Flood Warning was first published in 1960 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title La Grande Alerte, which translates literally as The Great Alert, with a cover design by Peter Barrett, and further illustrations inside by Charles Keeping. Born in 1935, Peter Barrett would go on to illustrate many children’s books over a long career – this job, designing the cover for Flood Warning, must have been one of his first! Charles Keeping was mainly associated with illustrating the children’s books of Rosemary Sutcliff, but he also illustrated Folio Society books and Oxford University Press books, and enjoyed a long and successful career. He died in 1988 and there is a blue plaque outside his house.
As “Flood Warning”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1962, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is an undated Puffin edition, bearing the price 3/6. A quick check online suggests there are quite a few second-hand copies for sale at varying prices, so if you haven’t got a copy there shouldn’t be much difficulty getting hold of one. Incidentally, Berna thought the title “La Grande Alerte” was, frankly, silly. He had proposed the much more obvious and accurate “Le collège englouti” (The Engulfed College). Flood Warning isn’t a bad name for it though. Along with One Hundred Million Francs and The Clue of the Black Cat, Berna named this book as one of his three favourite children’s novels.
We’ve seen Berna write about gangs like Gaby’s and Charloun’s (in The Knights of King Midas), loners like Frederick in Magpie Corner, and middle-class children like Daniel and Manou in The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man. In Flood Warning he goes back to middle-class – and indeed upper-class – children, this time those who attend the exclusive Château-Milon boarding school. Of course, dormitory pranks can be seen as an equivalent to the kind of fun and games a gang gets up to, and you can see how this book reflects very similar gang structure to Berna’s earlier books – although there isn’t one obvious leader. The boys – and they are all boys, which might well be a disincentive for girls reading the book – are all referred to by their surnames, which is a first for Berna, who normally uses his children’s first names or indeed nicknames. The school was based on a Mariste college (run by a religious order dedicated to the Virgin Mary) in Fribourg, Switzerland, which the young Berna (or rather the young Sabran, as he hadn’t yet acquired this nom-de-plume) attended after his father was killed in the First World War in 1914. Much like Château-Milon, the college had one building for the older pupils, one for the middle and one for the youngest.
This is a complete page-turner of a book; once the fear of the oncoming storm turns into a flood, and the flood becomes real, and threatening, Berna never lets up the action-packed narration, gaining suspense and excitement from the intense detail of every stage of fighting the rising tide, and from all the main characters’ viewpoints. The book shows how, when danger is imminent, petty arguments and jealousies are cast aside in the more important issue of survival. Boys and adults work hand in hand as a team to combat the flood waters, each relying on the other to be brave, make innovative decisions and to go beyond whatever they’ve experienced before. The disaster is a great leveller, and as the book progresses, the status difference between masters and pupils becomes less relevant and less noticeable. It’s only when there is a return to some kind of status quo at the end, that the old structure begins to come back.
Flood Warning gives us Berna’s most interesting adult yet. He’s not a parent, he’s not a policeman and he’s not a villain. He is a teacher, whom we first meet truly struggling with his job. Monsieur Sala is an intellectual, and does not possess the ruthless skills to keep order in class, a weakness of which the naughtier and more reckless boys take great advantage. Brossay, the headmaster, is having to fire him for being truly useless at the job; and Sala looks bitterly on the ringleader of the bad boys, Chomel, as a truly evil influence – not only is he making his life a misery, he’s making him lose his job and his accommodation. As schoolkids, the emotional harassment that playing-up and misbehaving can have on a teacher who lacks that hard edge simply never occurs to us. It’s just a laugh, an excuse to play around. However, Berna openly reveals the extent to which Sala is upset and disturbed by the way he is treated. Nevertheless, cometh the hour, cometh the man; Sala blossoms into a hero, rising to the challenges of survival against the floods.
His ascendancy is matched by that of the senior boy Vignoles, a Frederick-type character (see above) who has been a fish out of water for many years but finally finds a role for himself. Five years before the story starts, Vignoles had been deposited at the school by his father, who was too busy with business to look after his son. The boy was taken in by the Brossay family and looked after. But he never felt like he was at home, and he resented the abandonment, constantly dreaming up ways to escape. Like Frederick, he lacks a guiding father figure, and has to make his own way as best he can.
