In which we make one final visit to the world of Gaby, Marion, Zidore and the other members of the Hundred Million Francs gang; adults now – some of them at least – off on a camping holiday in the South of France in Gaby’s Citroen van. But what is the mystery of the village of Saint-Salgue, and why are they being followed?
The Mystery of Saint-Salgue was first published in 1962 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title La Piste du Souvenir, which translates literally as The Trail of Remembrance, with illustrations by Robert Broomfield. As “The Mystery of Saint-Salgue”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1963, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the Bodley Head first edition, bearing the price 13s 6d. A quick check online suggests there are a few copies of this book available to buy at the moment – scattered around the world, mainly!
This, sadly, is the last book by Berna to feature Gaby and his gang, but when you read it through to the end, and you discover its highly unusual and lifechanging ending, it’s appropriate that this is where we leave our friends to get on with their future. For the most part, it’s a very plot-driven book, with many exciting turns and surprises, full of action, and with a very feelgood ending. Perhaps the ending is a little too far-fetched to appreciate fully; then again, who is to say that such an event couldn’t happen? I’ll have to leave you to read it and discover it for yourself.
Despite its busy plot, there is still space for Berna to explore the developing characters of the gang members. Gaby is already a man; he still has his anger management issues, confronting Charley for not resorting to violence against the villains when they are captured. ““Your non-violence is all wrong! […] by behaving like this you will let them think they are immune to punishment and that’s just encouragement to crooks like them. Now, I see things in a slightly different light”. And he lifted an imperious boot to the seat of Grondin’s shorts…” When their vehicle gets vandalised, his instant reaction is to fly into a fury and kick one of Marion’s dogs – even though the dog was obviously not responsible for the damage. Berna describes Gaby as speaking with a “patronising bite” when mocking Fernand’s father, “Daddy Douin”. And when it comes to the big rescue mission at the end, Gaby’s plan is to use their vehicle as a battering ram. It doesn’t matter that Zidore has spent ages lavishing care on its appearance; Gaby wants to use it with brutal force. He still commands respect within the gang, and you still want to be best friends with him, but I do worry about his future welfare!
Zidore, on the other hand, has turned into a true mechanic; proud of his hard work, always generous with his time and his skill – for example, the way he repairs the Rambler without even being asked. It’s while working with the oil that Berna teases us with the fact that his oil-blackened moustache makes him look ten years older. That impresses on the reader that he too is now a man – and a thoroughly decent one.
In some respects, Fernand takes more centre stage in this book as Berna reveals more of his sensitivity and introvert nature. Although we occasionally see how he’s still besotted with Marion, their relationship doesn’t seem to have moved on at all, and in fact Marion’s role in this book is merely occasionally to make financial decisions and take care of the dogs – although the final scene in the book shows Marion reassuring Fernand that it is ok to make his own decisions and occasionally tell a judicious white lie. It may be that Fernand’s development has been held back by his relationship with his father and also the sense of “not-belonging”, which is at the heart of the story.
The only other person to get more of Berna’s attention than usual is Criquet Lariqué. Fernand describes him as “the cleverest of us all” as he quietly goes about playing a supporting role within the gang. For the first time, Berna addresses Criquet Lariqué’s racial background. When Betty asks where he was born, Zidore steps in: “here of course! […] in our suburb. Criquet’s as French as the rest of us. The colour of his skin makes no difference.” Nevertheless, we feel the boy’s anguish at the end when he fears he will be the only member of the gang who will not fit into everyone’s future, agonising about being from Timbuctoo. As always, the gang is very protective and inclusive, and his fears are unfounded – but his sensitivities to the issue and consequent insecurity are very obvious.
As always, Berna is at his best when he conveys that sense of unity and loyalty that you get from being a member of a gang. No matter their age or ability, everyone is equal, everyone contributes. When the gang members introduce themselves to their Canadian neighbours on the first night of their holiday, each of them explains their role within the group: Gaby, the captain and steersman, Zidore the mechanic, Fernand the navigator-quartermaster, Juan in charge of tent pitching, Tatave head cook, Bonbon his bus boy, Criquet, head waiter, and Berthe and Mélie laundry-maids (Gaby is not a strong feminist). Only Marion refuses to play this game, because of her distrust for anyone new; but Gaby explains she’s in charge of the dogs.
