Joshua Norbery knows, at the age of ten, that his mother hates him and his brother would be happy to see him dead; and he cannot wait to join the army. His life changes for the better when Tom, his father, brings two orphaned children to live at Linmore. It does not make his mother kinder or his brother less aggressive, but for the first time Joshua has a friend, Charlie Cobarne, who shares his ambition to be a soldier.
By contrast, he finds Charlie’s little sister disconcerting, for Sophie conforms to nobody’s rules but her own. Disdaining female company, she pesters the boys and in so doing, binds their friendship together. Aspiring to be a dragoon, Charlie is envious of Joshua’s superior horsemanship, until Sophie’s riding ability challenges them both. Then she announces that she will follow the drum when they join the army.
When they are sixteen, Tom Norbery dispatches Joshua and Charlie on a Grand Tour, with an itinerary intended to avoid the Napoleonic conflict. He leaves Sophie at Linmore, but her subsequent feral behaviour forces him to send her to school. Once there, she cultivates an acquaintance with a wealthy pupil, and devises a plan of which she is sure Charlie will approve.
Sailing to Naples, Joshua and Charlie discover, during a close encounter with a French warship, that their tutor and the tour guide, a former army sergeant, are not strangers.
Plans go awry when, moving towards Macedonia, their ship is blown off-course in an Adriatic storm, and they land somewhere along the Dalmatian Coast. After taking a wrong turn in a mountain pass, their tutor falls sick and would have died, but for the herbal knowledge of Sergeant Percival whom, they discover, has a close link with Linmore Dale.
Confined in the squalor of a mountain village, their friendship grows stronger, and they vow never to fight over a woman. In Athens they join the world of the social elite, and acquire refinements deemed essential for aspiring army officers. Whilst Charlie finds dancing easy, Joshua struggles with the steps, until an aristocratic lady takes pity on his plight.
Finding their presence much in demand, Joshua and Charlie join the lady’s entourage for the sea journey to Rome. A visit to a bagnio leads, two days later, to an unexpected invitation to a masquerade ball, and an intrigue for Joshua that requires rescue by Charlie and Lady Rosie.
News of the death of Joshua’s brother ends the tour and his plans to join the army, which leaves Charlie not knowing what he will do.
Meeting Sophie again, Joshua recognises, in her preference for his company, that maturity has not come to the boys alone, but he feels unable to refuse Charlie’s plea for help to protect his sister. Trouble erupts when he rejects her. Despite Joshua denying her accusations, Charlie, who hears only an admission of duplicity, savagely attacks Joshua, and their friendship, which took eight years to build is destroyed in as many minutes.
Forced to intervene, Tom Norbery moves swiftly to separate the combatants by dispatching Charlie to the army, and sending Joshua to Norfolk to study estate management. Then, in desperation, he finds Sophie a husband.
Anxious to regain his father’s respect, Joshua determines to work hard, but despite having foresworn the company of females, loneliness leads him to seek comfort with a married woman. Threatened by his mentor with being sent home in disgrace, he applies himself to his studies, but nearing the end of his stay at Holkham, he is invited to visit the home of a fellow student in Kings Lynn, where he is inextricably, and very publicly, forced to confront his past.