It’s not until he starts volunteering to help protect the school against the rains that he finally starts to feel an affection for his surroundings. “”The seniors are itching to help,” Vignoles answered. Monsieur Brossay was struck by the feeling behind the boy’s words. “I thought you didn’t like Château-Milon,” he said gently. “I’ve changed my mind since last night,” Vignoles retorted in his most icy tones. Monsieur Brossay did not press him. Despite the fact that he had been treated as one of the headmaster’s family during the long time he had been there, Vignoles had remained almost a stranger to him, enclosed in a wall of introspection which resisted all approaches.”
When the floods are worsening, and their situation becomes more desperate, Vignoles opens up to Sala, who is now, also, beginning to find his feet. “It’s taken me six years to realise what the school means to each one of us; safety, order, a breathing-space before we go out into the world, a place where we can be happy, study and learn how to live with other people. When I came, I had the bad luck to play up to the wrong set and win the disapproval of the decent sorts. But that’s all over and done with and I need my friends around me as much as the air I breathe.”
It’s fascinating to read how differently the senior boys are treated (and indeed look after themselves) at a French school as opposed to a British equivalent at the time. For example, the senior boys drink cider with dinner – can you imagine that in Enid Blyton?! Charpenne smokes in bed. Nor do you get the impression that these are moments of “naughty” behaviour; they are merely symptomatic of how much more adult French boys were treated than British. As a curious aside, Charpenne has to reuse old drawings to create new ones – because “paper was scarce” – was this a continued post-war shortage?
Like The Mystery of the Cross Eyed Man, this is another book full of real locations. The actions of the book are all centred on the area around Angers on the Loire, and the river Authion, a tributary, on the broad plains of Anjou. The Day Boys go home to La Bohalle. The nearest explosives factory is said to be “fifty or sixty miles away, near Châtellerault.” Local areas under water include Belle-Noue and La Ménitré. The airfield, to which some of the boys are eventually evacuated, is at Avrillé. You can plot virtually all of the locations mentioned in the book easily against a map.
As always with Berna, the book is littered with beautiful language and evocative passages. For example: after that first, ominous, puff of wind: “Vignoles looked up. The last dead leaves were raining down from the tall plane trees, revolving slowly like a swarm of butterflies as they were caught in the light which streamed in bars of gold from the windows.” When the flood reaches its most dangerous height, “a muddy sea billowed down the drive, poured through the gate like a millrace, foamed against walls and trees, shivered windows and made matchwood of doors, and flooded gurgling into buildings.” When the wind causes the school bell to ring all by itself, it’s “mournfully ringing like the bell of a fogbound schooner.” Not only is the story full of exciting narrative, but there are constant opportunities to let Berna’s words – as deftly translated by Buchanan-Brown – wash over you.
Here’s my in-depth chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any more spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading! By the way – this is Paul Berna’s first children’s novel where the chapters don’t have individual titles.
Chapter One. It seems like a normal day at Château-Milon school. Headmaster M. Brossay is delivering his lesson, and the sixth form students are ignoring him. Muret is organising the school football team for their match against Cunault. Vignoles, the dreamer, stares out of the window, lost in the countryside and his thoughts of how to escape. Boisson de Chazelles, the Vicomte, is planning how he could get expelled, as he had done from all his previous schools. Guillon and Montaigu appear to be working but are in fact passing notes with the shock news “Rabbits’ Eggs has got the sack!” That’s their nickname for the kindly but ineffectual M. Sala. Apparently the rumour goes that the lout Chomel, together with the class clown Sardine, shut Mme Juillet (the cook)’s cats in his desk, and when he opened the desk they flew out much to his shock. Twenty-five children laughed their head off and Sala was driven to tears.
Meanwhile, Charpenne is drawing a picture of Brossay with a pimple on his nose. Charpenne is accustomed to writing love poems to Brossay’s daughter Edith, or rather adapting other writer’s poetry. However, Edith has been passing the poems on to Mme Juiliet – also an Edith! Next door, M. Lacour is teaching Maths to the Upper Fifth, one of whom, Jeantet, has the job of ringing the bell, Cunégonde, to signal the end of the lesson.
Muret and his friend Lalande go off for football practice. Guillon and Montaigu try to work out if there is anything they can do about Sala. Vignoles talks to M. Juillet, who warns that rain is coming from Biarritz. Meanwhile, a mix up means that Edith Brossay gets to see Charpenne’s portrait of her father than his love poetry. Although he sees the joke, Brossay writes on the portrait “my congratulations to the artist […] take 8 hours detention.”
