastily, Marlow tore the wrappings from the package. Then, less than a minute later he was lifting it to his desk and propping it against the wall. The object proved to be a shining, antique mirror.

"Well I'll be damned," Marlow said. "I'll be damned."

"You've heard me mention old Julius Wolcott, Joan," Marlow was saying as he stood back to appraise the antique mirror. "He had an art studio here in town. He was a dealer, y'know. I used to buy a lot of things from him."

"There's a note in the wrappings," Joan Kenny observed.

Marlow went over and retrieved it. "That's right." He tore the envelope open and pulled out a sheet of paper. "Dear Scott," Marlow read aloud. "This is just a little something I dug up in a deserted attic. Thought you'd like it. Traced it back to find it once hung in the palace of Henry the Eighth. Don't try to send me a check for it. It's a gift."

Marlow shook his head. "Old Julius is in Philadelphia now," he mused. "Damned decent of him to remember me like this."

"I'll make a memo for you to thank him," Joan Kenny said.

Marlow nodded, abstracted by the mirror. "It's a fascinating thing, isn't it?"

"It seems very old," Joan Kenny answered tactfully.

Marlow forgot himself enough to grin. "I don't blame you for not being wild about it, Joan. I've always been a sucker for any antique. My house is full of 'em. This'll go wonderfully well in the drawing-room."

Joan Kenny was silent.

"Come around here and get a better look at it," Marlow invited.

Joan Kenny rose and started around to where the mirror was propped on the desk. The throw rug on the waxed, cork flooring took that instant to slide out from underfoot. Joan's foot.

Joan gave a sharp cry and threw out her arms in an attempt to regain her balance. And Scott Marlow moved instinctively to prevent her impending fall.

They found themselves hanging together in a mutually accidental embrace some five seconds later.

Marlow, arms around the girl, was suddenly, overpoweringly aware of the circumstances into which the near-accident had placed him. Joan's body was soft in his arms, and the scent of her perfumed hair frighteningly near to being irresistible.

It was then that they both turned to meet each other's glances, and found themselves gazing at their reflected embrace on the surface of the antique mirror.

Marlow released the girl quickly, shakily, then, after making certain she had regained her balance.

There was a wordless interval in which they regarded one another somewhat breathlessly.

"My," Marlow managed, drawing a deep breath, "My, that was close, wasn't it?"

"It was," Joan agreed. "It was very close." Her blue eyes shaded the meaning of her tone.


MARLOW reached for a handkerchief and mopped his brow.

Then, with hands that trembled, he lighted a cigarette.

"They shouldn't wax these floors so heavily," Marlow said in a poor attempt at a casual comment.

"I—I'll make a memo to that effect," Joan Kenny declared softly. "Shall we get on with the letter?"

"I think," said Marlow a trifle thickly, fumbling with his cigarette lighter as he endeavored to put it back in his pocket, "that we might as well put it off until tomorrow."

Joan Kenny watched him wordlessly.

Marlow ran a finger under his collar uncomfortably. "You have the notes and data for Mr. Bennet tonight after the dinner at my home?"

Joan Kenny nodded. "They're all prepared."

Mr. Bennet was the President of the firm, his original partner, Mr. Hastings, having been dead some fifteen years. Mr. Bennet was generally not around, confining himself almost exclusively to the New York office, of which this ornate establishment was just a branch.

"The dinner is at seven," Marlow said.

When Mr. Bennet passed through town, or stopped in on a branch office—even if it were the most important branch office—it was just as if God, with wrath in one hand and promotions in the other, had deigned to drop in at the factory of his heavenly employees. And the reason for Mr. Bennet's being in town on this particular occasion was his desire to talk with Scott Marlow about a move that might mean a substantial promotion to him.

"I won't be late," Joan Kenny promised.

Mr. Bennet generally liked to be entertained in the homes of his more important employees, and though Scott Marlow was not the most important employee in this branch, Bennet had hinted that he would like to discuss the new scheme at Marlow's home. He had advised, too, that Marlow bring his secretary along to handle what business they transacted after supper. Hence the inclusion of Joan Kenny.

"You'll be ready to get there all right in a taxi?" Scott Marlow asked the girl.

