Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1159
Captain Horatio Hornblower, the commander of the thirty-six-gun frigate HMS Lydia, is sailing under sealed orders from England around the Horn to the Gulf of Fonseca on the western shores of Spanish America. He was ordered to form an alliance with Don Julian Alvarado, a large landowner, and assist in raising a rebellion against Spain. The Lydia carries the necessary munitions with which to start the revolution. In addition, Hornblower has fifty thousand guineas in gold, which he is to give for the support of the rebellion only if the revolt threatens to fail without English gold to back it. If he does otherwise, he will be court-martialed. His orders also casually mention the presence in Pacific waters of a fifty-gun Spanish ship called the Natividad, which he is ordered to take, sink, burn, or destroy at the first opportunity.
After the Lydia anchors in the Gulf of Fonseca, a small boat appears with emissaries from Don Julian, who now calls himself El Supremo. They tell Hornblower that El Supremo requires the captain’s attendance. Hornblower is not pleased with the evidence of El Supremo’s tyranny. What he observes makes him all the more cautious. He refuses to hand over to El Supremo the arms and ammunition until his ship takes on food and water. The ship is loaded with stores as rapidly as possible, and the operation is going forward when a lookout on the mountain announces the approach of the Natividad.
Deciding to try to capture the ship in the bay, Hornblower hides the Lydia behind an island as the Natividad approaches. At the moment of greatest advantage, Hornblower orders the ship to sail alongside the Natividad and rake its decks with grapeshot. The British sailors lash the two ships together and board the Natividad. El Supremo demands the captured ship as his own. Hornblower hesitates to turn over his prize to El Supremo, but if he is to fulfill his orders he dares not antagonize the dictator.
Hornblower sails away and shortly afterward learns that upon Napoleon’s deposition of King Ferdinand, England is now an ally of Spain. He also receives further orders, one from his admiral and one from an Englishwoman in Panama, Lady Barbara Wellesley, the duke of Wellington’s sister, who requests transportation to England. During this period, the Lydia meets and defeats the Natividad, now commanded by El Supremo. The long period together on board ship leads to a deep love between Lady Barbara and Hornblower, but the captain cannot bring himself to act on that love because of his wife, Maria, at home. Lady Barbara is carried safely to England.
Hornblower is next ordered to command HMS Sutherland, a seventy-four-gun battleship. He sails with the Pluto and the Caligula to protect a convoy of merchant ships as far as the latitude of North Africa. They then meet French privateers and drive them off. Before parting company with the merchantmen, Hornblower impresses sailors from the convoy. Sailing along the coast, he captures the Amelie, attacks the battery at Llanza, burns and destroys supply vessels, and shells two divisions of cavalry on a highway passing near the seashore.
Admiral Leighton, now the husband of Lady Barbara, orders Hornblower to join and take charge of Spanish forces at the siege of French-held Rosas, but the operation fails because the Spaniards do not cooperate. After his retreat, Hornblower meets the Cassandra, a British frigate, and he learns that four French ships are bearing down upon them. Hornblower decides to fight, even though the odds are four to one, and he sends the Cassandra to seek the Pluto and the Caligula. The Cassandra comes back with a message to Hornblower to engage the enemy, an order that indicates the presence of the admiral’s flagship. Hornblower engages the French ships one at a time. The fourth French ship, however, comes upon him as he is fighting a two-decker and forces him to surrender.
After his surrender, Hornblower and Bush are imprisoned at Rosas. Admiral Leighton sails into the bay with the Pluto and the Caligula and completes the destruction of the French squadron. Hornblower watches the battle from the walls and sees the Sutherland, which was beached, take fire as a raiding party of British seamen burns it to prevent its use by the French. He learns from a seaman that Admiral Leighton was injured by a flying splinter.
Colonel Caillard, Napoleon’s aide, comes to Rosas to take Hornblower and the wounded Bush to Paris. Bush is seriously ill as a result of losing a foot in the battle; therefore, Hornblower requests a servant to attend Bush on the long journey. He selects Brown, the coxswain, because of his strength, his common sense, and his ability to adapt himself to every situation. In France, their stagecoach is halted by a snowstorm near Nevers. Hornblower notices a small boat moored to the bank of a river and, as he and Brown assist the French in trying to move the coach, he makes his plans for escape. He attacks Colonel Caillard, and Brown ties up the Frenchman and throws him into the bottom of the coach. They lift Bush out of the coach and carry him to the boat. The whole operation requires only six minutes.
In the dead of night, the fugitives make their way down the river; Hornblower rows while Brown bails the icy water from the boat. When the boat crashes against a rock, Hornblower, thinking he lost Bush and Brown, swims ashore in the darkness. Brown, however, brings Bush safely to shore. Shivering with cold, the three men make their way to a farmhouse nearby, where they announce themselves as prisoners of war and are admitted.
Throughout the winter, they remain as guests of its owner, Comte de Gracay, and his daughter-in-law. Brown makes an artificial foot for Bush, and, when Bush is able to get around well, he and Brown build a boat in which to travel down the Loire. In early summer, Hornblower disguises himself as a Dutch customs inspector. To complete his disguise, the comte gives him the ribbon of the Legion of Honor that was his son’s. That decoration aids Hornblower in his escape.
When Hornblower and his two men arrive in the harbor at Nantes, Hornblower cleverly takes possession of the Witch of Endor, conscripting a group of prisoners to be the crew, and makes his way back to England. Upon his arrival, Hornblower is praised for his exploits, knighted, and whitewashed at a court-martial. His sickly wife died during his absence, and Lady Barbara became guardian of his young son. Hornblower goes to visit Lady Barbara and to see his son. Admiral Leighton died of wounds at Gibraltar, and Lady Barbara is now a widow. Hornblower realizes from the quiet warmth of her welcome that she is already his. He is grateful to life for having given him fame and fortune and Lady Barbara.
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