A MEMORABLE LESSON
I take leave of the mushrooms with regret: there would be so many
other questions to solve concerning them! Why do the maggots eat
the Satanic bolete and scorn the imperial mushroom? How is it that
they find delicious what we find poisonous and why is it that what
seems exquisite to our taste is loathsome to theirs? Can there be
special compounds in mushrooms, alkaloids, apparently, which vary
according to the botanical genus? Would it be possible to isolate
them and study their properties fully? Who knows whether medical
science could not employ them in relieving our ailments, even as it
employs quinine, morphia and other alkaloids? One might inquire
into the cause of the liquefaction of the coprini, which is
spontaneous, and that of the boletes, which is brought about by the
maggots. Do both cases come within the same category? Does the
coprinus digest itself by virtue of a pepsin similar to the
maggots'? One would like to discover the oxidizable substance that
gives the luminous mushroom its soft, white light, which is like
the beams of the full moon. It would be interesting to know
whether certain boletes turn blue owing to the presence of an
indigo which is more liable to change than dyers' indigo and
whether the green of the so-called delicious milk mushroom when
bruised is due to a like cause.
All these patient chemical investigations would tempt me, if the
rudimentary equipment of my laboratory and especially the
irrevocable flight of age-worn hopes permitted it. The day has
passed for it now; there is no time left to me. No matter: let us
talk chemistry once more, for a little while; and, for want of
something better, let us revive old memories. If the historian,
now and again, takes a small place in the story of his animals, the
reader will kindly excuse him: old age is prone to these
reminiscences, the bloom of later days.
I have received, in all, two lessons of a scientific character in
the course of my life: one in anatomy and one in chemistry. I owe
the first to the learned naturalist Moquin-Tandon, who, on our
return from a botanizing expedition to Monte Renoso, in Corsica,
showed me the structure of a Snail in a plate filled with water.
It was short and fruitful. From that moment, I was initiated.
Henceforth, I was to wield the scalpel and decently to explore an
animal's interior without any other guidance from a master. The
second lesson, that of chemistry, was less fortunate. I will tell
you what happened.
In my normal school, the scientific teaching was on an exceedingly
modest scale, consisting mainly of arithmetic and odds and ends of
geometry. Physics was hardly touched. We were taught a little
meteorology, in a summary fashion: a word or two about a red moon,
a white frost, dew, snow and wind; and, with this smattering of
rustic physics, we were considered to know enough of the subject to
discuss the weather with the farmer and the plowman.
Of natural history, absolutely nothing. No one thought of telling
us anything about flowers and trees, which give such zest to one's
aimless rambles, nor about insects, with their curious habits, nor
about stones, so instructive with their fossil records. That
entrancing glance through the windows of the world was refused us.
Grammar was allowed to strangle life.
Chemistry was never mentioned either: that goes without saying. I
knew the word, however. My casual reading, only half-understood
for want of practical demonstration, had taught me that chemistry
is concerned with the shuffle of matter, uniting or separating the
various elements. But what a strange idea I formed of this branch
of study! To me it smacked of sorcery, of alchemy and its search
for the philosopher's stone. To my mind, every chemist, when at
work, should have had a magic wand in his hand and the wizard's
pointed, star studded cap on his head.
An important personage who sometimes visited the school, in his
capacity as an honorary lecturer, was not the man to rid me of
those foolish notions. He taught physics and chemistry at the
grammar school. Twice a week, from eight to nine o'clock in the
evening, he held a free public class in an enormous building
adjacent to our schoolhouse. This was the former Church of Saint-
Martial, which has today become a Protestant meeting house.
It was a wizard's cave certainly, just as I had pictured it. At
the top of the steeple, a rusty weathercock creaked mournfully; in
the dusk, great Bats flew all around the edifice or dived down the
throats of the gargoyles; at night, Owls hooted upon the copings of
the leads. It was inside, under the immensities of the vault, that
my chemist used to perform. What infernal mixtures did he
compound? Should I ever know?
It is the day for his visit. He comes to see us with no pointed
cap: in ordinary garb, in fact, with nothing very queer about him.
