[ fiction - april 11 ]
1901 – Paris, France
Monsieur Raul Delotroix was by all appearances an ordinary man, perhaps slightly above average, energetic, hard working, happily married and the father of healthy children – two daughters of six and eight years old, to be exact. He felt extraordinarily privileged to be living during La Belle Époque. Furthermore, he was satisfied with his lot in life - a rarity in the dynamic atmosphere of the Third Republic, where a "dog eat dog" atmosphere prevailed, intermixed with extreme glamour.
In spite of the Third Republic being republican, ingrained aspects of a sharply classed society endured, as, on the other hand, did the almost indestructible beauty of Paris in May. No matter to which class one belonged, the city possessed so much charm and beauty that, in the spring, everyone was enchanted. Life was full of hope - a highly euphoric and dangerous state.
And what was M Delotroix's profession? He dealt in clocks for the rich. Their time was valuable and needed to be opulently presented to themselves and others. Some clocks were custom-made in France and embellished with family coats of arms. Others were imported from Germany, Switzerland or even China. Monsieur could also build clocks – or even fabricate replicas. M Delotroix had an eye for quality. He charged fair prices, but always made a good profit. His family lived comfortably and quietly in an apartment on Rue des Petites Rêves, a clean but modest address that would not call attention to, or speculation about, his finances.
Mme Louise Delotroix was a good wife, a pretty woman, approximately 14 years younger than her husband. She possessed a fine figure that her demeanor downplayed. Actually, she had a potential to be ravishing, but either did not know this or thought it wiser not to flaunt this asset in deference to her husband and children. Jewels, extravagant clothes or boxes at the opera did not tempt Louise. She, however, did keep, on her dressing table, a picture of the former Empress Eugénie, whose pulchritude she greatly admired. Mme Delotroix had only one overwhelming desire – a cottage in the country where she and the children could spend the summer while her husband was obliged to work in the city. She would grow vegetables and have a flower garden.
"My dear Raoul, we should have this, for the children's sake. The summer is too hot in Paris and not healthy".
In order to postpone this purchase, Monsieur Delotroix made a revelation to his wife in order to pacify her. It was a secret he had kept for two years. Even now, he would not tell his wife the entire situation.
"I have, Louise, made an investment that will secure, in time, a somewhat better house than we now consider possible for ourselves."
"A modest one will do, Raoul. The vegetables and flowers will not know the difference. When will this be possible?"
"In a short while. There are many details in these transactions and I will not trouble you with them, my darling. A bigger house will be a better investment and I also will buy the best of pianos. Chopin stressed the importance of a good instrument with beautiful sound for children. Quality encourages them to love music. We will have all of these things and more - not by me selling one clock at a time, but as a result of the great opportunity that has come my way and blessed us. Let us be grateful and discuss this subject any longer."
"But, please tell me, what is this blessing, Raoul?"
"It is too good to speak of. You continue to run the house nicely and frugally and I will surprise you with luxuries that we have not dreamt of. We have been content so far, but, our daughters need to be well educated and make good marriages. Therefore money is essential".
"As you say, Raoul. You have provided well for us always. I ask only that we can be installed in the country very soon".
How many men have such a trusting wife, so reassuring, confidant and patient? And, also, so faithful, mused M Delotroix as he walked through the Luxembourg Gardens. How lucky I am! And, how much luckier I will be as a rich man.
But, his wife's trust was exactly what made M Delotroix just a little nervous. What if the money was lost? No, this could not be. The plan was too remarkable and meticulous. He had invested with his social and economic betters – those who earned money from their money, not like the working class who had to churn out a living day by day, week by week, month to month or year by year, having no access to sophisticated business opportunities that yield real growth of funds.