"Of course," she said. "But it's four now, and I'll have to dress for dinner."

Marlow crimsoned. "I'm sorry. That never occurred to me. Take what little there's left of the afternoon off. I'll see you at my house."

Joan Kenny nodded, turning to leave.

"Joan," Marlow said suddenly.

The girl turned, looking at him levelly. "Yes?"

Marlow seemed to choke. "Tell the office boys to wrap up this mirror and have it sent out to my house immediately, will you?"

Joan nodded. "I'll tell them on my way out," she promised.

Marlow watched her leave, a sick futility in his heart. His expression suddenly became one of wrathful self-condemnation.

"Damn Natalie!" he exploded.

Natalie was Scott Marlow's wife....


ALTHOUGH it was five o'clock when Marlow left the office, and his suburban home was but twenty-five minutes away in his roadster, nevertheless it was almost six-thirty when he pulled up into the driveway of his somewhat expensive residence.

The additional hour had been passed in a bar several blocks from the office, where Marlow had downed five scotches in solitary bitterness and with no noticeable effect.

Natalie, his wife, met him at the door. She'd evidently been waiting for him.

She was an attractive woman with a sultry body, raven black hair, and a sensuous, predatory red mouth. She had already dressed for dinner, and her gown, as well as her careful grooming, showed no little thought and some expense. Her eyes were so brown as almost to be black, and now they were flashing angrily.

"Rumpotting again, eh dear?" Natalie greeted him.

Marlow didn't bother to reply. He took in the almost artificial perfection of her appearance, and mentally decided that Natalie would consider herself no little factor in successfully molding Mr. Bennet into an amiable frame of mind tonight.

It was Natalie's constant, though highly inaccurate, assertion that whatever business and financial success Scott Marlow had achieved was due to nothing more than her own acumen and inspiration on his behalf. Certain it was that, from the moment they married, she had started an endless, nagging comparison between Marlow's position and the position of the wealthier friends they knew. And no matter what success Marlow achieved, the nagging never ceased. There were always wealthier friends with whom she could compare him. For her goal was money and all that it could buy; even if the gaining of that sought-for fortune meant driving her spouse to an early grave.

Marlow had known from almost the second year of their marriage that Natalie had never loved him. Her attraction to him had been merely one of shrewd evaluation of his potential ability to rise high in the world of prestige and wealth.

But, stubbornly at first, he had tried to hang on, tried to make a go of the one thing in his life in which he'd failed. For six years, grimly, resolutely, he had tried to fashion in Natalie the girl he thought he'd married. And at the end of that time he found himself loathing her, waiting and watching for her to give him just one chance to obtain his freedom.

And in this past year, wanting his freedom had become an aching, terrible thing. For now there was Joan. Joan, whom he loved yet dared not love, until he was free of this bitter hell with Natalie.

Now Marlow took his eyes from his wife and stepped past her into the drawing-room where he removed his coat and fished for a cigarette.

He was lighting his smoke when Natalie followed him into the drawing-room, intent on continuing her one-sided quarrel.

"If you'd spend less time slopping around in bars, Scott Marlow," she said waspishly, "you'd have a clearer head for your business."

"You might point that out," Marlow said wearily, "to Bennet when he comes for dinner tonight." He sank down into an armchair.

"It's a wonder he hasn't found it out for himself by now," Natalie snapped.

Marlow, however, hadn't heard her. He was looking across the room at the antique mirror he'd had sent out. It had been hung just above a wall table to the right of the sofa.

"When did that arrive?" he asked.

Natalie's glance shifted from her husband to the mirror.

"Over an hour ago," she said. "That seemed to be the only place to put it. I wish you wouldn't clutter up the place with any more antiques."

"Julius Wolcott sent it to me as a gift," Marlow said, merely to keep the conversation on this new tack. "It's supposed to have hung in the palace of Henry the Eighth."

He could see Natalie making a mental note of that. She invariably sought to give the impression that her husband's art and antique collections were but the result of her own cultural perceptions. He knew that she would draw Bennet's attention to it casually that evening.

"Well if you bring in any more junk we just won't have room for it," Natalie declared.

