On her head was a crown of cavorting putti, sexy little naked angels, making lewd gestures. Under the headdress was a feline face with large almond-shaped eyes. Like her lover, she was half-woman, half-beast.
Suddenly, I understood.
If the man on his knees had been Clara's husband, Ari Schiff, who was at that very moment making his way across the white and black marble floor, the evening would have ended with curious glances, oohs and aahs, and probably some praise for my ability to render these creatures so lifelike and familiar.
The evening might have gone equally well if the man in my drawing wasn't recognizable.
But the man-stag was neither Ari nor unidentifiable. The man lusting after Ari's wife was clearly his brother, Monty, whose reputation for seducing women, making outlandish deals, and taking grave risks always made for breathless gossip.
Despite their father, Reuben Schiff, owning a prestigious brokerage house, both brothers were in the importing business. Which we all knew was code for their real occupation. The brothers were bootleggers, defying Prohibition to supply New York and New Jersey with the best wine and liquor they could bring in through Canada. They'd started out working together, but after a personal rift involving Ari's first wife, they split up the business.
Ari was in charge of the importing, Monty the distribution. They had separate offices and intermediaries and as little as possible to do with each other. Monty also owned one of the most popular nightclubs in Manhattan, which gilded his wealth and reputation. And he was, at that moment, also making his way over to where I sat. Monty and Ari crossed the floor from opposite directions, both alerted by Clara's too-loud protestations.
Ari reached her first. Before he could even see the drawing, she burst out with "It's only a parlor trick, Ari. It's all Delphine's fantasy."
I wanted to tell her to shut up. That her nervous reaction was the very worst way to handle the situation. That with every single excuse she blurted out, she was hurting her case. But it was too late.
Ari pushed her aside to inspect my drawing of his naked wife, who, even as a cat, had Clara's face. Her lovely bow lips were pursed, her wide eyes half-closed, her high level of animation subdued into an expression of lust about to be satiated. Leaning backward, her legs spread, she awaited the encounter.
Her paramour's expression was every bit as telling. The bold look in his eyes, the way his lips parted, how his right hand reached for her breast, and, of course, his erection all made any other interpretation of the scenario impossible.
I had captured the lovers in the throes of an anticipated passionate and completely adulterous embrace.
"My brother?" Ari turned away from my drawing and to his wife. "What am I looking at, Clara?"
"It's Delphine's twisted mind. Not one iota of the truth. It's her imagination. Her portraits are always weird and strange. Tell him, Delphine," she pleaded.
Ari didn't give me a chance. "Don't lie to me, Clara. Everyone knows exactly what these drawings are. And even if she is a charlatan, she didn't come up with this scenario on her own out of thin air."
"Maybe she did. You did, didn't you?" Clara turned back to me, desperation in her voice. All signs of inebriation gone, chased by the panic that surged through her.
"Yes, yes, I did. I made it up," I said. I would have agreed to anything to defuse the situation, because I could see the danger in a colored haze of orange around Ari's form.
Monty reached our sorry group. He stood on Clara's other side. Taller and darker than Ari, with a wicked smile he wasn't wearing just then, he was the more charming and popular of the brothers. Both were invited to all the best parties, but it was Monty the women flirted with and invited into their beds. It was Monty the men invited to play golf and to whom they offered cigars.
"What is all this fuss?" Monty asked. "Certainly, there can't be anything that—"
He walked around so he could see the drawing. After he took it in, he looked to me, to Clara, and finally to his brother.
"You are not going to take some silly drawing seriously, are you?" Monty asked.
"So you are going to claim this is just the artist's wild fantasy, too?" Ari responded.
"Calm down, Ari," Monty said, in a soothing voice that belied his concern. As he spoke, I noticed he'd positioned himself between Ari and Clara, protecting her from her husband's rage.
"Calm down? While I stand by and watch my brother try to destroy my life? Again?"
The Schiff scandal that had turned the brothers against each other was well known among New York's social set. After returning home from the war, Ari had married a woman named Mabel Taub. Within six months of the wedding, Monty had seduced his brother's wife. Ari divorced Mabel, and shortly thereafter Monty married her. A year later, she died in a tragic train accident.
And now the two brothers stood face-to-face. History, if my drawing was to be believed, repeating itself.
This excerpt comes from the hardcover edition.