However, for the first time the book touches upon that feeling when a member of the group might be acting on their own agenda, secretively keeping things from the rest of the gang and possibly not working in the gang’s best interests. That suggestion of disunity and disloyalty from within the gang feels quite shocking. Gaby knows his team well enough to conclude who that person might be. “A rebellious lock of hair fell across Fernand’s half-closed eyes. He was wide awake now and could feel the injustice of nine pairs of accusing eyes turning on him. Even Marion, his beloved Marion, was cold and hostile.” But although he has been keeping a major secret from the gang, Fernand has not been working against their best interests – far from it, as it turns out at the end. Nevertheless, you feel Fernand has to work hard to regain the gang’s respect.
Also for the first time, the English title of the novel is more appropriate than the original French! The Mystery of Saint-Salgue completely sums up the entire book, as it’s not until the final pages that we discover what and where Saint-Salgue is and, even then, how its mystery will affect the gang members for the rest of their lives. La Piste du Souvenir – The Trail of Remembrance – is a very abstract title that perhaps emphasises more the journey to get to Saint-Salgue rather than the destination’s significance.
As Berna often likes to do, the book starts with a map, revealing that pretty much everywhere in this book is based on real places. La Goulaine caravan camp, where the story starts, is near Varenne-Saint-Germain, east of Moulins. Sologne is a region and Salbris is a real town between Orleans and Bourges. The village of Estivareilles exists, and although there isn’t a Chapon d’Or, there is a Lion d’Or, with a bar that looks out on to the main road, just as Berna describes. I’m sure you could recreate the journey taken by Calamity Jane the van even today. Talking of which, why are they now calling their vehicle “Calamity Jane”, when in Gaby and the New Money Fraud, they had decided to call it the “Uphill Struggle”? That’s an inconsistency that really bothers me!
There’s another aspect to this book that doesn’t feel quite right. Although the English version is by Berna’s usual translator John Buchanan-Brown, the accuracy of the English idiom doesn’t always seem up to his usual standards. For example, right at the beginning, Charley is staring at the night sky and the narration notes that his gaze falls upon the constellation Cassiope. However, in English we know that as Cassiopeia. In another example, at the beginning of the chapter “The Forest Perilous”, Berna writes: “the moonbeams slanted down to illumine the whole camp.” Illumine is the direct French word, not illuminate as it would be in English. There were a few instances where I felt the language wasn’t spot on, which is very unusual for these books. Maybe the proofreading was carried out too quickly, or Mr Buchanan-Brown didn’t have his mind on the job!
A few other thoughts came to mind whilst reading this book. Grondin’s constant attempts to stop the progress of the gang and the Canadians reminded me of Wile E Coyote’s perpetual attempts to stop the Road Runner. And I love how all Marion’s dogs have human intelligence! They’re really add-on members of the group, with Dick and Plouc in particular playing a significant role in this story. And I thought it was curious that they called the living space at the back of the van “The Bridal Suite”. That suggests an activity that otherwise is certainly not present in the interactions of the gang members, no matter how much Fernand is in love with Marion.
Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading!
Chapter One – The Midnight Prowler. As Manitoban holidaymaker Charley Ricou looks out at night from his caravan at La Goulaine, he is amused at the sight of “a sort of red-painted Noah’s Ark on wobbly wheels” that has parked up next to him. The vehicle had arrived earlier that evening, with its cargo of seven boys, three girls and “eleven hairy hounds”, whom the caretaker had said couldn’t stay in the main camp site but could be housed on the sand by the river. Charley, with his wife Betty, had already met the gang that evening, where the gang members all introduced themselves to their new neighbours, and had shared a spot of supper together.