Marlow didn't answer. He studied the mirror another moment and turned his glance away. It was then that he saw the framed photograph on the bookcase. He looked at it in open-mouthed amazement.


IT was an abominable picture of Mr. Bennet, wearing fisherman's hip boots, a weatherbeaten fedora, a flannel shirt, and a broad, beaming grin. In his right hand he held a fishing rod, and in his left a net. The photograph was loudly colored.

Marlow rose deliberately, crushing out his cigarette in an ash tray by his chair.

"Where in the hell did that come from?" he demanded quietly.

"It arrived today," Natalie told him. "Mr. Bennet sent it himself; a gift, I supposed."

"And what in the hell is it doing here in the living-room?" Marlow demanded coldly.

"Have you forgotten," Natalie said frigidly, "that Mr. Bennet is going to be our dinner guest tonight?"

"Take that down and bury it in some drawer," Marlow told her. His lips were set in a tight line.

"Are you crazy?" Natalie's voice rose shrilly.

"You heard what I said!"

"That will stay just where it is. If you haven't brains enough to know diplomacy when it hits you in the face, I have!" Natalie moved swiftly over to the picture, as if to protect it.

"I'll have no such stinking hypocrisy in my house!" Marlow blazed. "And if that damned old coot has the insufferable gall to expect me to decorate my living quarters with his image he can go straight to hell!"

Marlow stepped quickly to the bookcase, and Natalie moved swiftly between her husband and the photograph.

"You'll throw away a promotion and a ten thousand dollar raise for your lousy sense of moral integrity?" Natalie asked between clenched teeth. "Oh, no you won't. Not if I have anything to say about it!"

Marlow grabbed his wife roughly by the shoulder and spun her away from the bookcase. He grabbed up the photograph and, holding it in one hand, glared down at it in white rage.

"I've never licked boots to get along in this world yet. I don't intend to begin now," he said with restrained fury.

Natalie, rubbing her soft white shoulder where Marlow's hand had left red prints, looked at him wide-eyed, but said nothing. She had never seen him so furiously enraged.

Marlow strode across the drawing-room, still holding the picture and glaring down at it wordlessly. Passing the couch, he paused, and as if acting on an instant decision, brought the picture smashing down on his knee, shattering the glass in the frame.

Then he tore the photograph itself loose, and determinedly ripped it to shreds. Face still white and mouth grim, he let the fragments flutter to the rug.

"Have the maid clean up this mess," he said evenly. "I'm going upstairs to dress for dinner."

Wordlessly, Natalie watched him stride out of the drawing- room. Her expression was half of fright and half of wonder....


WHEN Marlow returned to the drawing-room it was ten minutes to seven and he carried a highball in his hand. He had changed to a dinner jacket.

Natalie had been standing by the French windows at the end of the room, smoking a cigarette. She turned as she heard him enter. Her expression suggested that she had decided her husband needed to be put back in his place.

"I didn't like that nasty scene," she declared, her eyes moving accusingly to the drink in his hand.

Marlow took a gulp from his drink, moving over to the wall table on the right of the couch. He put down his drink and began to adjust his tie before the antique mirror over the table.

"Did you hear what I said?" Natalie demanded, her voice rising a note.

Marlow continued to adjust his tie. He answered his wife as he did so.

"Now seems to be just as good a time as any to tell you I want a divorce," he said quietly. "I'm sick of this hypocrisy."

He heard Natalie's sharp intake of breath.

"What did you say?" Her voice was suddenly harsh.

"I want my freedom. You don't love me; you never have. This can't go on any longer." Marlow patted his tie and picked up his drink. He turned to face her, leaning back against the wall table.

Natalie's expression was one of shocked incredulity and mounting rage.

"So," she said venomously, "you've been playing around with some other woman, eh?"

"I was afraid," Marlow said dryly, "that that would be the only reason to occur to you. No. I haven't. Foolishly or not, I've been quite faithful to you, Natalie. Too faithful."

"What do you mean by that?" There was a sudden, unreadable expression in her dark eyes.

"Nothing," Marlow said, "except that I'm through."

