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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1768

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...

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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 around Mahomed’s body. At the same time, some of the men reach into the fire around which they are seated, drag out a white-hot pot, and try to slip it on the Arab’s head. Realizing that the natives are preparing to kill and eat Mahomed, Holly draws his gun and shoots the woman. The bullet passes through her body and kills the Arab as well. In the furious struggle that follows, Leo is seriously wounded in the side. The situation is growing desperate when Billali appears to restore order.

Three days later, with Leo’s wound barely healed, the three white men, accompanied by Billali and Ustane, are taken to meet She in her hidden city of Kôr. The route leads through deep swamps that at last give way to spreading plains. The next day, the travelers reach a tunneled mountain. Their guides lead Holly and his friends, blindfolded, through the tunnel to a plain that had once been a lake. There, the blindfolds are removed, and the men are taken to dwellings cut into the solid rock.

After he has refreshed himself, Holly is taken to the apartments of the heavily veiled queen. She asks about the ancient Greeks and Egyptians and explains that she has been living in the mountain for the past two thousand years. Holly wonders at the strange power that has enabled She to live untouched by time or mortality. She declares that she stays with the Amahagger only to await the return of the man she had once loved, for he is destined to be born again. When Ayesha, as she asks Holly to call her, removes her veil, he sees that she is exceedingly beautiful.

That night, Holly cannot sleep because of the excitement. Wandering in the passages that lead off from his room, he sees Ayesha uttering curses over a fire. He discovers that they are directed against an Egyptian woman. Near the fire, on a stone shelf, lies a corpse covered with a shroud. Fearful for his own life if he is discovered, Holly creeps back to his room.

The next day, the savages who had plotted Mahomed’s death are brought before Ayesha and condemned to death by torture. In the evening, Ayesha visits Leo, who is ill with a fever and near death. When she sees his face, the queen staggers back with a scream. Leo has the face of the dead Kallikrates. It is he whose arrival Ayesha has been waiting for. She gives Holly a life-giving fluid, which he forces down Leo’s throat. In her jealousy, she would have killed Ustane if Holly had not reminded her of the suffering she bore for killing Kallikrates so long ago. Ustane is sentenced to leave the mountain.

On the following evening, the three white men are invited to attend a dance performed by natives dressed in animal skins. The caves are honeycombed by preserved human bodies, which are used to illuminate the proceedings; when a torch is applied to them they burn brightly. Ustane, who has not been able to bring herself to part from Leo, is one of the dancers. She reveals herself to Leo when he strolls to a dark corner of the room, but she is discovered by Ayesha before she can flee with him. When Ustane refuses to leave Leo’s side, Ayesha kills her with a fierce look.

Ayesha leads Leo and Holly to the place where Holly had seen her uttering her incantations. Drawing back the shroud that covers the corpse, she discloses the body of Kallikrates. Then over it she pours some acid that destroys it quickly. With Leo present in the flesh, she explains, she has no more need for the body of the dead man.

Leo quickly falls under Ayesha’s spell and forgets Ustane. Several days later, the queen and the white men begin their journey to the place where Leo is to bathe in the fire of the Pillar of Life and so be assured of thousands of years of existence. Traveling across the plain through the ruins of the ancient city of Kôr, the party reaches a steep mountain. At its foot, they leave the litter bearers in the charge of Billali, who had accompanied them, and begin the ascent. When, by difficult stages, they reach the top, they are forced to walk a plank across a deep chasm to reach the cave that holds the pillar of fire—the Pillar of Life.

When Leo hesitates to immerse himself in the spiraling flame, Ayesha, to show that there is nothing to fear, walks into it. As she stands in its rising flame, a sudden change comes over her. Her face and limbs begin to shrivel until, before the horrified onlookers, she shrinks into a little old monkeylike creature and dies. Whether her death was caused by some fatal quality that had crept into the flame or whether her earlier immersion in it had been neutralized, the men do not know. Shaken to their depths, Holly and Leo start back to Billali. They leave Job, who had died of shock, in the cave with Ayesha’s remains.

Informed of Ayesha’s fate, Billali hurries to lead the white men back through the swamps toward the coast before the Amahagger tribe learns that they need no longer fear their queen. Much the worse for wear, Holly and Leo manage to make their way to Delagoa Bay after leaving the old native at the edge of the swamp country. Although they had only spent three weeks in the interior, Leo’s hair had turned white.

The two men eventually arrive in England and resume their old existence. As he sits alone at night, Holly frequently wonders what the next step in the drama he had witnessed will be, and what, some day, will be the role of the Egyptian princess whom Kallikrates had loved.

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