Everything happens sooner or later. When, through the low windows
overlooking the garden of the school, my eye glanced at the
laboratory, where the madder vats were steaming; when, in the
sanctuary itself, I was present, by way of a first and last
chemistry lesson, at the explosion of the retort of sulfuric acid
that nearly disfigured every one of us, I was far indeed from
suspecting the part which I was destined to p
ay under that same
vaulted roof. Had a prophet foretold that I should one day succeed
the master, never would I have believed him. Time works these
surprises for us.
Stones would have theirs too, if anything were able to astonish
them. The Saint Martial building was originally a church; it is a
protestant place of worship now. Men used to pray there in Latin;
today they pray in French. In the intervening period, it was for
some years in the service of science, the noble orison that
dispels the darkness. What has the future in store for it? Like
many another in the ringing city, to use Rabelais' epithet, will
it become a home for the fuller's teasels, a warehouse for scrap
iron, a carrier's stable? Who knows? Stones have their destinies
no less unexpected than ours.
When I took possession of it as a laboratory for the municipal
course of lectures, the nave remained as it was at the time of my
former short and disastrous visit. To the right, on the wall, a
number of black stains struck the eye. It was as though a madman's
hand, armed with the inkpot, had smashed its fragile projectile at
that spot. I recognized the stains at once. They were the marks
of the corrosive which the retort had splashed at our heads. Since
those days of long ago, no one had thought fit to hide them under a
coat of whitewash. So much the better: they will serve me as
excellent counselors. Always before my eyes, at every lesson, they
will speak to me incessantly of prudence.
For all its attractions, however, chemistry did not make me forget
a long cherished plan well suited to my tastes, that of teaching
natural history at a university. Now, one day, at the grammar
school, I had a visit from a chief inspector which was not of an
encouraging nature. My colleagues used to call him the Crocodile.
Perhaps he had given them a rough time in the course of his
inspections. For all his boorish ways, he was an excellent man at
heart. I owe him for a piece of advice which greatly influenced my
That day, he suddenly appeared, alone, in the schoolroom, where I
was taking a class in geometrical drawing. I must explain that, at
this time, to eke out my ridiculous salary and, at all costs, to
provide a living for myself and my large family, I was a mighty
pluralist, both inside the college and out. At the college in
particular, after two hours of physics, chemistry or natural
history, came, without respite, another two hours' lesson, in which
I taught the boys how to make a projection in descriptive geometry,
how to draw a geodetic plane, a curve of any kind whose law of
generation is known to us. This was called graphics.
The sudden irruption of the dread personage causes me no great
flurry. Twelve o'clock strikes, the pupils go out and we are left
alone. I know him to be a geometrician. The transcendental curve,
perfectly drawn, may work upon his gentler mood. I happen to have
in my portfolio the very thing to please him. Fortune serves me
well in this special circumstance. Among my boys, there is one
who, though a regular dunce at everything else, is a first rate
hand with the square, the compass and the drawing pen: a deft-
fingered numskull, in short.
With the aid of a system of tangents of which I first showed him
the rule and the method of construction, my artist has obtained the
ordinary cycloid, followed by the interior and the exterior
epicycloid and, lastly, the same curves both lengthened and
shortened. His drawings are admirable Spider's webs, encircling
the cunning curve in their net. The draftsmanship is so accurate
that it is easy to deduce from it beautiful theorems, which would
be very laborious to work out by the calculus.
I submit the geometrical masterpieces to my chief inspector, who is
himself said to be smitten with geometry. I modestly describe the
method of construction, I call his attention to the fine deductions
which the drawing enables one to make. It is labor lost: he gives
but a heedless glance at my sheets and flings each on the table as
I hand it to him.
'Alas!' said I to myself. 'There is a storm brewing; the cycloid
won't save you; it's your turn for a bite from the Crocodile!'
Not a bit of it. Behold the bugbear growing genial. He sits down
on a bench, with one leg here, another there, invites me to take a
seat by his side and, in a moment, we are discussing graphics.
Then, bluntly: 'Have you any money? ' he asks.
Astounded at this strange question, I answer with a smile.
'Don't be afraid,' he says. 'Confide in me. I'm asking you in
your own interest. Have you any capital? '
'I have no reason to be ashamed of my poverty, monsieur
l'inspecteur general. I frankly admit, I possess nothing; my means
are limited to my modest salary.'
A frown greets my answer; and I hear, spoken in an undertone, as
though my confessor were talking to himself: 'That's sad, that's
really very sad.'