The fleeting, unfathomable expression left Natalie's eyes. A look of shrewd cunning crossed her features. "I get it," she said. "You're dropping me by the wayside now that you expect to move into the forty thousand dollar a year class. I've been responsible for every last cent you've made. When I married you you didn't have a dime!"

"You're being a trifle melodramatic," Marlow reminded her quietly. "I was making several hundred a week at the time we married, with excellent prospects for the future. Unfortunately, you were well aware of those prospects, Natalie. You tied your wagon full of greed to a fairly certain star."

"You louse!" Natalie said shrilly. "Do you think I'm crazy? If you try to divorce me I'll take every last cent you've got. I'll ruin every last shred of your reputation!"

"I was going to suggest," Marlow said levelly, "that you divorce me. Bring whatever charges you care to. I won't contest it. And as for alimony, you won't suffer."

"Alimony, hell!" Natalie spat. "I'm not going to divorce you. I'm not that mad, just when your really big chance is coming. And as for your Little Lord Fauntleroy gesture, keep it. You haven't a chance of getting rid of me unless I want it that way. And I'm sticking around!"

Marlow's lips were set, now, and there was a whiteness around his mouth.

"I was afraid that was the way you'd want to play it," he said in sick anger. He downed the rest of his drink in one gulp, and placed it on the table behind him. He looked up to see a complete change in Natalie's expression. She seemed to be staring over his shoulder, her eyes startled and incredulous.


MARLOW whirled, and found himself gazing at the surface of the antique mirror. His jaw went slack, and he drew in his breath in sharp amazement.

For there, reflected in the mirror, was not the image of the drawing-room and Natalie and himself. Instead, Marlow stared incredulously at a background that could belong only to his own office. And against that background, locked in what seemed to be an embrace, were the images of himself and his secretary, Joan Kenny!

Fully half a minute passed while Marlow gaped in numb horror at the scene portrayed on the antique mirror. And then he whirled to face Natalie.

Her eyes were venomously cold, and the expression on her face was one of savage gloating.

"So you've been faithful, eh Scott? You haven't another woman in mind, eh?" she grated harshly. "No one but that little trollop of a secretary at your—"

"Don't mention her name!" Marlow blazed, swept by a sharp white heat of rage. "In spite of what your rotten little mind is thinking, she doesn't even suspect I care for her. And while we're on the subject I might as well admit that I do love Joan Kenny. Do you understand that? I do love Joan Kenny!"

Natalie laughed harshly, contemptuously. "No wonder she's to be here tonight. Dinner guest, eh? Transcribe notes while you and Bennet discuss your business. That's rich—you philandering swine!"

Marlow clenched and unclenched his hands, fighting off the overpowering desire to smash his fist into his wife's mocking red mouth.

It was then that they both heard the sound of tires crunching to a stop in the gravel driveway. Their heads turned simultaneously in the direction of the door.

"That might be Bennet," Natalie said, suddenly lowering her voice. "But you haven't heard the end of this. Not by a long shot. You can tell that blonde wench she'll rot in hell before she'll ever sink her hands into your money. I'm more determined to stick around now than ever before."

They heard the houseboy going to the door. And Marlow suddenly remembered the incredible scene on the mirror. He turned back to it swiftly. The incriminating tableau had vanished; the mirror was blank!

Marlow gaped at it foolishly, uncomprehendingly. He rubbed his hand along his jaw, shaking his head bewilderedly. He looked around for an instant, and saw Natalie staring wordlessly at it also.

And then he heard Joan Kenny's voice in the hallway.

Instantly, Marlow moved across the drawing-room and met his secretary just as she was crossing the threshold.

"Joan!" he said.

Joan Kenny was looking incredibly beautiful in a black velvet dinner gown. Her blonde hair was piled high on her shapely head in an upswing coiffure. The only jewelry she wore was a small string of pearls around her white throat.

She smiled, a little bewildered at the tone of his greeting.

"Hello, Mr. Marlow. Am I on time?"

Marlow had forgotten Natalie. But now she stepped angrily, sarcastically, into the conversation.

"How do you do, Miss Kenny. Really, you needn't bother being so formal with my husband. Just call him Scott, as you undoubtedly do elsewhere."

