Although he has survived the battle unscathed his prospects are not good. Napoleon intends to take him to Paris and execute him for having used a ruse to destroy a battery, and even if he were somehow to escape and return to England he would be courtmartialled for losing the Sutherland. If found guilty he might be executed, and at best he would be dismissed from the service and lose his pension.
A contingent of gendarmes arrives to escort him to Paris, accompanied by Bush, his wounded first Lieutenant, who is also to be tried and executed, and by his coxswain, Brown, who goes with the officers as a servant. But when their coach capsizes beside a river in a snowstorm at night Hornblower effects a dramatic escape for all three, and they set off in a boat downstream in appalling weather conditions. Their boat is wrecked but they find an unexpected refuge in the chateau of the Comte de Graçy, a nobleman who is hostile to the regime. Here they stay throughout the winter while Bush recovers from his injury. Hornblower has an intense love affair with Marie, the Count's widowed daughter-in-law—something that will have a major consequence in the final volume of the series (see Lord Hornblower).
In early summer they resume their journey down the Loire to the sea. After many more adventures they rejoin the English fleet in an English vessel that Hornblower has recaptured. Everyone is astonished to see them, since the French had announced their death while escaping. A lot of news from home awaits Hornblower. His wife Maria has died giving birth to a son, whom Lady Barbara (see The Happy Return) is taking care of. She is now a widow, her husband, Admiral Leighton, having died of wounds received in the attack on Rosas.
Back in England Hornblower finds he has become a national celebrity and his courtmartial is a formality; he is acquitted honourably. He has earned a lot of prize money and he is knighted and given a lucrative honorary appointment by the Prince Regent. He should be happy, but he dislikes the attention he receives and is consumed with guilt about Maria's death, knowing that he did not love her.
Next day he visits Barbara to meet his son. She smiles at him tremulously, and he knows that she still loves him and is his for the asking, but characteristically he still hesitates. You want to shake him.
This is probably the best of the three novels in the trilogy; even though it is the shortest it perhaps feels the fullest. As usual there is a lot of action, but not only action: we get new light on Hornblower's complex character, his fears and self-doubts. One surprise is that all three books contain a remarkable number of typos. One tends to think of careless proof-reading as a modern publishing affliction, but there has been plenty of that here.