Chapter XX. Industrial Chemistry

Jean-Henri Fabre The Life of the Fly

oil beetle

Short-necked Oil Beetle

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 (1), 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!

Translator's No­tes:

1. A beetle family including the oil beetle and the Spanish fly.

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