He bursts into our schoolroom like a hurricane. His red face is
half-buried in the enormous stiff collar that digs into his ears.
A few wisps of red hair adorn his temples; the top of his head
shines like an old ivory ball. In a dictatorial voice and with
wooden gestures, he questions two or three of the boys; after a
moment's bullying, he turns on his heel and goes off in a whirlwind
as he came. No, this is not the man, a capital fellow at heart, to
inspire me with a pleasant idea of the things which he teaches.
Two windows of his laboratory look out upon the garden of the
school. One can just lean on them; and I often come and peep in,
trying to make out, in my poor brain, what chemistry can really be.
Unfortunately, the room into which my eyes penetrate is not the
sanctuary but a mere outhouse where the learned implements and
crockery are washed. Leaden pipes with taps run down the walls;
wooden vats occupy the corners. Sometimes, those vats bubble,
heated by a spray of steam. A reddish powder, which looks like
brick dust, is boiling in them. I learn that the simmering stuff
is a dyer's root, known as madder, which will be converted into a
purer and more concentrated product. This is the master's pet
What I saw from the two windows was not enough for me. I wanted to
see farther, into the very classroom. My wish was satisfied. It
was the end of the scholastic year. A stage ahead in the regular
work, I had just obtained my certificate. I was free. A few weeks
remain before the holidays. Shall I go and spend them out of
doors, in all the gaiety of my eighteen summers? No, I will spend
them at the school which, for two years past, has provided me with
an untroubled roof and my daily crust. I will wait until a post is
found for me. Employ my willing service as you think fit, do with
me what you will: as long as I can study, I am indifferent to the
The principal of the school, the soul of kindness, has grasped my
passion for knowledge. He encourages me in my determination; he
proposes to make me renew my acquaintance with Horace and Virgil,
so long since forgotten. He knows Latin, he does; he will rekindle
the dead spark by making me translate a few passages. He does
more: he lends me an Imitation with parallel texts in Latin and
Greek. With the first text, which I am almost able to read, I will
puzzle out the second and thus increase the small vocabulary which
I acquired in the days when I was translating Aesop's Fables. It
will be all the better for my future studies. What luck! Board and
lodging, ancient poetry, the classical languages, all the good
things at once!
I did better still. Our science master--the real, not the honorary
one--who came twice a week to discourse of the rule of three and
the properties of the triangle, had the brilliant idea of letting
us celebrate the end of the school year with a feast of learning.
He promised to show us oxygen. As a colleague of the chemist in
the grammar school, he obtained leave to take us to the famous
laboratory and there to handle the object of his lesson under our
very eyes. Oxygen, yes, oxygen, the all-consuming gas; that was
what we were to see on the morrow. I could not sleep all night for
thinking of it.
Thursday afternoon came at last. As soon as the chemistry lesson
is over, we were to go for a walk to Les Angles, the pretty village
over yonder, perched on a steep rock. We were therefore in our
Sunday best, our out-of-doors clothes: black frock coats and tall
hats. The whole school was there, some thirty of us, in the charge
of an usher, who knew as little as we did of the things which we
were about to see. We crossed the threshold of the laboratory, not
without excitement. I entered a great nave with a Gothic roof, an
old, bare church through which one's voice echoed, into which the
light penetrated discreetly through stained glass windows set in
ribs and rosettes of stone. At the back were huge raised benches,
with room for an audience of many hundreds; at the other end, where
the choir once was, stood an enormous chimney mantel; in the middle
was a large, massive table, corroded by the chemicals. At one end
of this table was a tarred tub, lined inside with lead and filled
with water. This, I at once learned, was the pneumatic trough, the
vessel in which the gases were collected.
The professor begins the experiment. He takes a sort of large,
long glass bulb, bent abruptly in the region of the neck. This, he
informs us, is a retort. He pours into it, from a screw of paper,
some black stuff that looks like powdered charcoal. This is
manganese dioxide, the master tells us. It contains in abundance,
in a condensed state and retained by combination with the metal,
the gas which we propose to obtain. An oily looking liquid,
sulfuric acid, an excessively powerful agent, will set it at
liberty. Thus filled, the retort is placed on a lighted stove. A
glass tube brings it into communication with a bell jar full of
water on the shelf of the pneumatic trough. Those are all the
preparations. What will be the result? We must wait for the
action of heat.
