Chapter XIX. A Memorable Lesson

Jean-Henri Fabre The Life of the Fly

crane fly

Crane Fly (Nephrotoma suturalis wulpian)

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 study.

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 rest.

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 arsenal.

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 himself.

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 home decently.

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 Demosthenes!

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 oxygen.

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 right enough.

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 chemistry!

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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