M Delotroix's wealthiest client, whom he fancied as his patron saint, Mme Thérèse Humbert, known in throughout France as 'La Grande Thérèse,' had graciously accepted a large part of his savings two years ago to be included with larger loans from other lenders drawn from only elite circles. It was rumored that she had been given money by, of all people, the still revered Empress Eugénie, foreigners like the Rothchilds, and France's largest banks. Her father-in-law, Gustave Humbert, was the Minister of Justice, a hero of the Republic.
M Delotroix had been promised and trusted that he would receive a return of more than triple his investment from Mme Humbert to whom he had sold several clocks (for which he had yet to be paid). One of them was said to have been owned by the Emperor of China. He was too shy, given these circumstances and his grand expectations, to pursue this bill. All would all be settled as soon as the legal details of Mme Humbert's huge and legendary inheritance from her American benefactor were concluded. As he had explained to Louise, such details take time.
Yet, after he had revealed the existence this investment to his wife, he was possessed by anxiety and a desire to have his money and profit sooner rather than later. He had, in fact, expected it quite a while ago. Louise, with whom he normally and naturally, for that era, did not discuss business, might, quite understandably, ask more questions and press him as time passed. She had, after all, as a good wife, taken her husband at his word.
On the other hand, M Delotroix's investment (actually a loan against the inheritance) was not just regarded as an investment for him. It represented an altered self-perception that moved him from the position of a common merchant to someone more elevated. He had, in fact, begun to see himself as sort of a banker. Raoul Delotroix, a most ordinary man had, after all, lent money to the richest woman in France and she, with the greatest of condescension, had accepted it while assuring him of great rewards. This extremely generous woman wanted him to prosper and was going to pay him back with extraordinary interest (even more than she would pay a normal banker) or more celebrated investors, because she understood how hard he had worked and how dedicated he was to his family. She too loved her family deeply.
But, all things considered and after a bit of soul-searching, M Delotroix decided not to be greedy and to approach Mme Humbert asking for a smaller return, explaining diplomatically to her that the health of his daughters depended on good country air.
"Does Monsieur wish to see Madame about another clock?" asked Lucien, the butler, blocking the door.
"No, a private business matter. May I enter?"
"Madame Parayre will see you. Wait in the music room. I will lead you there, Monsieur."
The room facing Avenue de Grand Armée contained luxurious carpet, tapestries, master paintings, Louis IV furniture, two of the clocks from his own inventory, a harp and a piano, a Playel, the piano of choice of the great Chopin.
Now Catherine Paryere, directress of the house, a tall handsome beauty - warm yet at the same time detached (a remarkable combination) - entered the room, taking Monsieur's attention away from the décor. She, as it happened later, achieved a place in history not only as Mme Humbert's closest associate, but also as the mother-in-law of the, at that time, relatively unknown artist Henri Matisse.
"Monsieur Delotroix, do you have another clock for us?
"No, Madame. It is on a more personal matter that I wish to speak with Madame Humbert."
"She cannot see you this week. Return next week on Wednesday. Romaine will see you out."
Romaine Daurinac, a brother of Mme Humbert, appeared to be twice the size of M Delotroix when actually he was approximately the same height. He was stockier and "rougher" looking, in a somewhat dashing way. In spite of the fact that his clothes were of expensive fabric, they fit just a bit too tightly to be elegant, yet tightly enough to imply an underlying heavy and menacing musculature.
Without a word exchanged, Monsieur Delotroix was escorted to the back door through a labyrinth of surprisingly seedy rooms. They were accessed from a stairway off the grand entrance hall and shown out into the back alley. From there, he made his way to the broad avenue from which he had first entered the house.
Since Madame Humbert was busy and could not see me today, he muttered to himself, I will return next week. I am a fool to worry. President Felix Faure was seated in her box at the opera. I saw their picture in the newspaper. Her father-in-law, Gustave Humbert, is the Minister of Justice. Surely she will be happy to give me back the modest sum I gave her and a reasonable interest as well as pay for the clocks. To her, it is so paltry an amount; while, to me, it is everything.
Surely all will go well. The Humbert credentials are impeccable. Only an idiot could doubt their integrity.