Later Brossay confirms to Sala that his inability to hold discipline can no longer continue. He is to leave the school in a couple of days’ time. It will be a blessing for the awkward Sala. Brossay tells him “”none of the boys is really bad at heart and even the worst, I’m sure, are already sorry for the harm they have done you.” Monsieur Sala nodded politely. He thought otherwise, To him, Chomel was evil personified. Nothing he could do had been able to soften the boy’s natural unpleasantness or remove his ridiculous grudge against the timid little schoolmaster imprisoned in his own shyness.”
But it’s as the children are teasing him one last time that evening, that the noise from the howling wind picks up and blows open and breaks one of the windows. “Incisively Monsieur Sala rose from his desk. He could not explain it, but the wildness of the night had sparked in him, for the first time in his life, a terrible courage. He banged the window shut and turned to the astonished boys. “Back to work all of you! Anyone how moves or makes a sound will be in trouble!” Chomel challenges him by not moving. Sala has the last word of the chapter: “Monsieur Chomel […] you are very big, and very nasty, and your nastiness seems to have attracted the worst elements in the form. But there is many a slip between cup and lip, and so do not be too sure that I shall leave this school before you do.”
Chapter Two. When Jeantet sounds Cunégonde at 7 pm, and all the external lights go on, they realise just how the wind has torn all the leaves from the branches. Over dinner, the extraordinary wind is the talk on everyone’s lips, both boys and masters. It doesn’t prevent the hungry Picard from enjoying his “cannon-balls” (one of Mme Juillet’s heartiest dishes) – finishing off everyone’s left-overs, he eats 16 of them!
Chomel and Sardine plan to let off a few more “thunder-flashes” that evening to scare M. Sala. But in the meantime, Messieurs Boris and Sala decide to work together to round up the juniors before bedtime. Boris is sad that Sala will be leaving. Sala tells him of his plans, to return to his parents’ house in Savoy for two weeks’ rest and recuperation, after which he’ll attempt some coaching, maybe at the University of Grenoble.
With the boys safely all in bed, Sala turns his attention to his books and his card indexes. He doesn’t hear the whispering Chomel and Sardine, placing the thunderflashes outside his door, with a fuse leading to Chomel’s bed. However, unknown to them, Kiki Dubourg and little Jozas have their own plans to protect Sala, without spoiling the fun of the explosion – they reposition the flashes under Chomel’s bed! He still has the fuse, but has no idea that it will be his posterior that will be attacked. Meanwhile, in La Vallière, the senior house, Vignoles, Charpenne and Boisson de Chazelles all go up to the bedroom they share. Vignoles cannot sleep, worried about the weather. At the same time that he gets up to look out of the window, M. Sala puts out his light, which is Chomel’s cue to start timing the fuse. Sala, meanwhile, has a nightmare involving angry animals, one of which looks like Chomel. But in reality, one of the juniors’ dormitory windows had blown in. “Outside the gale burst its bonds. Its first shock fell upon Château-Milon with a noise like thunder. Driven before it, a hail of flying débris battered the walls and roofs with a ceaseless rattle.”
Sala goes to check, but at the same time another gust blows against Kiki’s bed, covering it with pieces of broken glass. The boy isn’t hurt, just terrified. He, Jozas, and another boy are moved to empty beds at the other end of the dormitory. However, on the first floor, a branch crashes through a window, “the wind howled through the hole, blowing in a rain of dead leaves, bits of straw and other garden refuse and filling the room with a choking cloud of dust.” Sala tells Martin and Desbois to watch guard. Outside, the wind had started Cunégonde the bell to sound all by itself, “mournfully ringing like the bell of a fogbound schooner.” Boris and Lacour make their way outside but the wind is perilously dangerous, picking up bits of fencing and hurling it everywhere. They’re joined by Brossay, Juillet and the Trévidic brothers. The men all tried to board up the windows with planks and nails, whilst the wind continues to hiss and bring down trees. With the damage mitigated, the order is to go back to bed and they’ll assess the ruins in the morning.