Charley had explained that he and his wife, Betty, come from Saint-Salgue in Manitoba, but it must have been named after an original French town. They want to discover the French Saint-Salgue, but where is it? The gang members are minded to accompany the couple on their quest, although no firm decisions are made. But Charley is disturbed by the appearance late at night of one Grondin, whom he and his wife had met at Houlgate. Grondin was noseying around the gang’s vehicle but didn’t steal anything. Charley is suspicious. “If you ask me he’s worked some dirty deal on those kids”, says Charley to Betty. “He must be mad. How can they worry him?” she replies. “Maybe they’re in the deal, too!” responds Charley, enigmatically.
Chapter Two – The Police Station at Salbris. The gang take to the road, planning a journey to the Forest of Tronçais, south of Bourges. But Bonbon has noticed something odd – the dogs are all growling at the luggage, and indeed yellow dog Dick had bitten into the side of one of the cases to reveal a transistor radio. How did it get there? Marion suggests they keep it somewhere safe and discreet and Zidore offers to look after it.
Two policemen on motorbikes roar past and signal for Gaby to stop driving. Satisfied they’ve got the right vehicle, the cops tell Gaby they’ve been ordered to escort them to the police station. Is it something to do with the transistor? They arrive in Salbris and are told to give up their ID papers. They are told that one of their neighbours at the caravan camp has had a transistor set stolen and suspect the gang. If they find the transistor while searching Calamity Jane, they’re in trouble!
Fernand and Marion watch a man leaning against a new Citroen Shooting-Brake, watching the police search with fascination. They’re convinced he’s the man who planted the transistor – but they’ve never seen him before. The police find the set – but Fernand tries to convince the police that it’s theirs. The man at the Citroen (who is indeed the accuser) tells the police the precise brand and colour of his transistor – but everyone gets a shock when the superintendent calls out “it isn’t yours […] someone’s been pulling your leg.”
Fernand gets the bright idea that the police should search the Citroen now, to see if the man actually does have his own set. The policeman agrees and gives the Citroen a major search. And, lo and behold, he finds the transistor, exactly as the man had described. The policeman is furious, insists on seeing the man’s papers, and threatens a full security check. Marion, in the meantime, requests a full apology from the man – Grondin.
It turns out that Fernand and Charley had a quick conversation that morning, where Charley said he saw Grondin place the transistor in their luggage, but afterwards Charley took it out again and put it back in Grondin’s vehicle, and then placed another transistor in their van as a present. Fernand goes on to explain that Charley isn’t just an ordinary tourist. “I think he’s backed by a lot of money as the agent of a Canadian Aid Committee that plans to buy up undeveloped land. But a horde of speculators are in the game already and his arrival threatens to upset all their plans.” But why didn’t he tell them sooner? Because Charley asked him not to.
They stop for a fantastic lunch prepared by Tatave. Steak, chips, cider; some of the gang swim “in the cool green waters of the Sauldre”; “every now and then a kingfisher would flash blue over the stream. There was not a cloud in the blue sky and the countryside sweltered in the summer heat.” Idyllic. But then as they talk after lunch about the odd behaviour of Grondin and the Canadians, none of it makes sense. What was the last thing they agreed? To meet the Canadians at Saint-Salgue. “”Well that’s what is so odd,” Fernand said with a slight smile. “I’ve been through my guide books with a toothcomb, but there just isn’t a French village of that name.””
Chapter Three – Zidore Carries his Cross. When they get back to Calamity Jane, they see that she has been vandalised – “Four flat tyres, cut and slashed to the rims, their luggage scattered on the grass and the windscreen smashed in pieces.” Zidore weeps in despair, Fernand is white and speechless, and Gaby gives vent to his famous anger, kicking one of Marion’s dogs, Barnaby, in the rump. The gang will have to cut corners to afford all the repair work or shorten their holiday – and no one wants to do that. They decide to jack up the van, take the wheels off and roll them into Salbris. The old lady at the nearby farm has reported seeing a man in a green car – maybe he was responsible for the damage. Once the wheels are off, Gaby stays behind with the girls and the van, and Zidore, Fernand, Tatave and Juan take the wheels into town. There they meet the police superintendent and tell him their tale of woe. He directs them to Vierzon and gives the name of someone who will be able to help them there.