On the subsequent two Wednesdays, M Delotroix entered the house of the Humbert's from the street and was formally greeted by Lucien, then escorted by Romaine to the alley along the route that he now saw being taken by others as he entered. On the third week he, by sheer chance, encountered Mme Humbert herself with her brother as they were descending the stairs into the foyer. Though not beautiful, she was regal, a picture of good health, and, to M Delotroix, she represented an ideal of high French republican society during La Belle Époque.
"Mme Humbert," he blurted out, "I must speak with you regarding our business arrangement."
"But why not, let us go into the music room, my dear M Delotroix. We will be more comfortable. Would you like some tea? Colette, bring some tea for Monsieur Delotroix. How is your family? Some petit-fours?"
And so a half hour passed. Madame Humbert, the patron was having a tête à tête with her clock merchant – about nothing.
"Cher Madame, I have come to talk of our investment"
"Oh, M Delotroix, all is going exceptionally well. Because you have been so loyal to us, my husband and I have decided to increase your return. Now I must raise only a tiny bit more capital for some minor items demanded by those greedy lawyers and also to have my piano, this Playel (which both Lizt and Chopin have performed on), repaired in time for the concert that I will hold here next year. I hope that you and Mme Delotroix will attend."
Upon hearing these words, M Delotroix had "a rush to the liver," and was overcome with emotions and a hunger for the additional promised profit.
"Mme Humbert, if you will accept it, I will give you additional funds and repair this instrument at my studio, if you will sent it there. My father has taught me the trade of making pianos as well as clocks. I shall be honored."
"Romaine will come with the movers tomorrow at 2:00 to bring the piano and collect the money from you. D'accord?"
M Delotroix, making a deep bow, almost falling on his knees, kissed the heavily jeweled hand of M Humbert and was seen out by Colette, the maid, this time through the front entrance. While leaving, he passed four or five other visitors, some, he thought, looking agitated and waiting their turns to be admitted.
The following day, as agreed, Romaine and his workmen arrived early with the Playel at the studio of M Delotroix that adjoined the family apartment. As he arrived quite early, M Delotroix was out, but Louise received him and offered him tea in the apartment while the workmen positioned the instrument in the shop. Raoul arrived five minutes before the hour, viewed the instrument, gave the agreed-upon money to Romaine and promised to start on whatever repairs the piano needed. Leaving with the money in his pocket, Romaine firmly noted that he would stop in from time to time to check on the instrument.
Upon inspection, the piano was found to be in deplorable condition, requiring new parts, dampers, strings, and replacement of the action, for which suitable assistant had to be found and paid. The case (like many facades of both instruments and people) was, on the surface, presentable and gave no hint that its insides were completely rotten. After restoration, though, M Delotroix knew that he could transform it into an extraordinary and valuable instrument.
M Delotroix promptly informed Mme Humbert about the condition and stated that it would require considerable layout of money for parts and labor. There was also an unforeseen time factor. Such work could not be rushed. She, in turn, responded most graciously that none of this was a problem and that all of their accounts would be settled all at the same time. In the interim she could use the Erard piano, Lizt's favorite instrument, which was in the salon upstairs. The following week M Delotroix began disassembling the innards of Mme Humbert's piano.
After a year had passed, the Humbert inheritance was still not settled. Mme Humbert was now "inconvenienced" by the highly publicized deaths of two of her business associates - one a suicide and the other, a murder. Paris was taking note of all of the activities of La Grande Thérèse, her family and associates. Distraught, she took refuge with her family at their estate in Eaux Vives outside of Paris. Furthermore, in a publicized event, a seemingly insane person (possibly the wife of the suicide victim) had entered the Humbert home, and destroyed vases and smashed the harp in the music room, along with many other objects of value. Thérèse's police contacts had this woman incarcerated in a mental asylum. The health of M Humbert, a talented history painter, was frail. The many lawsuits with the Crawfords, the then discovered fabricated family of his Mme Humbert's fictitious benefactor, caused the family and many Frenchmen agitation, dishonor, embarrassment and financial ruin.