Chomel, meanwhile, is terrified about his thunderflashes. He prays that somehow the fuse had burned out. But at that very moment…. Bang! “A shattering explosion lifted his mattress and deposited him on the floor, gasping like a fish out of water. The gale which raged outside was drowned in a roar of laughter. Chomel was a pitiable sight as in his crumpled pyjamas he got unsteadily to his feet and gaped, green with fright, at Monsieur Brossay, Monsieur Sala, Monsieur Boris and Monsieur Lacour, who were ranged like judges behind the partition.” And for that, Chomel gets six whacks of the slipper, much to Sala’s vengeful delight.
At 1 am comes the first power cut. The wind has started to die down, only to be replaced by rain, “unbroken heavy, steady, filling the countryside with the dull roar of a waterfall.” The next morning they could all see what had happened out there. The boys get soaked, just getting to breakfast. At least Charpenne doesn’t have to spend his detention alone. Never have so many attended one of Father Fabien’s Sunday masses. But it carries on raining, until just before supper, when the gale starts up again. Sala, meanwhile, spends Sunday packing his cases for his Monday departure.
On Monday morning there is another power cut, but life has to carry on. Sala wonders if Brossay might relent and withdraw his dismissal, but Juillet’s car is there waiting to take him to the station. He leaves with minimum farewells and off they drive. But shortly they return, as the road is completely under water! As everyone else gets on with their day, Sala stands “at the foot of the steps, like a piece of jetsam, firmly holding a suitcase in each hand. His thin face and enormous glasses were lost below his rain-soaked hat. “What shall I do?” he asked bewilderedly.” “Stay, of course! That’s all you can do,“ Monsieur Brossay went on impatiently. “We’ll see later…””
Chapter Three. Sala returns to his desk but with new-found confidence, “and the conviction that crises can sometimes be to the advantage of the weak and the despised.” The masters listening to the radio weather forecasts are annoyed that the announcer concentrates on Nantes and ignores the low-lying countryside. The announcement does confirm, however, difficulties in communication in the environs of the school. The day boys are not able to get in, nor can Edith return to her boarding school in Nantes. “At seventeen, it was fun to be thrown into something that smacked of adventure with plenty of males to share it.”
Vignoles reports that the Authion has flooded over the football pitch. He offers to help as much as he can – also promising the help of the other seniors – and Brossay is impressed at how the boy seems to be finally feeling at home. First job is to dig up the basketball pitch in order to fill sandbags to dam the breach of the garden gate. A watch is organised to keep an eye on the water level. Over lunch, everyone talks animatedly – and Sala confirms that the juniors – confined to the house – are behaving themselves, all reading The Three Musketeers together; even Chomel! Sala confesses he’d sooner be helping with the practical work; M. Boris assures him he soon will. At that point comes the third power cut – and the last; there would be no restitution of electricity to Château-Milon.
Vignoles tells M. Brossay that the dam will need to be raised by three feet to stop the water flooding up to the back door by the morning. Juniors and seniors work together to get the job done. But everyone is quietly worried for their safety. M. Juillet fears that they’re in for a repeat of the great floods of 1820, where the top of the Mérovée Tower was the only man-made structure visible. “If Monsieur Brossay let you boys inside the ruin I could show you a funny sort of calendar cut into one of the roof beams. Mérovée, his wife and his man were cut off by the floods and spent a week perched up among the beams and cog-wheels with only a pair of owls and a dozen rats for company.” Meanwhile, Charpenne dreams that life at Château-Milon had turned into a scene from Morte d’Arthur – he was Lancelot and he writes a poem to Edith, who, as Guinevere, was busily helping out with even the most unpleasant tasks.
Vignoles advises that the Authion has only risen an inch or two in the last three hours; but Brossay informs everyone what he has heard on the news, that thousands of homes in the area are in danger, and the Civil Defence volunteers are overwhelmed by calls for help. Further plans are drawn up to keep guard over all the buildings. This includes partnering up two people of balanced strength, usually one master with one student. Once the pairs have been selected, Vignoles is left without a partner. Would M. Sala step up to the challenge? Of course he will. Vignoles and Sala have the 2am – 4am watch, and Vignoles advises Sala that he is certain something is going to happen tonight. “I know I’ve never seen a flood before, but when you’ve watched every detail of a disaster there are some signs which are unmistakable. One thing alone could have saved this corner of the valley, if the weather had cleared at lunchtime and the rain had stopped. It’s too late now. Nothing can hold back the floods.”