Marlow, jaw tight, said stiffly, "Joan, this is my wife, Natalie!"


JOAN KENNY'S soft blue eyes were uncomprehending, and she flushed in embarrassment.

"How do you do—" she began.

"And I'm going to continue being Scott's wife," Natalie broke in acidly, "in spite of both your efforts to the contrary."

Joan looked wide-eyed toward Marlow.

"Natalie!" Marlow snapped. "I don't think you're feeling very well. You'd better go upstairs!"

But his wife glared spitefully at him, relishing his discomfort.

"My husband has just informed me that he wants a divorce," she went on shrilly. "He admitted also that he is very much in love with you, Miss Kenny."

Marlow was white with rage and humiliation. He put out his hands, as if to shake his wife, then dropped them limply to his side. He turned to Joan Kenny.

"I—I'm sorry this had to happen, Joan," he said bitterly.

But the expression on Joan Kenny's face had changed now. The doubt and confusion were gone. She placed her hand reassuringly on Scott Marlow's arm. But when she spoke she addressed Natalie.

"Your discovery that your husband loves me was probably as much a shock to me as it was to you, Mrs. Marlow. I've always suspected the hell he has, living with you, and for the last two years I've loved him, terribly. You don't know how happy this nasty little scene you started has made me!"

Marlow was looking at Joan Kenny with incredulous joy.

"Joan," he blurted. "Oh, Joan. Do you mean that? You aren't just saying that to—to—" he faltered.

"I mean it—Scott," Joan said quietly.

Natalie was glaring at them both, rage and suspicion blazing in her dark eyes.

"What is this—this act?" she demanded. "You've both been carrying on behind my back for months, and you know it."

Joan Kenny looked at her coldly. "I'm afraid you're wrong," she said.

"I saw it, with my own eyes. Moments ago. The two of you, in the office, twined together like a pair of vines!" Natalie stormed.

Joan Kenny looked at her as if she'd lost her mind.

"Scott, what is she talking about?" Joan demanded.

Marlow shook his head troubledly. "The mirror, Joan. The antique I got today. I had it sent home. Remember when you slipped and almost fell?"

Joan nodded bewilderedly. "But what—"

"That entire scene, when I caught you from falling, and we were momentarily in each other's arms. That scene was on the mirror, here in the living room, moments ago. Natalie saw it."

"But, Scott!" Joan protested. "I don't understand you at all. What is this? What's it all about?"

Natalie turned and moved across the drawing-room to the antique mirror.

"I don't know what kind of a hoax or trick it was," Natalie raged. "But this mirror," she paused to point to the antique. And suddenly Natalie's face went ashen. She placed a hand across her red mouth.

Marlow was across the room instantly, stepping up beside his wife, staring into the mirror. He didn't notice Joan following him.

The antique mirror was presenting another scene again. But not the reflection of Marlow and Natalie and Joan who stood before it. Just the image of Natalie, and a tall, Latin-looking, moustached young man in the uniform of a chauffeur!


"ARMAND!" Marlow gasped. "Our chauffeur!"

"It's a lie!" Natalie choked.

Armand, the chauffeur, and Natalie were locked in each other's arms in passionate embrace, their mouths pressed hard together!

Marlow wheeled savagely on Natalie. "You tramp!" he snapped contemptuously. "You rotten tramp!"

"You—you can't prove anything," Natalie choked, backing away.

"You said I had no grounds for divorce, eh?" Marlow blazed.

"You haven't," Natalie said. "Even if it's true, you can't prove it. You could never prove it in a million years."

"Scott!" the sharp cry came from Joan.

Marlow turned. Joan was pointing at the mirror. The images of Natalie and the chauffeur were gone, and the mirror was once against just a mirror!

Natalie's voice was shrill, defiant. "I still say you can't prove it. And if you try to I'll drag this blonde's name through the muddiest court sessions this town has ever seen!"

Marlow went white.

"I'm still your wife, and I'm going to continue to be your wife. Remember that," Natalie said savagely.

Joan Kenny looked close to tears, and Marlow moved beside her, holding his arms gently around her and speaking softly.

