When the editor inquires as to the identity of two men he sees in Cambridge, he little thinks the ensuing introduction will result, years later, in the arrival of a peculiar manuscript, to be published or otherwise at his discretion. His correspondent is Ludwig Horace Holly, blessed by nature with a marvellous brain, but cursed with looks so hideous as to be a walking advertisement for the “monkey theory.” Early on in life he adapts to the thought of spending his life alone - until a dying friend entrusts Holly with the care of his soon-to-be-orphaned son. Lionel Vincey insists that Holly take sole charge of young Leo’s education, and preserve a locked box to be opened on his twenty-fifth birthday, to make what use he will of the contents. He also tells Holly a tale of a distant Greek ancestor, who, more than two thousand years before, left behind a pregnant wife when he was murdered in Africa - by a white woman who may well still have been there in the days of Queen Elizabeth, and upon whom his forebears had been sworn to vengeance. Holly accepts the request, but thinks little of the tale which accompanies it.
Twenty years later the box is duly opened, and reveals a piece of broken amphora inscribed on the outside with the family legend and on the inside with generations of family names. Faced with the amazing possibility of the fabled queen being - or having been - real, Holly, Leo, and their loyal servant Job head for Africa, following such directions as have been passed down through the centuries. Shipwreck and fever strike the expedition before those who remain are found by the Amahagger, a tribe whose members never smile, have unpleasant methods for dealing with uninvited guests, and follow the orders of She-who-must-be-obeyed. Although she almost never leaves the distant caves she calls home, She knew they were coming - and She has been waiting a very long time for her long-dead lover to return.
I never knew that Rumpole of the Bailey’s description of his wife as She Who Must Be Obeyed was a quotation; you acquire all sorts of trivia while reading. Aside from the reproductions of the box’s written contents in their original ancient languages (thankfully translated) She doesn’t have much of the long-windedness you might expect from a nineteenth-century book. It’s a lot of fun, with everything belonging to an adventure story: danger on all sides, a wild location in the middle of nowhere, secret passages, ancient relics, strange rituals, and a woman as deadly as she is beautiful. Holly is an intelligent and observant narrator, thus compensating for Leo’s being rather ... dull. I thought it just as well that the editor noted as much in his introduction; admitting it prevented the reader being disappointed to discover that the dashing young hero’s most interesting trait was his stunning resemblance to his sixty-something-times-great grandfather.
There were several things I would have loved to know more about, if only that wouldn’t have taken time away from the main story. Who were the people who once lived in the city of Kôr and left such ... er, unusual relics behind them? Had anyone else ever discovered what Ayesha had, deep underground? And what more might she have told Holly if they’d been able to converse more? Over two thousand years had given her an unconventional outlook on life and the universe.But then, it was Holly’s story, and when you’re at fairly constant risk of death or entrapment I don’t suppose history lessons are high on your list of priorities.
I realised in advance that I would have to allow for contemporary attitudes, but the fact that the Amahagger were savages until proven otherwise didn’t sit too easily. (Granted, their treatment of visitors could be barbaric, and the few who did prove otherwise did so splendidly, but still.) And I was startled to see Holly refer to his college servant as a gyp. (What about you - do no-longer-acceptable words or views disturb you when reading older literature?) It’s a shame that in some respects it hasn’t aged too well; but I still recommend it - Ayesha is a character worth meeting.