In a series of books, author Forester chronicles the naval career of Horatio Hornblower from young midshipman through captain in England’s navy during the long war with Napoleon Bonaparte’s France. As this book opens, Captain Hornblower, who beat back Bonaparte’s attempted capture of the seaport of Riga the previous year, is summoned to meet Lord St Vincent, highest officer of England’s navy.
The men of the warship “Flame”, on blockade duty off the French port of Le Havre, have mutinied and are holding their ship’s officers hostage. Their ultimatum: amnesty, and hang their despised captain, or they will turn their ship over to the French.
Hornblower remembers their captain – actually still a lieutenant; they were midshipmen together twenty years ago – a man of vile temper. Hornblower is not surprised, but of course mutiny cannot be tolerated, nor allowed to spread.
“I’ll give you a free hand,” Lord St. Vincent tells Hornblower. “Any ship you choose – it’s your brain I want. The mutineers can slip into the Seine River at the first sign of danger to themselves. And men trust you, Hornblower. They listen to you and follow you.”
That’s quite a compliment from the crusty old First Lord of the Admiralty, but Hornblower has no idea how to solve the problem. He chooses the “Porta Coeli”, a sister ship to “Flame”, having eighteen guns and ready to sail, Captain Freeman, (but Hornblower, as commodore, will command all but the crew itself. )
His first meeting under a flag of truce with the rebel ship Flame shows how well prepared the mutineers are. Their guns are run out, ready to fire, the rebel leader has letters from the French harbor master, the military governor, and the Empress in Paris, all welcoming Flame’s crew to the French Navy. Instead of blockading the harbor, Flame’s crew have just allowed a French ship loaded with grain to dock and begin unloading.The crew knows they will face hanging if they return to England. What would any sane rebel choose to do?
The Flame and the Porta Coeli are sister ships, almost identical, each with 18 cannon. But Hornblower notices one difference: Flame has been long at sea, and the fore-topsail has a large rip, repaired with old darker cloth. He suggests that Captain Freeman have his own crew make a similar patch on Porta Coeli’s sail under cover of night fog.
With Porta Coeli’s crew instructed in detail, they approach the grain ship, capture it, cut its anchor cable, and with twelve of their own crew aboard it, follow Porta Coeli out of the harbor. There is danger from the small harbor police boat and the shore guns, but little damage is done, and when Flame also pursues them, they capture it too, escorting them to the English squadron patrolling the Channel to send to England, where Hornblower and crew will receive prize money for the capture. Hornblower and the disguised Porta Coeli remain along the French Coast, causing enough mayhem to destroy Flame’s reputation as friend of France. Hornblower, together
with some French Royalists, persuade the officials of Le Havre to declare independence.
from Napoleon’s regime in favor of restoring King Louis XVIII to the throne. Napoleon is beginning to face defeat as English and European armies advance but he sends a division of soldiers and artillery down the Seine River valley to bring Le Havre back under his control.
The commanding army officer, with little experience in naval operations, sends the heavy artillery and munitions by river boat down to Rouen, some seventy miles upstream from Le Havre, while his regiments march by land. Thus the heavy equipment lies unguarded long enough for Hornblower to send boats upstream to blow up the gun powder in one massive blast, accidentally killiing a few of his own men, but rendering Napoleon’s soldiers powerless.
Not long afterward, as the Russians and other European armies continue their advance westward, Bonaparte’s army is defeated, and King Louis XVIII, regains his throne. Napoleon Bonaparte is exiled to the island of Elba. Hornblower is awarded peerage in the English House of Lords.
His wife, Barbara, sister of England’s Duke of Wellingon, is invited to Vienna to be a sort of social chairman for the postwar peace congress. She is delighted – everyone who is anyone will be there. But Hornblower, seeing an endless parade of parties and pomp, strongly opposes the plan, causing a rift between himself and his wife. He returns to their small English town, Smallbridge, alone but for his servant, Brown.
Weeks of small-town boredom cause him to remember more exciting times during the war, when he was hiding at the house of a minor French Count and the Count’s daughter Marie in central France. He resolves to go visit them. Thus Hornblower is virtually a fugitive in France when Bonaparte escapes from Elba to France and regains dictator’s power.