As the story opens, the speaker, later identified as Harry, is proclaiming that something is painless. It soon reveals that Harry and his wife, Helen, are encamped somewhere near Mount Kilimanjaro, which, at nearly twenty thousand feet, is Africa’s highest mountain. An epigraph at the beginning of the story, before the action is under way, describes the snow-capped mountain, mentioning that the name for its western summit is translated from the local Masai language as the House of God.
Extensive dialogue at the beginning of the story reveals that the speakers, husband and wife, have a combative relationship. Harry has ceased to be in love with Helen, although she adores him. In Harry’s dialogue, one quickly detects a deep-seated underlying anger and a contempt for not just Helen but all women. Indeed, Harry feels and expresses guilt about the deterioration of his relationship with his wife, who has quite willingly put her considerable fortune at Harry’s disposal. The rub is that the comfortable life that Helen has provided seems to have robbed Harry of the motivation he needs to write. Harry and Helen have left their superficial rich friends behind in Paris, where they are pursuing their inconsequential lives. Harry toys with idea of writing about the idle rich, viewing himself as a sort of spy in their territory.
It is soon revealed that Harry is on his deathbed, suffering from gangrene that is moving rapidly from his lower legs to other parts of his body. He and Helen, along with their African servant, Molo, are stranded in this remote part of Tanganyika because an inept driver failed to check the oil in their truck, causing it to burn out a bearing and become inoperable. Their only hope now is that a plane will land on their compound and fly Harry to a medical facility.
Harry has gangrene because he ignored a thorn prick to his knee some days earlier. As his wound festered and became swollen, he treated it with a mild solution of carbolic acid, which proved to be too little too late. The gangrene kept one step ahead of Harry’s attempts to thwart its progress.
Throughout the story, Harry vacillates between consciousness and unconsciousness. His conscious periods become shorter and shorter. Unconsciousness reveries of his past fill his mind and reveal a great deal about his past. The passages during the unconscious state are printed in italics except for the one very near the end in which Harry hallucinates about the plane coming to rescue him.
As it turns out, Harry’s illusion of the plane is just that: an illusion. In the end, Helen has Harry’s cot carried into their tent. Before long, she tries to rouse him but cannot. She becomes aware that his breathing has stopped, just as a hyena, a carnivore that feeds on dead animals, howls outside their tent.