Late one night in his room at Cambridge, Ludwig Holly receives an urgent visit from Vincey, a fellow student. Vincey is dying of a lung condition, and because he has no living relatives, he asks Holly to undertake the guardianship of his young son, Leo Vincey, after his death. Vincey explains that the boy would be the last representative of one of the oldest families in the world. He can trace his ancestry to the ancient Egyptians, to a priest of Isis named Kallikrates, who had broken his vows and fled the country with an Egyptian princess. Kallikrates had been murdered by the queen of a savage tribe, but his wife had escaped and given birth to a son, from whom Leo is descended.
Holly agrees to rear the boy. It is understood that he is to be tutored at home, where he will be taught Greek, mathematics, and Arabic. On his twenty-fifth birthday, he is to receive an iron box that Vincey will leave with Holly; at that time, he can decide whether he wants to act upon its contents. The following morning, Vincey is found dead in his room. Shortly afterward, five-year-old Leo begins living with his guardian.
Twenty years pass happily for Leo and for the man whom he calls his uncle. On the morning of the youth’s twenty-fifth birthday, the iron chest is opened. Inside is an ebony box that, in turn, contains a silver chest. Within that chest is a potsherd inscribed by the wife of the ill-fated Kallikrates. A message to her son, it declares that the queen who had murdered Kallikrates had shown them both the Pillar of Life. The message ends by begging that some brave descendant should try to find the Pillar of Life and slay the evil queen.
In the inmost chest, there is also a letter to Leo from his father, who wrote that he had journeyed to Africa to find the land that his ancestors had visited but had reached no farther than the coast. There, suffering a shortage of provisions, he had been forced to turn back. Before he could plan another trip, he had been overcome by his fatal illness.
Leo at once determines that he will carry on from the point where his father had been forced to give up his quest. Three months later, he, Holly, and their servant, Job, are on their way to Africa. Their destination is a rock shaped like a black man’s head, a landmark on the eastern coast of Central Africa. As they draw near shore, the little party readies the whaleboat that they plan to use for travel inland. The boat is tied onto the large boat that carries them down the coast. Suddenly, a squall comes up, and huge waves wreck the boat. The three white men and an Arab named Mahomed manage to launch the small boat and reach the shore.
Holly and his companions find themselves at the mouth of a river with teeming marshy banks crowded with crocodiles. The little party rests for a while and then starts inland in the whaleboat. They travel without much difficulty for five days; then the river grows too shallow to continue farther, and they are forced to branch into another stream, which proves to be an ancient canal.
During the next four days, the trip becomes increasingly difficult, and because the canal is full of weeds, the boat has to be towed. The exhausted men are resting on the fourth evening when they are suddenly attacked by a party of about fifty tall, light-colored men who speak Arabic. They would have been slain on the spot had not the old man who is the leader of the natives ordered that their lives be spared. He explains that word had come from someone whom he calls She-who-must-be-obeyed that any white men who wander into the country are to be brought to her. The man, whose name the adventurers later learn is Billali, decrees that Mahomed’s life also should be spared. The prisoners are carried in litters to a cave village of the Amahagger tribe. There, Billali leaves them with his people while he goes on to report to She-who-must-be-obeyed.
The next four days pass peacefully. The men are well treated, and Ustane, one of the Amahagger women, takes Leo for her husband by the simple ceremony of throwing her arms around him and kissing him.
On the fourth night, the three white men and Mahomed are invited to a party. The only refreshment being served is a fermented drink. After the brew has been passed around several times, a woman suddenly slips a rope...
(The entire section is 1768 words.)