"Joan, Joan," he said gently. "You poor kid. This is why I never told you how I feel. I'm sorry you were dragged into this, Joan. Believe me, I'm sorry!"

The front buzzer sounded at that instant, and the three of them turned guiltily to face the hallway.

"That's Bennet, for certain," Marlow said.

Natalie regained her composure instantly. She smiled at Scott Marlow and the girl with acid sweetness.

"I'm sure we all feel that this is none of Mr. Bennet's affair, don't we?"

Marlow took his arms from Joan.

"Stiff upper lip, honey. We'll straighten this out later, somehow."

Natalie's smile was tauntingly triumphant.

"Oh, no, you won't," she said. "I'll remain as Mrs. Scott Marlow for quite some time. As long as I please!"

Natalie stepped into the hallway ...


DURING the cocktails before dinner, Mr. Bennet proved himself to be an amiable enough, fat, red-faced, bald-headed man whose only apparent weakness was his desire to monopolize the conversation.

His voice was deep and rumbling, and his laugh, which chortled forth frequently, sounded much like loose stone sliding down a chute.

Marlow, sitting on the divan beside Natalie, nervously sipped his drink and smoked incessant cigarettes, glad that Bennet's conversational monopoly demanded little in the way of reply.

Joan, in a chair by the fireplace, said little, merely smiling now and then when Bennet came to the climax of an anecdote.

It was different, however, with Natalie. She was the perfect hostess. Or at least her own idea of the perfect hostess. She was alternatingly charming and coy to Marlow's boss; sometimes the country girl, blushing under a sunbonnet, and others the arch, attractive young woman of the world.

Sitting back watching Natalie's performance, Marlow felt a nausea in the pit of his stomach. For he was well aware that Natalie was doing her utmost to put Bennet in a perfect frame of mind for the business conference which was to follow the dinner. All of which meant that Natalie had meant what she'd said about never relinquishing her legal claim to Marlow, and was thinking heavily in terms of her husband's continued financial rise and its effect on her insatiable greed.

When finally they sat down to dinner, Bennet was in an especially affable mood, and Natalie gaily continued as his conversational partner, deserting it only now and then to rope Marlow or Joan charmingly into the conversation. She was the fond and loving wife where her husband was concerned, and the aristocratically bending patron to his secretary.

Throughout the meal Marlow and Joan exchanged mute, suffering glances, enduring the torment all the less stoically since Natalie had placed them nearest each other.

And when dinner was over, and they retired to the drawing- room, Marlow began to mark the time element, wondering how long and how heavily Natalie would overplay her hostess act before she realized she was holding up the business conversation.

Bennet was in the middle of a conversation concerning some of his fishing exploits below Marlow suddenly recalled the picture that he had destroyed. The one of Bennet in hip boots and with rod, net, and reel.

It was Bennet's occasional glance around the room that brought it to Marlow's mind. He wasn't certain of the significance of the glances, until Bennet himself confirmed Marlow's interpretation at the conclusion of his anecdote.

"Incidentally," Bennet boomed, "I sent a little token of that occasion to the house here, when I arrived in town today. Did it arrive?"

Marlow looked over at Natalie, who seemed suddenly to have lost some of her composure. She gave her husband a swift, veiled, accusing glance.

Marlow cleared his throat. "You mean that photograph of you, Mr. Bennet?"

Mr. Bennet nodded, smiling diffidently. "It was just a little gesture, Scott," he said. "Thought you like it."

Marlow opened his mouth to reply. But at that instant Natalie broke in swiftly to head him off.

"It did arrive, Mr. Bennet," she smiled charmingly. "But it must have been damaged in transit. The glass over it was shattered; so we sent it out to have it put in another frame. We'll really prize it, you know."


MARLOW'S jaw went tight at this glib lie. He started once again to speak. And again Natalie cut him off.

"Incidentally, Mr. Bennet, that mirror over there should interest you," she said. Marlow realized instantly she was trying to change the conversational trend, and had grabbed at the first thing to come to her mind.

Mr. Bennet looked over at the antique mirror, eyebrows raised.

"We picked it up from an old art dealer who's a friend of Scott's and mine. I just begged Scott to buy it. You see, it has a simply fascinating history. It hung in the palace of Henry the Eighth," she concluded.