Criquet goes off to play in the countryside, but he is disturbed by the arrival of a green car. The man asks to look at the red van and Criquet takes him back to the rest of the gang, who explain what happened. Marion accuses the man of being involved. But the man says that he “saw a Citroen shooting brake emerge from this track. I knew the driver as a petty crook and I also knew that wherever he goes he is up to something underhand […] I came upon the wreck of your van. It looked all too like his handywork to me, so I was off at top speed in the hope of catching him on the Vierzon road […] Grondin is one of the names he uses. But as far as I’m concerned the driver of the Citroen is one of Sobeco’s strong arm men”. He explains that Sobeco is a construction company that buys land and property and resells it at a profit. “At present we can’t even begin a major construction project without fear of interference from these sharks.” The man, Coppet, offers to pay for their tyres and suggests they change course and go to a camping site on the Atlantic coast for free. But Marion smells a rat and they refuse his generosity.
Shortly afterwards, a police escort brings Zidore, the boys and five freshly re-tread tyres. They put them on, return the blocks they had borrowed from the old lady, who says she has killed a couple of fowls for their dinner tonight. They decide to drive on and keep a permanent watch on the vehicle night and day – but unknown to them, Coppet follows them discreetly in his green Jaguar.
Chapter Four – The Forest Perilous. Camped up overnight at the Forest of Tronçais, Fernand and Juan awaken. They walk silently into the forest and agree that it was the sound of a car door shutting that woke them up. Dick the dog takes the lead in investigating where the sound came from. Eventually they see Grondin and his car talking to another man in a white Peugeot. They overheard the men’s conversation. “If those ten kids hadn’t introduced themselves one after the other I should have kept on the track of the Rambler and never given the others a thought. But the name of one of them hit me like a ton of bricks. I dashed for the telephone to check his identity. Ten minutes later I’d got it. His father was one of the people who spoiled our plans and it couldn’t have been an accident that the son was in the camp. I guessed at once he was in league with the Canadians.” It’s obvious that the men think the gang are still stuck in Salbris with an immobilised vehicle. “Anyway one day’s delay will put them out of the running in the unlikely event of their still being in the race. The day after tomorrow, between ten in the morning and midday three candles will be lit at Saint-Salgue. It’s in the bag. There’s no need to worry, the third candle will be for Sobeco.”
It’s also obvious that they’re planning for an accident to befall the Canadians, having tinkered with the brakes to send their Rambler off the top of a hill, with Charley and Betty ending up in hospital if they’re lucky. During their conversation they make it clear where the Canadians are pitched up overnight. Then the two men make elaborate plans to meet the next day at the village of Estivareilles. Grondin gets back in his car, turns on the lights and Fernand and Juan are captured like startled rabbits in the beam. Fortunately Grondin doesn’t recognise the boys and they pretend to be poaching rabbits. To add to the mayhem, Dick the dog lunges at and bites the other man, Punch. They try to catch the boys, but they escape. When they get back to the cars, they find their tyres slashed. Punch: “our expenses will cover the damage. The gang in the van have returned the compliment, and now we know where we stand with those little devils.” Curiously someone has written a Greek letter Sigma on the windscreen with their finger.
Dick signposts the way as the boys head back to camp, with the message that they have to get moving as soon as possible. The most important thing is to warn Charley and Betty before they use the brakes of the Rambler. They decide to leave the camp standing to fool their watchers into thinking that they were still asleep. But when they get to the Rond-point du Chevreuil, there’s no one there. Criquet finds a half-smoked cigarette end of the foreign brand that Charley smoked, so they must only recently have left. But which direction should they take?
