While the explorers recover from their fright at the sights before them, Gagool busies herself by climbing atop the large table and addressing the dead Twala. Then she makes her way around the room to address the other fallen kings, but her words are unintelligible to the others. Gagool then squats beneath the figure of the White Death, presumably praying to it. Quatermain reminds Gagool to lead them to the treasure chamber. Gagool taunts them by asking whether or not they are afraid. She leads them to an apparently blank wall, and she secretly trips a switch that causes the rock face of the wall to ascent into the ceiling above. Before letting them enter, Gagool tells the men of another traveler whom “Gagaoola the old” led into this chamber long ago. Quatermain identifies the treasure-seeker as da Silvestra, surprising Gagool. She continues the tale, in which the man and his female companion entered the treasure chamber with a goat skin bag Gagool told them about, confirming the witch’s story. The sight of the skin full of diamonds awes the men for a moment. Sir Henry takes the lamp from Gagool, and the men enter the chamber.
Within the chamber they find a ceiling-high stack of elephant tusks, extending back beyond sight into the chamber. On the opposite side of the chamber they see about twenty wooden boxes, each one full of gold coins with Hebrew letters stamped on them. At first they find no other diamonds than the ones in the goat skin, but Gagool directs them to a nook in which rest three stone chests, two sealed and one open. Investigating, the men find the open chest mostly full of uncut diamonds. Opening the second and third chests, the men find the second full to the top with diamonds and the third only partially full, but of the largest diamonds of the lot. Awed by their newfound wealth, the men do not notice Gagool’s hasty departure. Only Foulata’s cry of warning alerts them that she is escaping and has set the stone doorway to closing. Foulata attempts to stop Gagool’s exit, but Gagool stabs her. Nonetheless, Foulata’s efforts delay Gagool long enough that the witch does not make it through the door before the tons of stone drop upon her, killing her instantly.
The fatally injured Foulata asks Quatermain to translate her dying words to Good. Quatermain does so, and Foulata declares her love and her understanding that Good’s own adoration of her was not destined to last long; nevertheless, she is grateful for her time with him. Foulata dies and Good is upset, but he does not see the impending doom until Quatermain points out that Good’s own death will likely follow Foulata’s soon, for they are buried alive.
The men take stock of their grim situation. They console themselves that Gagool has met with justice, but are nonetheless disheartened at their own apparent doom. They know Infadoos will search for them eventually, but know that he is not going to find the secret to opening a hidden door that he is not even aware exists. The men somberly divide their food and prepare for their deaths. Their lamp-flame suddenly grows brighter, illuminating Foulata’s dead body, and goes out completely.
Quatermain, Sir Henry, and Good settle into a state of despair over their situation. The utter darkness and complete silence unnerve them. They clutch at straws for hope in their dire circumstances, even going so far as sending Good to cry out at the stone doorway in the hope that Infadoos will hear them. There is no response, of course, so they divide up their food and eat a slight amount to sustain their seeming last hours. Overcome by desolation, Quatermain and Good rest their heads on Sir Henry’s shoulders and weep. Sir Henry, mindless of his own despair, comforts them by telling them stories of men who had escaped from near-death circumstances and, when those fail to relieve their misery, reminds them that everyone dies some time and it is only the anticipation of that moment that is dreadful.
Hours later, Quatermain observes that the air in this sealed chamber remains fresh; therefore there must be some way for air to enter. Seizing on this hope, the men scramble through the dark chamber in search of the airway. Sir Henry and Quatermain give up after several minor injuries, but Good locates the air flow. Lighting a match, the men find a stone ring inset into the floor. Sir Henry, with help from Quatermain and Good, pulls the stone ring up, revealing a stone trap door with stairs beneath. The men gather their remaining food and water and venture into the unknown depths. On their way out of the chamber, Quatermain grabs two handfuls of diamonds and places them in his coat pockets; Good and Sir Henry are too focused on survival to care about such things.