"That is quite an antique, then," Bennet agreed. He rose ponderously and moved over to the mirror. He bent forward to examine it, when a sudden, startled exclamation come from his lips.

Marlow looked up swiftly. Then he rose and stepped quickly to Bennet's side. The mirror was once again refusing to reflect what was before it. Once again it was portraying what had been enacted in its presence.

It was presenting in clear, damning detail the image of Scott Marlow ripping what was obviously Mr. Bennet's photograph into small fragments!

The tension in the room was electric; the silence pregnant.

"Well!" boomed Mr. Bennet in thunderous anger. "Well!"

Marlow heard the sharp cry from Natalie as she saw the scene in the mirror.

"So that's what happened to the photograph," Mr. Bennet snapped, turning to glare at Marlow.

Scott Marlow's jaw went grim. He began to get mad. "I was quite prepared to tell you exactly what happened to that monstrosity in color and bulk, Mr. Bennet!" he grated.

"Oh, you were, were you?" Bennet retorted. "Like hell you were. You had that fine yarn cooked up about having the glass in the frame repaired. This is outrageous, absolutely outrageous!"

"My wife," said Marlow seethingly, "cooked up that one. She cut me off just as I was about to tell you the truth, Bennet. That silly lie was none of my doing."


Illustration

"Shut up!" Marlow shouted, wheeling on his wife.


"I have never been so insulted!" Bennet declared.

"And I," Marlow broke in hotly, "was never so insulted as when that picture arrived. Do you think because you're the president of the company I work for that you can intrude yourself into my personal life to the extent of forcing me to put up a hideous colored photograph in my drawing-room as a sort of shrine to your blasted omnipotence?"

"I pay your salary," Bennet declared. "And a most handsome salary, if I do say so."

"And I make more damned money for your firm than you realize," Marlow came back. "I earn that salary and much more. Your outfit was an obscure hole in the wall when I came to work for you. Through my control of the advertising department I've built your business into one of the biggest in the country. And, salary or no salary, a paycheck doesn't buy souls!"

"Your attitude, sir," said Bennet, stiff with rage, "is positively astounding!"

"It doesn't match the colossal gall of sending me that picture," Marlow blazed. "Does the altar that goes with it arrive tomorrow?"


AND suddenly Natalie had injected herself into the scene. She was white-faced with horror, and her eyes blazed wrath at her husband.

"Scott doesn't know what he's saying, Mr. Bennet," Natalie said swiftly, placatingly. "He's been working too hard. He's near a nervous breakdown. He doesn't mean this at all!"

"Shut up!" Marlow shouted, wheeling on his wife.

"You can consider your present position with my firm at an end!" Bennet boomed.

"You can take the damned job and go straight to hell!" Marlow roared. "In the meantime get out of my house!"

Natalie choked something unintelligible.

Bennet glared at Marlow.

"I don't need your job," Marlow grated. "I'll start out on my own. It'll take years, perhaps, but sooner or later I'll run your firm right out of business. I'll slam your company back against the wall so hard it'll fold!"

Natalie suddenly exploded.

"You damned fool!" she screeched at Marlow. "You stupid louse! Throw up everything I've slaved years for you to get, will you? Well, you can call another bet off. I won't stick by and starve to death with you. I'm getting out. Now!"

Natalie wheeled and left in a storm of shrill epithets. Marlow turned back to Bennet.

"And now that everything's settled just fine," he said, "let me tell you something about this branch office of yours. It stinks with stupid inefficiency. Two out of every five orders I give are countermanded by pot-bellied superiors who haven't had the moss cleaned out of their muddled minds in twenty years. The entire dump needs drastic reorganization. And now that I won't be in there working sixteen hours a day to keep it going in spite of your executive board, I'm happy to predict that it won't last much longer than a year."

Joan Kenny appeared at Marlow's side. Her eyes were glowing.

"Will you need a sort of secretary and assistant, Scott?" she asked.

Marlow looked down at her.

"Huh?"

"In the business you're going to start," she said, "I'll work for nothing until you can get going."