Chapter Five – Charley Puts his Cards on the Table. Meanwhile, Charley and Betty had started off at least an hour earlier. Charley says he was surprised not to see the gang at Tronçais, because Fernand had said they would be there. He’s concerned that they might have got into trouble with Grondin. Just as Betty starts to freewheel down a large slope, they hear the clamour of a tooting horn behind – and it’s the gang. With amazing skill, Gaby pulls in front of the Rambler, and, as the Rambler has no brake power, it quickly hits the back of Calamity Jane. Gaby slows down and goes down the gears and eventually both vehicles come to a halt at a corner. “The horse without a head gave us some nasty moments but never anything like this. Did you see the ravine? We were lucky not to power-dive a couple of hundred feet to the bottom.”
Whilst breakfast is prepared, Zidore slips under the Rambler and repairs the damage caused by Grondin, replacing the missing bolt and filling the brakes with six pints of oil. They hold a council of war to decide what to do next. Juan mentions that the men from Sobeco talked about some ceremony near Murat. “”But we’ve never had the slightest intention of heading in that direction!” Gaby protested […] “You’re a bunch of brazen liars,” Charley laughed. “Or else one of you decided to work on his own and then alter course half-way, without the rest of you. You hadn’t yet tumbled to it, but the other people had and when they did you were in real danger. As these crooks are the same bunch who have been watching and following my wife and me the obvious conclusion is that your undercover man is involved in the same business as we are.” His charge burst like a bomb.”
Charley has got it right – and Fernand confesses that his father has asked him to give a man called Mézeran, who lives in Peyrelade, some “family papers”. When Gaby mocks him, out of suppressed fury, Fernand explains how he grew up alongside his father’s sadness at not having roots in Louvigny; and Fernand feels the same. They agree to meet at the same spot – Saint-Salgue. Gaby says it doesn’t exist, but Charley replies, enigmatically:” it does exist, you know […] if you’d only tell yourselves it was the cause of all the trouble, Saint-Salgue would seem much more real.” Marion overcomes her own natural distrust to agree to meeting there, and they all agree on the route. But it’s when Charley shows Fernand a map of where to go, he notes that the name Mézeran appears on the bottom of the sketch map. “Fortunately he drooping forelock hid his expression of amazement. “Seen everything?” Charley asked him with odd emphasis. “Everything,” Fernand replied, his voice level.” Marion sends the dogs Dick and Plouc off with the Ricous to help look after them.
It’s when Grondin and Punch (real name Schutz) are having sandwiches at the Chapon d’Or that M. Coppet pulls up in his green Jaguar. Grondin recognises him as the director of Sigma. Coppet makes a call to Paris and speaks to “the Great White Chief”. It’s clear from his conversation that Ricou and Sobeco are racing for the same destination, as Ricou “is the prime mover of this scheme to adopt Saint-Salgue and nothing but philanthropy is behind it […] as the allies of the Canadians […] these crazy youngsters are helping us, even though they don’t know it.” Coppet promises that he will be the first to reach Saint-Salgue.
Chapter Six – The Man from Peyrelade. Charley, Betty, Dick and Plouc enjoy an uneventful and scenic drive south. Arriving at their destination: “To one side they could see what looked like an immense stadium, darkened by the first evening shadows. Its upper limits were ringed by the cones of extinct volcanoes smoothed or turreted by the weather; then the meadows swept down in giddying slopes to a thickly wooded plateau. Through the tree tops, they could see the tip of a mountain lake at the bottom of this huge punch-bowl.” An old man is there to greet them – Mézeran. It’s clear there is a family connection. The old man invites them to his farmhouse for some food and an overnight. But Charley says they are waiting for their friends. Instead, Mézeran gets in the Rambler with Charley and Betty, whilst the dogs remain behind, but with Charley’s gloves for scent purposes.
When the gang arrive, they are perplexed that the Rambler isn’t there. Fernand suggests it would be a good place to spend a week, but Tatave grumbles that it would be too far from buying food provisions. Marion notices Charley’s gloves and is also surprised at how silent the dogs are. They encounter an old man, who says that no one has been around for ages – but Marion knows he is lying. He introduces himself as Mézeran and asks for Fernand’s papers. But Fernand refuses, because he realises this man is an impostor! Fernand: “the old mayor is over eighty and gets about in a wheelchair. That I do know… where’s yours?” Realising he’s lost this battle, the old man walks off. “It would have been hard to have forced a confession out of the old rogue, and the gang never allowed violence except in self-defence.”