Astonished to find my penury treated as sad, I ask for an
explanation: I was not accustomed to this solicitude on the part of
'Why, yes, it's a great pity,' continues the man reputed so
terrible. 'I have read your articles in the Annales des sciences
naturelles. You have an observant mind, a taste for research, a
lively style and a ready pen. You would have made a capital
'But that's just what I'm aiming at!'
'Give up the idea.'
'Haven't I the necessary attainment? '
'Yes, you have; but you have no capital.' The great obstacle stands
revealed to me: woe to the poor in pocket! University teaching
demands a private income. Be as ordinary, as commonplace as you
please, but, above all, possess the coin that lets you cut a dash.
That is the main thing; the rest is a secondary condition.
And the worthy man tells me what poverty in a frock coat means.
Though less of a pauper than I, he has known the mortification of
it; he describes it to me, excitedly, in all its bitterness. I
listen to him with an aching heart; I see the refuge which was to
shelter my future crumbling before my eyes: 'You have done me a
great service, sir,' I answered. 'You put an end to my hesitation.
For the moment, I give up my plan. I will first see if it is
possible to earn the small fortune which I shall need if I am to
teach in a decent manner.'
Thereupon we exchanged a friendly grip of the hand and parted. I
never saw him again. His fatherly arguments had soon convinced me:
I was prepared to hear the blunt truth. A few months earlier, I
had received my nomination as an assistant lecturer in zoology at
the university of Poitiers. They offered me a ridiculous salary.
After paying the costs of moving, I should have had hardly three
francs a day left; and, on this income, I had to keep my family,
numbering seven in all. I hastened to decline the very great
No, science ought not to practice these jests. If we humble
persons are of use to her, she should at least enable us to live.
If she can't do that, then let her leave us to break stones on the
highway. Oh, yes, I was prepared for the truth when that honest
fellow talked to me of frock coated poverty! I am telling the story
of a not very distant past. Since then, things have improved
considerably; but, when the pear was properly ripened, I was no
longer of an age to pick it.
And what was I to do now, to overcome the difficulty mentioned by
my inspector and confirmed by my personal experience? I would take
up industrial chemistry. The municipal lectures at Saint Martial
placed a spacious and fairly well-equipped laboratory at my
disposal. Why not make the most of it?
The chief manufacture of Avignon was madder. The farmer supplied
the raw material to the factories, where it was turned into purer
and more concentrated products. My predecessor had gone in for it
and done well by it, so people said. I would follow in his
footsteps and use the vats and furnaces, the expensive plant which
I had inherited. So to work.
What should I set myself to produce? I proposed to extract the
coloring substance, alizarin, to separate it from the other matters
found with it in the root, to obtain it in the pure state and in a
form that allowed of the direct printing of the stuffs, a much
quicker and more artistic method than the old dyeing process.
Nothing could be simpler than this problem, once the solution was
known; but how tremendously obscure while it had still to be
solved! I dare not call to mind all the imagination and patience
spent upon endless endeavors which nothing, not even the madness of
them, discouraged. What mighty meditations in the somber church!
What glowing dreams, soon to be followed by sore disappointment,
when experiment spoke the last word and upset the scaffolding of my
plans. Stubborn as the slave of old amassing a peculium for his
enfranchisement, I used to reply to the check of yesterday by the
fresh attempt of tomorrow, often as faulty as the others, sometimes
the richer by an improvement, and I went on indefatigably, for I
too cherished the indomitable ambition to set myself free.
Should I succeed? Perhaps so. I at last had a satisfactory
answer. I obtained, in a cheap and practical fashion, the pure
coloring matter, concentrated in a small volume and excellent for
both printing and dyeing. One of my friends took up my process on
a large scale in his works; a few calico factories adopted the
produce and expressed themselves delighted with it. The future
smiled at last; a pink rift opened in my gray sky. I should
possess the modest fortune without which I must deny myself the
pleasure of teaching in a university. Freed of the torturing
anxiety about my daily bread, I should be able to live at ease
among my insects.
In the midst of the joys of seeing these problems solved by
chemistry, yet another ray of sunshine was reserved for me, adding
its gladness to that of my success. Let us go back a couple of
years. The chief inspectors visited our grammar school. These
personages travel in pairs: one attends to literature, the other to
science. When the inspection was over and the books checked, the
staff was summoned to the principal's drawing room, to receive the
parting admonitions of the two luminaries. The man of science
began. I should be sadly put to it to remember what he said. It
was cold professional prose, made up of soulless words which the
hearer forgot once the speaker's back was turned, words merely
boring to both. I had heard enough of these chilly sermons in my
time; one more of them could not hope to make an impression on me.