Marlow suddenly relaxed, and the rage left him. He grinned and patted Joan's shoulder.

"You'll work for nothing," he said, "but in the capacity of the new Mrs. Marlow. I expect we'll be hearing from Natalie in Reno in a few weeks, now that I'm starting from scratch again."

He looked up at Bennet, the grin leaving his face.

"Now, if you'll leave, Bennet," he said quietly.

But Mr. Bennet was beaming. He was beaming and his hand was extended to Marlow.

"Put're there, Scott," he suggested.


MARLOW gazed blankly at his former employer.

"I don't get you," he said.

"Shake hands," Bennet told him, "on a damned fine bargain."

"But—" Marlow stammered. He was clearly bewildered.

"I haven't backed down from my original statement," Bennet said with mock severity.

"Look," said Marlow bewilderedly, "I thought this was all settled. I thought I'd made myself perfectly clear to you. Everything I said still goes."

"And what I said—at least to the effect that you can consider your present position with my firm at an end—still goes," Bennet said.

"That's fine," said Marlow. "Now goodbye." He still disregarded Bennet's outstretched hand.

"Perhaps," grinned Mr. Bennet, "I had better stop being coy. That photograph I sent this afternoon was exactly as you described it, a hideous monstrosity. No one knows it better than I. And my expecting you to mount it fawningly in a conspicuous place in the room for me to see tonight, was, also as you described it, colossal gall. I was praying that you'd refuse to do so."

"Wait a minute," said Marlow. "You were praying that I refuse to do so?"

"Exactly," said Bennet. "It was a test. A somewhat outlandish test, I'll grant you. But by it, I expected to test your moral integrity, your get-up-and-gumption. Briefly, your honesty and guts. You see, I know you have brains. You wouldn't be where you are with my company now if you didn't have. But I didn't know much about your character. For all I knew you might have been a hypocritical yes-man, a boot-licker. Had you placed that picture on display for me, I'd have been sure that you weren't the man I wanted."

"The man you wanted?" It was Joan who broke in.

"The man I want to step into my shoes as President of Bennet- Hastings and Company," explained Mr. Bennet. "I'm stepping out. I'm sick of the grind and getting old. You, Scott, will succeed me as head of the firm."

Scott Marlow grinned.

"That's a big job, Mr. Bennet," he said.

"You've just proved to me you're a big man, Scott," Bennet grinned. "Lord, what a going over you gave me!"

Marlow suddenly snapped his fingers.

"I'll take the job," he said, "on one condition."

Bennet looked surprised. "And what's that?"

"That you officially fire me from my present job right now," Marlow said, "and that I don't take the presidency of the firm until seven weeks from now. I'll take a vacation from now until then, but I won't be on your payroll until I take over."

Bennet frowned. "I suppose, if that's the way you want it," he began.

Marlow smiled. "You see, it takes six weeks to get a Reno divorce. And I know Natalie well enough to know she's headed for there right now. If she knew about this, she'd change her mind."

Bennet looked from Joan to Scott Marlow and smiled benignly.

"That is a very shrewd idea, Scott," he said. Suddenly a peculiar expression came across his face. He snapped his fingers. "Good God!"

"What's wrong?" Marlow asked.

"That mirror," Mr. Bennet said. "I'm just this moment beginning to realize what it did!"

Scott Marlow nodded soberly. "An incredible thing," he admitted, gazing reflectively at the antique mirror on the wall.

"But how on earth," Bennet protested.

Marlow shrugged. "I'll be damned if I know," he said.

Mr. Bennet shuddered. "I'll be damned if I want to know," he declared....


OF course, Scott Marlow and Joan never did know, exactly. For the antique mirror didn't tell tales any more. At least during the next weeks in which it remained in Marlow's possession it didn't. Possibly because Marlow didn't give it any further opportunity. It still looked decidedly, ominously potential, however, especially on the day when word arrived that Natalie's divorce was final and that she'd married an oil tycoon she'd met while waiting in Reno for the final decree, ten minutes after the courts had severed her old marriage.

For that was the day Scott Marlow and Joan, smiling maliciously, had crated the mirror and shipped it anonymously as a wedding present to Natalie's new husband....


THE END


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