Chapter Four. That evening the senior boys speculate as to how the water levels might change overnight – interspersed with laughs about Father Fabien’s stories, and Hubert Boisson de Chazelles’ prissy behaviour. Just before midnight the sky is lit up with red flashes. “The troops are blowing a quarter-mile gap in the embankment. The floods from the Authion are threatening Angers.”
It’s time for Vignoles and M. Sala to go on watch. The diminutive Sala is almost completely hidden by his oilskin raincoat. Brossay, Juillet and Father Fabien discuss the conditions – Brossay notes that his telephone line to the town hall at Longué went dead at the end of their conversation. Sala and Vignoles go off with their instructions. They meet M. Boris at the top of a ladder who informs them that Muret is patrolling the walls, as cracks have been appearing. Boris warns Vignoles that he must stay away from the flood waters, no matter what.
As Vignoles and Sala talk, both of them open up about their feelings – especially Vignoles, who explains that the flood has been a shot in the arm to make him come to his senses. When they realise that the battle against the water is lost, Sala goes to tell Brossay whilst Vignoles keeps further watch. Brossay tells Sala that everyone should go back into their houses – no one is to remain outside. But just as Sala approaches Vignoles to tell him to leave, “there was a dull crash and then the drumming of the rain was drowned by a roaring which increased in volume and came from behind the trees.” Going off to investigate, the water cascades over the garden wall, and Sala throws himself against the sandbags, trying to hold back the flood. Vignoles manages to grab Sala from the sandbags as they both flee for their lives, whilst a wave, ten feet high, pursues them. But they manage to escape to their houses, and in a moment of surprising calm, Boisson de Chazelles takes Sala a cocoa – and they end up playing chess all night long.
A brief respite the following morning allows for a council of war. Fabien and Juillet are in favour of an evacuation; Boris rejects this because of its impracticality. Brossay considers both arguments, but Fabien insists: “there should be one motive behind your decision: we have been entrusted with forty children and we are responsible for their safety. No one will blame you if you have been overscrupulous of that. We must go, and go as soon as we can!” Brossay asks Sala’s advice. Sala agrees with Fabien – his experience of the previous night has convinced him of the danger they are in.
So everyone is bustled into Brossay’s vehicles and driven towards the Arcy Woods – taking several perilous journeys. But the last car doesn’t return. “A muddy sea billowed down the drive, poured through the gate like a millrace, foamed against walls and trees, shivered windows and made matchwood of doors, and flooded gurgling into buildings.” With no knowledge of what has happened, Sala gets everyone left behind to go upstairs – Vignoles, Picard, Charpenne, Boisson de Chazelles, Job Trévidic, Sala himself and… the pathetic Chomel, who cried that no one wanted him to go with them. Meanwhile, the water laps against the foot of the staircase.
Chapter Five. The seven look after themselves the best they can. Yes, they are cold, but they have food, and no concern that the building could collapse. Vignoles and Sala exercise their influence to calm down arguments. Vignoles’ chief fear is that the disaster of 1820 is about to recur. Sala quietly proposes to Vignoles and Charpenne that they should build rafts and sail towards the high land behind Longué. They use bed frames, chair seats, planks and such like to build the first raft. For the second, they adapt the hot water tanks in the bathroom. Vignoles and Sala propose waiting until morning to make their escape, but the others call it cowardice.
However, they also discover two strong ladders, and it occurs to them to use them to cross the virtual bay outside and reach the mill, where they’ll be much safer. Disagreements over what to do turn into a fight, with Charpenne attacking Chomel and Boisson de Chazelles disowning Vignoles as a friend. Nevertheless, the ladder bridge is constructed, and one by one they cross over into the mill – until it’s Chomel’s turn. The bully is nowhere to be seen until he is found hiding under a bed. Vignoles and Chomel get across just in time before the flood engulfs the dormitory. In the mill, they discover the calendar that M. Juillet had mentioned.
They are all able, finally, to sleep. Vignoles awakes from his dream hearing a knocking sensation. It’s the rising water level. They have to ascend another ten feet. Once again they rest, but Chomel can’t stop crying. VIgnoles tells him to forget his past, “you’re a different person now.” With relief, they notice the rain stops; the levels start to fall. “Boisson de Chazelles saw the red canoe first. It floated along on a slight current, upside down, and straight for Mérovée’s Tower.