The inspector in literature spoke next. At the first words which
he uttered, I said to myself: 'Oho! This is a very different
The speech was alive and vigorous and full of images; indifferent
to scholastic commonplaces, the ideas soared, hovering gently in
the serene heights of a kindly philosophy. This time, I listened
with pleasure; I even felt stirred. Here was no official homily:
it was full of impassioned zeal, of words that carried you with
them, uttered by an honest man accomplished in the art of speaking,
an orator in the true sense of the word. In all my school
experience, I had never had such a treat.
When the meeting broke up, my heart beat faster than usual: 'What a
pity,' I thought, 'that my side, the science side, cannot bring me
into contact, some day, with that inspector! It seems to me that we
should become great friends.'
I inquired his name of my colleagues, who were always better
informed than I. They told me it was Victor Duruy.
Well, one day, two years later, as I was looking after my Saint
Martial laboratory in the midst of the steam from my vats, with my
hands the color of boiled lobster claws from constant dipping in
the indelible red of my dyes, there walked in, unexpectedly, a
person whose features straightway seemed familiar. I was right, it
was the very man, the chief inspector whose speech had once stirred
me. M. Duruy was now minister of public instruction. He was
styled, 'Your excellency;' and this style, usually an empty
formula, was well deserved in the present case, for our new
minister excelled in his exalted functions. We all held him in
high esteem. He was the workers' minister, the man for the humble
'I want to spend my last half-hour at Avignon with you,' said my
visitor, with a smile. 'That will be a relief from the official
bowing and scraping.'
Overcome by the honor paid me, I apologized for my costume--I was
in my shirt sleeves--and especially for my lobster claws, which I
had tried, for a moment, to hide behind my back.
'You have nothing to apologize for. I came to see the worker. The
working man never looks better than in his overall, with the marks
of his trade on him. Let us have a talk. What are you doing just
I explained, in a few words, the object of my researches; I showed
my product; I executed under the minister's eyes a little attempt
at printing in madder red. The success of the experiment and the
simplicity of my apparatus, in which an evaporating dish,
maintained at boiling point under a glass funnel, took the place of
a steam chamber, caused him some surprise.
'I will help you,' he said. 'What do you want for your laboratory?
'Why, nothing, monsieur le ministre, nothing! With a little
application, the plant I have is ample.'
'What, nothing! You are unique there! The others overwhelm me with
requests; their laboratories are never well enough supplied. And
you, poor as you are, refuse my offers!'
'No, there is one thing which I will accept.'
'What is that? '
'The signal honor of shaking you by the hand.'
'There you are, my friend, with all my heart. But that's not
enough. What else do you want? '
'The Paris Jardin des Plantes is under your control. Should a
crocodile die, let them keep the hide for me. I will stuff it with
straw and hang it from the ceiling. Thus adorned, my workshop will
rival the wizard's cave.'
The minister cast his eyes round the nave and glanced up at the
Gothic vault: 'Yes, it would look very well.' And he gave a laugh
at my sally. 'I now know you as a chemist,' he continued. 'I knew
you already as a naturalist and a writer. I have heard about your
little animals. I am sorry that I shall have to leave without
seeing them. They must wait for another occasion. My train will
be starting presently. Walk with me to the station, will you? We
shall be alone and we can chat a bit more on the way.'
We strolled along, discussing entomology and madder. My shyness
had disappeared. The self sufficiency of a fool would have left me
dumb; the fine frankness of a lofty mind put me at my ease. I told
him of my experiments in natural history, of my plans for a
professorship, of my fight with harsh fate, my hopes and fears. He
encouraged me, spoke to me of a better future. We reached the
station and walked up and down outside, talking away delightfully.
A poor old woman passed, all in rags, her back bent by age and
years of work in the fields. She furtively put out her hand for
alms. Duruy felt in his waistcoat, found a two franc piece and
placed it in the outstretched hand; I wanted to add a couple of
sous as my contribution, but my pockets were empty, as usual. I
went to the beggar woman and whispered in her ear: 'Do you know who
gave you that? It's the emperor's minister.
The poor woman started; and her astounded eyes wandered from the
open-handed swell to the piece of silver and from the piece of
silver to the open-handed swell. What a surprise! What a windfall!
'Que lou bon Dieu ie done longo vido e santa, pecaire!' she said,
in her cracked voice.