Marion gets the dogs to follow the scent of the gloves to find the Canadians. Barnaby leads off, and they follow in the van. Barnaby takes them down a deserted lane full of potholes and hairpin bends. It takes them down to a magnificent lake, but they could almost have driven in, so close is it to the road. But had someone got there first? “Ten or twelve yards from the shore the water was barely clear enough to make out the blue and white of the Rambler, but an inch or two of the caravan roof was still above the surface and bubbles of escaping air broke the water around the two submerged vehicles.”
Chapter Seven – The Cleverest of Them All. Earlier, Dick wasn’t in the Rambler, but could follow its scent easily. He saw it headed for the lake although couldn’t see who was driving. He yapped his distress and recognised Grondin, having jumped out of the car, watching his handiwork as the Rambert started to submerge. The man tries to chuck a stone at Dick, but the dog is too quick and attacks him, so that he ends up with a gashed cheek. Plouc joins Dick and together they watch a farm building where Grondin, Schutz and Delmas (who had been the fake Mézeran) were talking.
Charley and Betty, meanwhile, were locked in a windowless attic above the barn. Charley was furious at having been duped by Delmas. They stare through a crack between the floorboards and see Dick and Plouc watching the building. Grondin sees the dogs at the same time and takes aim with his gun – but the dogs are more than a match for him. And now, someone else appears; not Delmas, whom Charley was expecting, but another man in a smart suit. He hides in the undergrowth whilst the three conspirators return and formulate their plans.
Juan had been in the lake and had satisfied himself that there was no one in the submerged vehicles. Gaby suggests that Juan tries to unhitch the caravan and then they could drag both vehicles out of the water with the aid of Calamity Jane. Fernand joins Juan as they tie rope around the back of the caravan. Incredibly, they return the caravan to dry land, Zidore secures its brakes and tells Marion and the girls to mop it out. The car is a much harder task, but eventually they succeed in dredging it up. They decide to stay the night by the lake but to have Calamity Jane ready to go at a moment’s notice.
Meanwhile, Criquet appears to be playing with a stick in the water – but he’s not playing. “I’m measuring the water. It’s running away awful fast.” And Fernand could see that the level of the water was going down. ““Measure away, little Criquet,” Fernand murmured as he turned on his heel. “You’re really the cleverest of us all.””
Marion leaves with Juan, Zidore and Fernand. When they get to the crossroads, Marion and Zidore stay, and Juan and Fernand go on with the dogs. Eventually they near the lake and see the big wooden barn. They overhear the voices of Grondin and Schutz, and sneaking a look through the cracks of the door, see the old man who pretended to be Mézeran. As the three men bed down for the night, something soft and silky lands on the back of Fernand’s shoulders – Betty’s scarf.
Chapter Eight – We Belong to Saint-Salgue. Coppet watches Criquet’s fascination with the descending water level and explains that the sluice gates of the dam have opened, and the water will flood down to the River Lot and then the Garonne, the Gironde and finally the Atlantic. But this will be the last time this happens, as the next day they will blow up the big wall that kept the water in place. Berthe is not impressed, but Coppet explains: “Men can make mistakes when they undertake a major project […] They do so more often through aiming too low than from aiming too high. A little over thirty years ago when a hydro-electric company built the dam at La Douze they only expected to supply the immediate locality with light and power […] for the last six hours the water you’ve been watching run away has poured down the gorges to swell a lake six times larger than this one was – over twenty miles long! You can get very excited about all the wonderful things being done today but it’s just as wonderful to get rid of something that’s grown useless before it’s too late.”