My fellow pupils gather eagerly round the apparatus, cannot come
close enough to it. Some of them play the part of the fly on the
wheel and glory in contributing to the success of the experiment.
They straighten the retort, which is leaning to one side; they blow
with their mouths on the coals in the stove. I do not care for
these familiarities with the unknown. The good natured master
raises no objection; but I have never been able to endure the
thronging of a crowd of gapers, who are very busy with their elbows
and force their way to the front row to see whatever is happening,
even though it be merely a couple of mongrels fighting. Let us
withdraw and leave these officious ones to themselves. There is so
much to see here, while the oxygen is being prepared. Let us make
the most of the occasion and take a look round the chemist's
Under the spacious chimney mantel is a collection of queer stoves,
bound round with bands of sheet iron. There are long and short
ones, high and low ones, all pierced with little windows that are
closed with a terracotta shutter. This one, a sort of little
tower, is formed of several parts placed one above the other and
each supplied with big round handles to hold them by when you take
the monument to pieces. A dome, with an iron chimney, tops the
whole edifice, which must be capable of producing a very hell fire
to roast a stone of no significance. Another, a squat one,
stretches out like a curved spine. It has a round hole at either
end; and a thick porcelain tube sticks out from each. It is
impossible to conceive the purpose which such instruments as these
can serve. The seekers of the philosopher's stone must have had
many like them. They are torturers' engines, tearing the metals'
secrets from them.
The glass things are arranged on shelves. I see retorts of
different sizes, all with necks bent at a sudden angle. In
addition to their long beak, some of them have a narrow little tube
coming out of their bulb. Look, youngster, and do not try to guess
the object of these curious vessels. I see glasses with feet to
them, funnel-shaped and deep; I stand amazed at strange looking
bottles with two or three mouths to each, at phials swelling into a
balloon with a long, narrow tube. What an odd array of implements!
And here are glass cupboards with a host of bottles and jars,
filled with all manner of chemicals. The labels apprise me of
their contents: molybdenite of ammonia, chloride of antimony,
permanganate of potash and ever so many other strange terms.
Never, in all my reading, have I met with such repellent language.
Suddenly, bang! And there is running and stamping and shouting and
cries of pain! What has happened? I rush up from the back of the
room. The retort has burst, squirting its boiling vitriol in every
direction. The wall opposite is all stained with it. Most of my
fellow pupils have been more or less struck. One poor youth has
had the splashes full in his face, right into his eyes. He is
yelling like a madman. With the help of a friend who has come off
better than the others, I drag him outside by main force, take him
to the sink, which fortunately is close at hand, and hold his face
under the tap. This swift ablution serves its purpose. The
horrible pain begins to be allayed, so much so that the sufferer
recovers his senses and is able to continue the washing process for
My prompt aid certainly saved his sight. A week later, with the
help of the doctor's lotions, all danger was over. How lucky it
was that I took it into my head to keep some way off! My isolation,
as I stood looking into the glass case of chemicals, left me all my
presence of mind, all my readiness of resource. What are the
others doing, those who got splashed through standing too near the
chemical bomb? I return to the lecture hall. It is not a cheerful
spectacle. The master has come off badly: his shirtfront,
waistcoat and trousers are covered with smears, which are all
smoldering and burning into holes. He hurriedly divests himself of
a portion of his dangerous raiment. Those of us who possess the
smartest clothes lend him something to put on so that he can go
One of the tall, funnel-shaped glasses which I was admiring just
now is standing, full of ammonia, on the table. All, coughing and
sniveling, dip their handkerchiefs into it and rub the moist rag
over their hats and coats. In this way, the red stains left by the
horrible compound are made to disappear. A drop of ink will
presently restore the color completely.
And the oxygen? There was no more question, I need hardly say, of
that. The feast of learning was over. Never mind: the disastrous
lesson was a mighty event for me. I had been inside the chemist's
laboratory; I had had a glimpse of those wonderful jars and tubes.