At breakfast, Louise brought M Delotroix his morning newspaper. 'Les Humberts Sont Voleurs', read the bold headline. It was revealed that for the past twenty years, Mme Humbert had ingeniously hoodwinked simple business people, sophisticated bankers and others, including Louise's admired Empress Eugénie, into believing that she had a huge inheritance and, accordingly, had borrowed money against this endowment in addition to mortgaging properties abroad that did not exist. As long as everyone believed her and her father-in-law, Gustave Humbert (who, it turned out, was also her uncle), all went well. But, as soon as people began to demand that their money be returned, everyone who did business with the Humberts was damaged or ruined. The safe allegedly containing the inheritance, when opened by court order, was found empty. The Crawford family was confirmed to be non-existent when the address Thérèse used for them on Broadway in New York as yet contained no building or residents. In a flash, the family Humbert, including Thérèse's sister and brothers and their daughter, fled France for Spain.
M Delotroix, was devastated. During the next few days he begged his wife's forgiveness. He fully explained the nature of his investment with Mme Humbert, the details of which she had not known, while promising to return with vigor to the business of clocks.
All was not lost, though. There were two consolations for Raoul and Louise. First, the valuable piano, now completed, but not returned, remained in their possession. As predicted, it was a great instrument. M Delotroix was able to sell it to a Russian pianist, then touring France, for more than half of the capital owed him and the price of the clocks. Secondly, Louise very suddenly went to visit a dying aunt, a stranger to her husband, in the south and returned with a large inheritance of more than another half. And so, the Delotroixs were more than "whole" again, albeit without the spectacular returns they had once envisioned.
Now, Mme Delotroix had a secret of her own. Romaine and Louise had become lovers, meeting under the pretense of his visiting the piano while Raoul was out. During the course of this year-long relationship, she had borrowed money from him against a house that would be hers in a few months' time after her "aunt" died. Romaine, thinking to eventually foreclose in what today is called a "loan to own" scenario, gladly lent her the money and some more. However, there was no house. Under certain scenarios, the favors of Louise would be the only collateral. Mme Delotroix only hoped to use the money to supplement the purchase of a cottage and explain this bounty to her husband under the guise of an inheritance, the one she had invented first to Romaine to get the money,and afterwards, to Raoul to explain the money.
Additionally, as testament to her increasing charms, Romaine, from time to time, would also give Louise small pieces of jewelry, jewelry that his sister, Mme Humbert, kept to give as tokens of esteem and assurance of her affection to assure "lenders", who patiently awaited huge returns on their money. Since Mme Humbert never paid her jewelers, except with promises, these gifts cost nothing and Romaine availed himself of them. But, best of all, Romaine, at their last tryst on the day before he and the Humberts fled France, Romaine in the heat of passion threw his pants onto the bedroom floor while pouncing into bed with Louise, letting an entire bag of gems fall under the bed, to be found later by Louise, who sold them, adding this money to that already lent to her by Romaine, thereby substantially increasing the sum of her inheritance.
This affair Mme Delotroix managed with the utmost discretion. Her husband, overjoyed by their salvation, asked no questions. The couple resumed a seemingly normal life; M Delotroix to expand his clock business by making loans to his clients - but only with collateral that he would hold, an excellent lesson he had learned from the piano; while Mme Delotroix, who learned from Romaine that she was beautiful, plotted ways to have passionate and exciting lovers who might also benefit the wellbeing of her family.
M and Mme Delotroix are fictional characters. The Humberts and Mme Paryere are not. They, in fact, caused more damage than the infamous Charles Ponzi after whom these types of schemes are named. In all probability variations on Humbert/Ponzi are likely, I am certain, to continue even into outer space where there are so many grand planets that are ripe be sold as stellar investments to trusting and ambitious earthlings.