And, curtseying and nodding, she withdrew, still staring at the
coin in the palm of her hand.
'What did she say? ' asked Duruy.
'She wished you long life and health.'
'And pecaire? '
'Pecaire is a poem in itself: it sums up all the gentler passions.'
And I myself mentally repeated the artless vow. The man who stops
so kindly when a beggar puts out her hand has something better in
his soul than the mere qualities that go to make a minister.
We entered the station, still alone, as promised, and I quite
without misgivings. Had I but foreseen what was going to happen,
how I should have hastened to take my leave! Little by little, a
group formed in front of us. It was too late to fly; I had to
screw up my courage. Came the general of division and his
officers, came the prefect and his secretary, the mayor and his
deputy, the school inspector and the pick of the staff. The
minister faced the ceremonial semicircle. I stood next to him. A
crowd on one side, we two on the other. Followed the regulation
spinal contortions, the empty obeisances which my dear Duruy had
come to my laboratory to forget. When bowing to St. Roch, in his
corner niche, the worshipper at the same time salutes the saint's
humble companion. I was something like St. Roch's dog in the
presence of those honors which did not concern me. I stood and
looked on, with my awful red hands concealed behind my back, under
the broad brim of my felt hat.
After the official compliments had been exchanged, the conversation
began to languish; and the minister seized my right hand and gently
drew it from the mysterious recesses of my wide awake.
'Why don't you show those gentlemen your hands? ' he said. 'Most
people would be proud of them.'
'Workman's hands,' said the prefect's secretary. 'Regular
The general, almost scandalized at seeing me in such distinguished
company, added: 'Hands of a dyer and cleaner.'
'Yes, workman's hands,' retorted the minister, 'and I wish you many
like them. Believe me, they will do much to help the chief
industry of your city. Skilled as they are in chemical work, they
are equally capable of wielding the pen, the pencil, the scalpel
and the lens. As you here seem unaware of it, I am delighted to
This time, I should have liked the ground to open and swallow me
up. Fortunately, the bell rang for the train to start. I said
goodbye to the minister and, hurriedly taking to flight, left him
laughing at the trick which he had played me.
The incident was noised about, could not help being so, for the
peristyle of a railway station keeps no secrets. I then learned to
what annoyances the shadow of the great exposes us. I was looked
upon as an influential person, having the favor of the gods at my
disposal. Place hunters and canvassers tormented me. One wanted a
license to sell tobacco and stamps, another a scholarship for his
son, another an increase of his pension. I had only to ask and I
should obtain, said they.
O simple people, what an illusion was yours! You could not have hit
upon a worse intermediary. I figuring as a postulant! I have many
faults, I admit, but that is certainly not one of them. I got rid
of the importunate people as best I could, though they were utterly
unable to fathom my reserve. What would they have said had they
known of the minister's offers with regard to my laboratory and my
jesting reply, in which I asked for a crocodile skin to hang from
my ceiling! They would have taken me for an idiot.
Six months elapsed; and I received a letter summoning me to call
upon the minister at his office. I suspected a proposal to promote
me to a more important grammar school and wrote begging that I
might be left where I was, among my vats and my insects. A second
letter arrived, more pressing than the first and signed by the
minister's own hand. This letter said: 'Come at once, or I shall
send my gendarmes to fetch you.'
There was no way out of it. Twenty-four hours later, I was in M.
Duruy's room. He welcomed me with exquisite cordiality, gave me
his hand and, taking up a number of the Moniteur: 'Read that,' he
said. 'You refused my chemical apparatus; but you won't refuse
I looked at the line to which his finger pointed. I read my name
in the list of the Legion of Honor. Quite stupid with surprise, I
stammered the first words of thanks that entered my head.
'Come here,' said he, 'and let me give you the accolade. I will be
your sponsor. You will like the ceremony all the better if it is
held in private, between you and me: I know you!'
He pinned the red ribbon to my coat, kissed me on both cheeks, made
me telegraph the great event to my family. What a morning, spent
with that good man!
I well know the vanity of decorative ribbonry and tinware,
especially when, as too often happens, intrigue degrades the honor
conferred; but, coming as it did, that bit of ribbon is precious to
me. It is a relic, not an object for show. I keep it religiously
in a drawer.
There was a parcel of big books on the tab1e a collection of the
reports on the progress of science drawn up for the International
Exhibition of 1867, which had just closed.
'Those books are for you,' continued the minister. 'Take them with
you. You can look through them at your leisure: they may interest
you. There is something about your insects in them. You're to
have this too: it will pay for your journey. The trip which I made
you take must not be at your own expense. If there is anything
over, spend it on your laboratory.'