Chapter Six. Using plaited sheets, Boisson de Chazelles climbs down to the water level, stops the canoe in its tracks, upends it, tests its sturdiness, and proves he’s a natural when it comes to manoeuvring canoes! After a discussion as to who should be the first to be evacuated, Chomel also gets on board and the two of them set off for the Arcy Woods, where they can make contact with M. Brossay. The others, unexpectedly think they’re going to be rescued when a launch appears noisily out of the fog; but it’s packed with other survivors and drives off past them, apparently not noticing their frantic shouts for attention.
Meanwhile Boisson de Chazelles and Chomel are heading towards the wood, when they discover a helpful signpost peeping out above the water level, proving they’re on the right course. Eventually they see a number of cars parked, including those from the school – but not a soul in sight. Eventually they spot Brossay and creep up on him, startling him with delight. Relieved that everyone is accounted for, Brossay explains their treacherous journey.
Brossay is horrified that Boisson de Chazelles intends to turn back and get the others – threatening him with expulsion if he refuses to stay. But he sets off anyway, and gets back to the Tower without too much difficulty. This time Sala insists that the canoe hero stays in the tower, but instead he takes Trévidic and Charpenne on board and heads back to the woods. However, something is wrong. Somehow they get caught in the mainstream of the Loire, and they miss the woods completely. As the canoe heads for a cross current with tree trunks and brushwood, they paddle furiously to escape the danger. They survive this disaster, but Boisson de Chazelles is exhausted. The others take control as he drifts off into oblivion. And next thing they know – they’ve arrived in the outskirts of Angers!
Rescued by the police, Boisson de Chazelles tells them as best he can of the numbers and location of the people bivouacked in the Arcy Woods, plus those remaining at the Mérovée Tower. The weather is expected to clear in half an hour!
Chapter Seven. Meanwhile, Sala is concerned that the canoe didn’t return, but satisfies himself with the thought that they must have stayed with Brossay. Vignoles is not so certain. When “the Vicomte” first arrived at the school he kept on finding ways to escape. He’s not the kind of person who would stay in the woods. They comfort themselves with opening a tin of sardines, and sleep eventually takes over.
They awaken to the beautiful sight of the fog clearing and their new water-filled environment surrounding them. Many more vessels are now driving past; they hope that their rescue will come soon. Helicopters appear, picking up and dropping down the rescued, creating beautiful patterns in the sky. But none of them comes to the Tower. Sala has the great idea to use the discarded sardine tins as mirrors, flashing the reflected sunlight into the sky, so that the pilots can see them.
And it works! Eventually a helicopter hovers over the tower, lets a nylon ladder down, and Picard is the first to depart. Sala insists that when the helicopter returns, Vignoles will be next to be evacuated. Sala has a moment of pure self-discovery. “Monsieur Sala was quite bewildered. Kant now seemed an old driveller and his Critique of Pure Reason a mass of nonsense. “Good gracious, that’s right, my thesis is a monumental blunder!” the little man thought frankly to himself. “There’s plenty of other things for a keen observant brain: all you need do is keep your eyes open to the world around.” At this very moment, he thought, men overwhelmed by a great disaster had not been left to perish. In one night their suffering had awakened the sympathy of an entire nation, a sympathy expressed alike in the smallest as in the most heroic service. This fight to the death against the misfortunes of others was indeed the only war worth waging nowadays.”
Vignoles is rescued and taken to the airfield at Avrillé. There he is given a number, to find a bus that will take him to join the rest of his schoolmates, in Château-Gontier. Picard is waiting for him. The helicopter returns for Sala, but the bus cannot wait for him – there will be more buses later that Sala can catch. Brossay is there to meet the buses, and his thoughts are a mixture of relief and how he can best describe the bravery of his boys and staff as a future marketing ploy!
Picard and Vignoles reflect on how the experience of the past few days has changed people. Brossay couldn’t wait to get rid of Sala, but now is waiting to welcome him back as a hero. Vignoles himself admits “a couple of days ago I couldn’t have cared less about Chomel, and yet when we had to get out of La Vallière in a hurry, I was more worried about saving the idiot’s life than I was about my own.”
At the makeshift school, everything quickly goes back to normal. Only one thing – person – is missing. Sala wasn’t there when the helicopter returned for him. There’s no trace of him having been rescued by anyone else. What can have happened?