In teaching, what matters most is not the thing taught, whether
well or badly grasped: it is the stimulus given to the pupil's
latent aptitudes; it is the fulminate awakening the slumbering
explosives. One day, I shall obtain on my own account that oxygen
which ill luck has denied me; one day, without a master, I shall
yet learn chemistry.
Yes, I shall learn this chemistry, which started so disastrously.
And how? By teaching it. I do not recommend that method to
anybody. Happy the man who is guided by a master's word and
example! He has a smooth and easy road before him, lying straight
ahead. The other follows a rugged path, in which his feet often
stumble; he goes groping into the unknown and loses his way. To
recover the right road, if want of success have not discouraged
him, he can rely only on perseverance, the sole compass of the
poor. Such was my fate. I taught myself by teaching others, by
passing on to them the modicum of seed that had ripened on the
barren moor cleared, from day to day, by my patient plowshare.
A few months after the incident of the vitriol bomb, I was sent to
Carpentras to take charge of junior classes at the college there.
The first year was a difficult one, swamped as I was by the
excessive number of pupils, a set of duffers kept out of the more
advanced classes and all at different stages in spelling and
grammar. Next year, my school is divided into two; I have an
assistant. A weeding-out takes place in my crowd of scatterbrains.
I keep the older, the more intelligent ones; the others are to have
a term in the preparatory division. From that day forward, things
are different. Curriculum there is none. In those happy times,
the master's personality counted for something; there was no such
thing as the scholastic piston working with the regularity of a
machine. It was left for me to act as I thought fit. Well, what
should I do to make the school earn its title of 'upper primary'?
Why, of course! Among other things, I shall do some chemistry! My
reading has taught me that it does no harm to know a little
chemistry, if you would make your furrows yield a good return.
Many of my pupils come from the country; they will go back to it to
improve their land. Let us show them what the soil is made of and
what the plant feeds on. Others will follow industrial careers;
they will become tanners, metal founders, distillers; they will
sell cakes of soap and kegs of anchovies. Let us show them
pickling, soap making, stills, tannin and metals. Of course, I
know nothing about these things, but I shall learn, all the more so
as I shall have to teach them to the boys; and your schoolboy is a
little demon for jeering at the master's hesitation.
As it happens, the college boasts a small laboratory, containing
just what is strictly indispensable: a receiver, a dozen glass
balloons, a few tubes and a niggardly assortment of chemicals.
That will do, if I can have the run of it. But the laboratory is a
sanctum reserved for the use of the sixth form. No one sets foot
in it except the professor and his pupils preparing for their
degree. For me, the outsider, to enter that tabernacle with my
band of young imps would be most unseemly; the rightful occupant
would never think of allowing it. I feel it myself: elementary
teaching dare not aspire to such familiarity with the higher
culture. Very well, we will not go there, so long as they will
lend me the things.
I confide my plan to the principal, the supreme dispenser of those
riches. He is a classics man, knows hardly anything of science, at
that time held in no great esteem, and he does not quite understand
the object of my request. I humbly insist and exert my powers of
persuasion. I discreetly emphasize the real point of the matter.
My group of pupils is a numerous one. It takes more meals at the
schoolhouse--the real concern of a principal--than any other
section of the college. This group must be encouraged, lured on,
increased if possible. The prospect of disposing of a few more
platefuls of soup wins the battle for me; my request is granted.
Poor science! All that diplomacy to gain your entrance among the
despised ones, who have not been nourished on Cicero and
I am authorized to move, once a week, the material required for my
ambitious plans. From the first floor, the sacred dwelling of the
scientific things, I shall take them down to a sort of cellar where
I give my lessons. The troublesome part is the pneumatic trough.
It has to be emptied before it is carried downstairs and to be
filled again afterwards. A day scholar, a zealous acolyte, hurries
over his dinner and comes to lend me a hand an hour or two before
the class begins. We effect the move between us.