And he handed me a roll of twelve hundred francs. In vain I
refused, remarking that my journey was not so burdensome as all
that; besides, his embrace and his bit of ribbon were of
inestimable value compared with my disbursements. He insisted:
'Take it,' he said, 'or I shall be very angry. There's something
else: you must come to the emperor's with me tomorrow, to the
reception of the learned societies.'
Seeing me greatly perplexed and as though demoralized by the
prospect of an imperial interview: 'Don't try to escape me,' he
said, 'or look out for the gendarmes of my letter! You saw the
fellows in the bearskin caps on your way up. Mind you don't fall
into their hands. In any case, lest you should be tempted to run
away, we will go to the Tuileries together, in my carriage.'
Things happened as he wished. The next day, in the minister's
company, I was ushered into a little drawing room at the Tuileries
by chamberlains in knee breeches and silver-buckled shoes. They
were queer people to look at. Their uniforms and their stiff gait
gave them the appearance, in my eyes, of beetles who, by way of
wing cases, wore a great, gold-laced dress coat, with a key in the
small of the back. There were already a score of persons from all
parts waiting in the room. These included geographical explorers,
botanists, geologists, antiquaries, archeologists, collectors of
prehistoric flints, in short, the usual representatives of
provincial scientific life.
The emperor entered, very simply dressed, with no parade about him
beyond a wide, red, watered silk ribbon across his chest. No sign
of majesty, an ordinary man, round and plump, with a large
moustache and a pair of half-closed, drowsy eyelids. He moved from
one to the other, talking to each of us for a moment as the
minister mentioned our names and the nature of our occupations. He
showed a fair amount of information as he changed his subject from
the ice floes of Spitzbergen to the dunes of Gascony, from a
Carlovingian charter to the flora of the Sahara, from the progress
in beetroot growing to Caesar's trenches before Alesia. When my
turn came, he questioned me upon the hypermetamorphosis of the
Meloidae [a beetle family including the oil beetle and the Spanish
fly], my last essay in entomology. I answered as best I could,
floundering a little in the proper mode of address, mixing up the
everyday monsieur with sire, a word whose use was so entirely new
to me. I passed through the dread straits and others succeeded me.
My five minutes' conversation with an imperial majesty was, they
tell me, a most distinguished honor. I am quite ready to believe
them, but I never had a desire to repeat it.
The reception came to an end, bows were exchanged and we were
dismissed. A luncheon awaited us at the minister's house. I sat
on his right, not a little embarrassed by the privilege; on his
left was a physiologist of great renown. Like the others, I spoke
of all manner of things, including even Avignon Bridge. Duruy's
son, sitting opposite me, chaffed me pleasantly about the famous
bridge on which everybody dances; he smiled at my impatience to get
back to the thyme-scented hills and the gray olive yards rich in
'What!' said his father. 'Won't you visit our museums, our
collections? There are some very interesting things there.'
'I know, monsieur le ministre, but I shall find better things,
things more to my taste, in the incomparable museum of the fields.'
'Then what do you propose to do? '
'I propose to go back tomorrow.
I did go back, I had had enough of Paris: never had I felt such
tortures of loneliness as in that immense whirl of humanity. To
get away, to get away was my one idea.
Once home among my family, I felt a mighty load off my mind and a
great joy in my heart, where rang a peal of bells proclaiming the
delights of my approaching emancipation. Little by little, the
factory that was to set me free rose skywards, full of promises.
Yes, I should possess the modest income which would crown my
ambition by allowing me to descant on animals and plants in a
'Well, no,' said Fate, 'you shall not acquire the freedman's
peculium; you shall remain a slave, dragging your chain behind you;
your peal of bells rings false!'
Hardly was the factory in full swing when a piece of news was
bruited, at first a vague rumor, an echo of probabilities rather
than certainties, and then a positive statement leaving no room for
doubt. Chemistry had obtained the madder dye by artificial means;
thanks to a laboratory concoction, it was utterly overthrowing the
agriculture and industries of my district. This result, while
destroying my work and my hopes, did not surprise me unduly. I
myself had toyed with the problem of artificial alizarin and I knew
enough about it to foresee that, in no very distant future, the
work of the chemist's retort would take the place of the work of
It was finished; my hopes were dashed to the ground. What to do
next? Let us change our lever and begin to roll Sisyphus' stone
once more. Let us try to draw from the ink pot what the madder vat
declines to yield. Laboremus!