Amyas Leigh has a secret longing to go to sea, but he never speaks of it because he knows his parents think him too young for such a rough, hard life. When he meets John Oxenham and Salvation Yeo, who are recruiting a crew to sail to the New World after Spanish treasure, he begs to be allowed to join them, but his parents and Sir Richard Grenvile, his godfather, persuade him to wait a while. The next year, his father dies of fever, and his brother Frank goes to the court of Queen Elizabeth. Then Sir Richard persuades Amyas’s mother to let the boy accompany Sir Francis Drake on the first English voyage around the world. Finally, Drake and his adventurers return, and Amyas, no longer a boy but a blond young giant, comes back to his home at Bideford, in Devon.
He remembers one face in the village better than any other: Rose Salterne, the mayor’s daughter. All the young men love and honor her, including Amyas and his brother Frank, who returns from court. She is also loved by Eustace Leigh, the cousin of Amyas and Frank. Eustace is a Catholic. His cousins distrust him because they suspect he is in league with the Jesuit priests. When Rose spurns his love, he vows revenge. The other young men who love Rose form the Brotherhood of the Rose, and all swear to protect her always and to remain friends, no matter who should win her.
Shortly after Amyas returns from his voyage with Drake, Yeo comes to him and Sir Richard with a strange and horrible tale. The voyage that he made with Oxenham was ill-fated, and Oxenham and most of the crew were captured by the Spanish Inquisition. Oxenham had a child by a Spanish lady, and before they were separated, Yeo vowed that he would protect the child. Yeo did his best, but the child was lost, and now Yeo begs that he might attach himself to Amyas and go wherever Amyas goes. In his travels, he thinks that he might someday find the little maid again. Amyas and Sir Richard are touched by the story, and Amyas promises to keep Yeo with him. Before long, the two sail with Sir Walter Raleigh for Ireland, where they will fight the Spaniards.
In Ireland, Raleigh defeats the Spaniards, and Amyas takes Don Guzman de Soto, a Spanish nobleman, as hostage. Don Guzman accompanies him back to Bideford, to wait for his ransom from Spain. Don Guzman is a charming gentleman, and it is not long before he catches the eye of Rose. After his ransom is paid, he leaves England; then it is learned that Rose also disappeared in the company of Lucy the witch. Her father, Amyas, Frank, and the other young men of the Brotherhood of the Rose are wild with grief. All vow to sail to La Guayra in Caracas, where Don Guzman went to be governor and where they feel Rose fled to join him.
Their voyage is an eventful one. When they near La Guayra, they are seen by the Spaniards, and they fight many times before they reach the shore. Amyas and Frank go ashore with a few men to try to rescue Rose. There they learn that Eustace knew of their voyage and beat them to their destination to warn Don Guzman of their approach. Frank and Amyas hear Rose tell Eustace that she is happily married to Don Guzman, so they know she will never leave with them. Nevertheless, they also hear Eustace beg her to run away with...
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him, threatening to turn her over to the Inquisition if she refuses. At that threat, Frank and Amyas attack Eustace, but he escapes and is never heard of again. Rose flees into the fort. As they make their way back to their ship, Frank is captured by Don Guzman’s men. Amyas is knocked unconscious, but his men carry him back to the ship.
When the ship is damaged in a later encounter with the Spaniards, the crew beaches her and begins a march toward the fabled city of Manoa. It is a long and hazardous journey over high mountains and through a land of hostile Indians. They find no El Dorado, but a young priest of one of the tribes falls in love with Amyas and follows him the rest of the journey. She is called Ayacanora, and, although she is of an Indian tribe, she seems to have the look of a white woman.
After more than three years, the little band reaches the shore of New Granada. There, after a furious fight, they capture a Spanish galleon. After they secure her and set sail, they go into the hold and release the prisoners the Spaniards have aboard. One of them is Lucy the witch, who tells them of the horrible fate of Rose and Frank. Before Eustace disappeared from La Guayra, he reported to the Inquisition that Rose kept her Protestant faith. She and Lucy were taken before the terrible tribunal, where Frank was also turned over to the torturers. Lucy confessed that she accepted the Catholic faith, but Frank and Rose, refusing to yield to the Inquisitors, were tortured for many days before they were burned at the stake. When Amyas hears this story, he is like a madman, vowing never to rest until he kills every Spaniard he sees. Two Spanish dignitaries on the ship witnessed the burning of Frank and Rose, and Amyas has them hanged immediately.
At last, the ship reaches Devon, and Amyas takes Ayacanora to his home, where his mother welcomes her and treats her as a daughter. During the voyage, Yeo discovers that she is the little maid he promised Oxenham to protect, and he becomes a father to her. Amyas treats her as he might a sister, but Ayacanora is not happy at this treatment.
After a time, Amyas fits out a ship and prepares to go with Drake to Virginia, but before they sail, the Spanish Armada arrives off English shores. Amyas, with his ship, joins the rest of the fleet in that famous battle. After twelve terrible days, the Armada is defeated and almost every Spanish ship destroyed. Amyas, however, is not satisfied. Don Guzman is aboard one of the Spanish ships, and although Amyas pursues him relentlessly, he has to sit by and watch a storm tear the Spaniard’s ship apart. Amyas curses that he himself was not able to kill Don Guzman and thus avenge his brother’s death.
As Don Guzman’s ship breaks apart, a bolt of lightning strikes Amyas’s ship, blinding him and killing Yeo. At first, Amyas is full of despair. One day, he has a vision. He sees Rose and Don Guzman together and knows that the Spaniard really loved her and mourned her until his death. Then he sees himself with Don Guzman, acknowledging their sins to each other and asking forgiveness. After that, he feels at peace with himself.
Amyas returns to his mother’s home, and there she and Ayacanora care for him. Realizing how much the girl loves him, he is so grateful for the tenderness she shows him that he gives her his heart. In Bideford, the blind hero spends his remaining days dreaming of his past deeds and of the great glory to come for his country and his queen.