INDUSTRIAL CHEMISTRY





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 play 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

future studies.



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

my superiors.



'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

university professor.'



'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

honor.



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

business!'



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

toiler.



'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

now? '



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

workman's hands.'



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

inform you.'



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

this.



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

Grasshoppers.



'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

university chair.



'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

the fields.



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!





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