Whilst Coppet is charming some of the younger gang, Gaby, Marion, Fernand and Zidore get in Calamity Jane with the dogs and head off to rescue Charley and Betty. Gaby’s solution is to charge down the building with the vehicle. “The old ark’ll go through that door like a knife through butter. Your sleepers won’t have time to turn over in bed”. “Thought of yourself?” Juan murmured in the background. Gaby pulled his little checked cap down even more firmly. “Pah! I’ll only risk a bruise or two.” […] Fernand quietly remarked, “what about Calamity Jane? “Oh, she’s bound to be smashed up,” Gaby answered carelelessly, “but not really concertina-ed”. Zidore’s face went white.” Nevertheless they agree to Gaby’s plan; the walls get smashed in, the dogs attack the villains, Gaby and Zidore tool up for a fight, and Juan and Fernand rush upstairs to free the Canadians. But Charley is soft-spoken and polite to the three men, much to the furious Gaby’s annoyance, who is spoiling for a fight.
They all meet for a celebratory coffee and snacks by the lake, although Tatave points out that Coppet is still there, promising the earth. He’s going to turn the punchbowl into a holiday centre for winter skiing. But as they watch the water recede, something magical happens. The hidden village of Saint-Salgue slowly reappears. First the church spire, then the roofs, then the rest of the buildings. Will the old inhabitants be able to come back to the village? ““That depends.” Monsieur Coppet laughed. “At sunrise this morning the Central Electricity Authority will auction the village lands their predecessors acquired thirty years ago. If they want to, those who suffered compulsory purchase in 1928 can invoke a clause in that sale which guarantees them the prior right to repurchase their properties. Will they be there? That’s the big question.”” Charley assures them that the finance will be there to afford the buy back.
Gaby reflects on their journey. Although they had intended to go on a Mediterranean beach holiday, “something stronger than the sea drew us here”. Everyone agrees. But it’s Fernand who drops the bombshell. “You’ll want to know why this particular spot rather than any other attracted you, and what holds you to this forgotten place. I’m going to tell you! It’ll come as a shock, but you’ve got to believe me, as you believed what Monsieur Coppet’s just told you […] WE ALL BELONG TO SAINT-SALGUE! […] our parents were all old inhabitants of the drowned village […] twelve left peacefully on the first notification that they had to go […] the hard core was left, young men determined to hold their hard-won land, their hopes or rather the bonds between a man and his birthplace. There were eight of them and these were their names […]Henri Babin, Paul Fabert, Lucien Joye, Maurice Loche, Baptiste Gédéon, Patrice Lourvrier, Constant Douin (my own father) and Django Lespagnol, a gipsy who had settled in the village […] the eight swore they’d stick together. A few days later the train which took them into exile deposited them in a gloomy Parisian suburb.” But Criquet Lariqué feels left out because his parents were not one of the eight. Gaby assures him that Mézeran will make him an honorary citizen of Saint-Salgue.
The auction ceremony takes place – and there’s only one bidder! Charley hands over his cheque, and Saint-Salgue is restored to its former inhabitants. Criquet receives the Freedom of the City. Fernand has just one task left; to find the house that his father lived in and see if an old watch is still hanging in the place where he left it. It is. It needs very careful cleaning, but it could be restored to life. They’ll need to pretend to M. Douin that it instantly went like a dream. “Fernand hesitated. “I’ve never told him a lie in my life.” He sighed and stared at his feet. “Just this once you can, “ said Marion. “He won’t be taken in, but he’ll smile like he used to do and the road to Saint-Salgue will open in front of him once again.””
To sum up; this is definitely the end of the road for Gaby and his gang. Over the course of four books, we’ve seen them grow from playing in poverty-stricken streets with the horse without a head (which gets a name check in this book), through to owning a vehicle and taking it on holidays. The mystery of Saint-Salgue ends with the suggestion that the future is rosy for these characters; Berna has engineered it so that they will always remain friends, and indeed live in the same environment, although it may not necessarily be Louvigny! It’s an enjoyable and action-packed read; its unusual end might feel far-fetched or just a huge reward for the way they’ve entertained us over the years. 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. Next up in the Paul Berna Challenge is something special. His next book was Le Témoignage du chat noir, translated into English as The Clue of the Black Cat. Not only is this my favourite Paul Berna book, but it’s also probably my favourite children’s story of all time, and I can’t wait to re-read it and share my thoughts about it in a few weeks.