What I am after is oxygen, the gas which I once saw fail so
lamentably. I thought it all out at my leisure, with the help of a
book. I will do this, I will do that, I will go to work in this or
the other fashion. Above all, we will run no risks, perhaps of
blinding ourselves; for it is once more a question of heating
manganese dioxide with sulfuric acid. I am filled with misgivings
at the recollection of my old school fellow yelling like mad. Who
cares? Let us try for all that: fortune favors the brave! Besides,
we will make one prudent condition, from which I shall never
depart: no one but myself shall come near the table. If an
accident happen, I shall be the only one to suffer; and, in my
opinion, it is worth a burn or two to make acquaintance with
Two o'clock strikes; and my pupils enter the classroom. I
purposely exaggerate the likelihood of danger. They are all to
stay on their benches and not stir. This is agreed. I have plenty
of elbow room. There is no one by me, except my acolyte, standing
by my side, ready to help me when the time comes. The others look
on in profound silence, reverent towards the unknown.
Soon the gaseous bubbles come "gloo-glooing" through the water in
the bell jar. Can it be my gas? My heart beats with excitement.
Can I have succeeded without any trouble at the first attempt? We
will see. A candle blown out that moment and still retaining a red
tip to its wick is lowered by a wire into a small test jar filled
with my product. Capital! The candle lights with a little
explosion and burns with extraordinary brilliancy. It is oxygen
The moment is a solemn one. My audience is astounded and so am I,
but more at my own success than at the relighted candle. A puff of
vainglory rises to my brow; I feel the fire of enthusiasm run
through my veins. But I say nothing of these inner sensations.
Before the boys' eyes, the master must appear an old hand at the
things he teaches. What would the young rascals think of me if I
allowed them to suspect my surprise, if they knew that I myself am
beholding the marvelous subject of my demonstration for the first
time in my life? I should lose their confidence, I should sink to
the level of a mere pupil.
Sursum corda! Let us go on as if chemistry were a familiar thing to
me. It is the turn of the steel ribbon, an old watch spring rolled
corkscrew fashion and furnished with a bit of tinder. With this
simple lighted bait, the steel should take fire in a jar filled
with my gas. And it does burn; it becomes a splendid firework,
with cracklings and a blaze of sparks and a cloud of rust that
tarnishes the jar. From the end of the fiery coil a red drop
breaks off at intervals, shoots quivering through the layer of
water left at the bottom of the vessel and embeds itself in the
glass which has suddenly grown soft. This metallic tear, with its
indomitable heat, makes every one of us shudder. All stamp and
cheer and applaud. The timid ones place their hands before their
faces and dare not look except through their fingers. My audience
exults; and I myself triumph. Ha, my friends, isn't it grand, this
All of us have red letter days in our lives. Some, the practical
men, have been successful in business; they have made money and
hold their heads high in consequence. Others, the thinkers, have
gained ideas; they have opened a new account in the ledger of
nature and they silently taste the hallowed joys of truth. One of
my great days was that of my first acquaintance with oxygen. On
that day, when my class was over and all the materials put back in
their place, I felt myself grow several inches taller. An
untrained workman, I had shown, with complete success, that which
was unknown to me a couple of hours before. No accident whatever,
not even the least stain of acid.
It is, therefore, not so difficult nor so dangerous as the pitiful
finish of the Saint Martial lesson might have led me to believe.
With a vigilant eye and a little prudence, I shall be able to
continue. The prospect is enchanting.
And so, in due season, comes hydrogen, carefully contemplated in my
reading, seen and reseen with the eye of the mind before being seen
with the eyes of the body. I delight my little rascals by making
the hydrogen flame sing in a glass tube, which trickles with the
drops of water resulting from the combustion; I make them jump with
the explosions of the thunderous mixture. Later, I show them, with
the same invariable success, the splendors of phosphorus, the
violent powers of chlorine, the loathsome smells of sulfur, the
metamorphoses of carbon and so on. In short, in a series of
lessons, the principal nonmetallic elements and their compounds are
passed in review during the course of the year.
The thing was bruited abroad. Fresh pupils came to me, attracted
by the marvels of the school. Additional places were laid in the
dining hall; and the principal, who was more interested in the
profits on his beans and bacon than in chemistry, congratulated me
on this accession of boarders. I was fairly started. Time and an
indomitable will would do the rest.
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