At the bottom of the stairs the men find a tunnel extending both right and left. They decide to go against the flow of air, reasoning that air flows from the outside in and not the other way around. For a long time they follow the winding tunnel, fearful that it will only lead them back where they started. Then they hear the sound of running water and become excited at the prospect of escape. In the darkness, Good takes a misstep and falls into the underground river. Sir Henry pulls Good out, but Good’s experience has convinced him that the river is too dangerous to be used as a means of escape. They retrace their steps and find a tunnel stretching out to the right. Resigned at the hopelessness of making a reasonable choice of direction, the men follow the tunnel. Soon they spy a glimmer of light ahead and make haste toward it. The hewn tunnel gives way to earth, and the find the light comes through a small hole, probably dug by some animal. They widen the hole and in a matter of minutes escape the dark tunnels into the bright world outside.
When the Kukuanas see them rise from the earth, they are awed and frightened at these seemingly supernatural beings. Only after the men address Infadoos and explain who they are do the Kukuanas relax and help the men be restored from their perilous adventure.
The tone of Chapter 17 foreshadows the formula for Saturday matinee serials, which usually ended on a cliffhanger between episodes. The treacherous villain, the discovery of treasure, the botched escape by the killer, the sacrifice of the innocent woman, and the impending doom on the protagonists are all used by later authors and film-makers as integral parts of adventure thrillers. Haggard was not the first or only writer to use these motifs, but he did become the most popular—and therefore the most influential—writer of adventure tales in his time.
Gagool experiences a moment of surprise when Quatermain correctly identifies Silvestra. His knowledge, she must admit, can sometimes be a match for her own. However, she still maintains the superior position in her knowledge of the secret entrance to the treasure chamber. Information is the key to Gagool’s power, but she has been displaced from influencing the king of all Kukuanaland to attempting to save her own life. Her treachery casts her in the most evil light of all the characters—even Twala would not kill these men through deceit—but also results in her own destruction. The innocent and beautiful Foulata is the agent of Gagool’s death. Her inability to keep up with the men proves fortunate, as she alone sees Gagool’s hasty departure. Her struggle with the crone keep Gagool from making her way through the door in time—the wise woman is crushed by her own deadly device. Just as honor and right conquered Twala in the previous battle, so does beauty and innocence crush the wicked Gagool.
That the men did not noticed Gagool’s escape at first is a testimony to her craftiness, but also an indication of the men’s love of wealth. They are distracted by the diamonds of King Solomon’s mines—to busy picturing what they might do with such wealth to keep their eyes on the situation before them. The next chapter will further develop the problem of material possessions for the men.
Quatermain reiterates his own self-evaluation given their seemingly hopeless situation: “The bravest man on earth might well quail from such a fate as awaited us—and I never had any great pretensions to be brave” (Haggard 261). All three men are given to despair at their imminent death by starvation of asphyxiation, but Sir Henry is able to rally himself and comfort the other two. In an unusual and touching scene, Sir Henry attempts to assuage the two weeping men’s fears: “Had we been two frightened children, and he our nurse, he could not have treated us more tenderly. Forgetting his own share of miseries, he did all he could to soothe our broken nerves.” (Haggard 262). Sir Henry’s paternal treatment of the other two men leads Quatermain to declare, “His is a beautiful character, very quiet, but very strong” (Haggard 264). Since Sir Henry Curtis has been established as the ideal of manhood in the novel, this moment of nurturing shows another facet to the “true man” Haggard wishes to present. Sir Henry is willing and able to fight when necessary—even to kill for a righteous cause—but he is equally able to put aside his own despair to tenderly care for others in pain. In this moment Sir Henry changes from the two-dimensional warrior-hero into a more fully rounded character.
Although the men panic and give in to depression at their plight, in the end, their own minds offer them the key to escape. Through an application of basic science—identifying that there must be a source of air and then searching for it—the men find the passage out of the treasure chamber and to possible freedom. Again, European scientific thinking has triumphed where sinister and secretive knowledge sought to prevail.
The previous chapter and this one together form the “belly of the whale” or “journey to the underworld” phase of the heroic quest for Quatermain and his companions. The men literally descend into the darkness under the earth, and then emerge through an animal’s burrow. The imagery is clearly one of rebirth, as the men leave the womb of earth and are born anew into the world of fresh air and starlight. They have died—figuratively—and now have a second chance at a new life. Quatermain, however, holds on to his old life in at least one aspect: before leaving the treasure chamber, he grabs a handful of diamonds and secreted them in his coat pocket.