Chapter Eight. A few hours later, the Loire starts behaving again; after three days, the Authion returns to its normal course. Brossay arranges for all his pupils to be sent home. His wife and daughter go off to Nantes, leaving just the Juillets, the Trévidics, and Vignoles, who is determined to see in the return to Château-Milon. It would be six days before that was possible. And there is still no news of Sala.
When Brossay finally reaches the old school, all he could see was wreckage. Until he sees a figure leaning out of a skylight. It’s Sala! He’d been locked in the Tower all this time, and he didn’t want to try to break the door down, because “the school’s suffered enough damage as it is.” Sala confesses he wasn’t picked up by the helicopter because – he had lost his glasses! He’d had an accident with the cogwheel, and when he came to, his glasses were missing – and without them on, he couldn’t find them! He knew he would be a danger to himself and others if he attempted the evacuation without them, so he pretended to be dead. But all’s well that ends well!
Exploring the wreckage, Brossay determines that the school will reopen for the summer term. One by one, the masters return over the next fortnight; whilst Sala takes up the manuscripts for his thesis, Modern Survivals of Kantian thought, and throws them on the bonfire burning all the other wreckage. He also sacrifices his copy of Critique of Pure Reason.
Come February, it’s Vignoles who’s accompanying Edith around the estate, showing her the work in progress. She confides that only thirty pupils have committed to returning, but Vignoles is convinced more will follow. As they walk, they realise how they have both changed – particularly Vignoles. ““You’ve been here six years,” the girl went on, “and I can remember times when we didn’t say a word to one another for months on end. And yet you were one of the family; Father told you that often enough.” “I know,” Vignoles answered, “but I had to go through all this to realise what he meant.” They walked off hand in hand to see how the kitchen garden was doing. “I’ll end up cutting my best friend out,” thought Vignoles when they came back from their stroll. He appreciated the irony of the situation.”
The first day of the summer term finally dawns. Masters are dressed in their Sunday Best; vehicles await at the local stations to pick boys up to take them to the school. Vignoles feels more at home than ever before. Sala greets the juniors and takes them to the dormitory – and confronts the returning Chomel. “Are you proposing to go on ragging me this term? […] If it’s something you can’t help, if it’s vital to your physical wellbeing, you’ve only to tell me now and we’ll come to some arrangement.” “Oh no, sir! Never, sir!”
Eventually Vignoles’ closest friends arrive; first Picard and Charpenne, and then finally, out of the blue, Hubert Boisson de Chazelles, still full of arrogant cheek. Everyone who was expected to return, has returned, plus a few more. Brossay reflects: “the peril which they had surmounted together had changed them all. It had revealed unexpected strength of character, it had dissolved foolish enmities, it had strengthened the ties of friendship, it had cured the selfish and stirred the sluggards.”
The book ends by considering the future for all the major characters. “In a matter of hours Vignoles had learned to love a school where he had so long rejected the family life that had been offered to him. The butterfly Charpenne had realised that real feeling is expressed not in plagiarised sonnets but in the anxiety felt for someone dear to you. The appalling Chomel had in one night of peril cast off his old stupid and mischief-making self. That rolling stone Hubert Boisson de Chazelles had at last realised that team spirit counted for more than rank or wealth and that one unselfish action did more to inspire true comradeship than weeks of showing off. In short, every one of the boys, from tiny Kiki Dubourg to gigantic Picard, had come in his own way through the ordeal. Not one had failed. Through them and for them their school had survived the floods and recovered its physical and spiritual being.
And this was just as true of the amazing Monsieur Sala. That night, as he crossed from La Vallière to Mérovée’s Tower on two shaky ladders, he had shed his shyness and made sure that, despite his disastrous beginning, he would find in Château-Milon the haven of sympathetic security best suited to his unpretentious, scholarly way of life.”
To sum up; this is a thrilling adventure mixed in with some enlightening personal development journeys. The fearful rise up and take command, and the bullies cower (as they always do when threatened.) This should be a much better known book than it is – because it’s definitely one of Berna’s best. If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Paul Berna’s next book was Le Bout du monde, which wasn’t translated until ten years later in 1971, as Gaby and the New Money Fraud, but as we’re taking Berna’s books in the order he wrote them, rather than the year they were published in English, we’ll take that book next. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.