Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1768
Returning to his home in Natal after an unsuccessful elephant hunt, Allan Quatermain meets Sir Henry Curtis and his friend, retired Captain John Good, aboard ship. Sir Henry inquires whether Quatermain met a man named Neville in Bamangwato. Learning that he did, Sir Henry explains that Neville is his younger brother, George, with whom he quarreled. When Sir Henry inherited his parents’ estate, George took the name Neville and went to Africa to seek his fortune. He was not heard from since.
Quatermain says that Neville reportedly headed for King Solomon’s Mines, diamond mines reputed to lie far in the interior. Ten years before, Quatermain met a Portuguese man, José Silvestre, who tried unsuccessfully to cross the desert to the mines and dragged himself into his camp to die. Before he died, José gave him a map showing the location of the treasure. It was written on a piece of a shirt that belonged to his relative, another José Da Silvestre, three hundred years before. Silvestre saw the mines but died in the mountains while trying to return. His servant brought the map back to his family, and it was passed down through succeeding generations of the Silvestre family. By the time the ship reached Natal, Quatermain agrees to help Sir Henry find his brother.
In Natal, Quatermain gets the equipment together, and the trio choose the five men who are to accompany them. Besides the driver and the leader for the oxen that are to pull their cart, they hire three servants: a Hottentot named Ventvogel and two Zulus, Khiva and Umbopa. Umbopa explains that his tribe lives far to the north in the direction in which they are traveling and that he is willing to serve for nothing if he might go with the party. Quatermain is suspicious of the native’s offer, but Sir Henry agrees to take Umbopa as his servant.
On the journey from Durban, they lose Khiva when, trying to save Captain Good from attack by a wounded bull elephant, the native is torn in two by the rampaging animal. At Sitandra’s Kraal at the edge of the desert, the men leave all the equipment they cannot carry on their backs. Quatermain’s plan is to travel at night to avoid the heat of the sun and to sleep during the day. On the third day out, however, the men can find no shelter from the heat. They decide that trekking is more comfortable than trying to rest. They are out of water by the fourth day, but on the following day, Ventvogel discovers a spring. Refreshing themselves, they start off again that night. At the end of the next night, they reach the lower slope of a mountain marked on the map as Sheba’s left breast. On the other side of the mountain lies King Solomon’s road, which is supposed to lead to the diamond mines.
The climb up the mountain is not an easy one. The higher they ascend, the colder it grows. At the top of the ridge, they find a cave and climb into it to spend the night. Ventvogel freezes to death before morning. Ventvogel is not the only dead man in the cave. When it grows light the next morning, one of the party sees the body of a white man in its rocky recesses. Quatermain decides that it is the body of the first José Silvestre, preserved by the cold.
Leaving the bodies in the cave, the remaining men start down the mountain slope. As the mist clears, they can distinguish fertile lands and woods below them. Reaching King Solomon’s road, they follow it into the valley. The road is a magnificent engineering feat that crosses a ravine and even tunnels through a ridge. In the tunnel, the walls are decorated with figures driving in chariots. Sir Henry declares that the pictures were painted by ancient Egyptians.
When Quatermain and his party descend to the valley, they stop to eat and rest beside a stream. Captain Good undresses to shave and bathe. Suddenly, Quatermain realizes that they are being observed by a party of natives. As the leader of the band, an old man, steps up to speak to them, Quatermain sees that he greatly resembles Umbopa.
Were it not for Captain Good’s peculiarities, the four men would surely have been killed. Luckily, Captain Good’s false teeth, bare legs, half-shaven face, and monocle fascinated the savages so that they are willing to believe Quatermain’s story that he and his friends descended from the stars. To make the story more credible, he shoots an antelope with what he declares is his magic tube. At Quatermain’s insistence, the old man, whose name is Infadoos, agrees to lead the men to Twala, king of the Kukuanas. After a three-day journey, Quatermain and his party reach Loo, where Twala is holding his summer festival. The white men are introduced to the hideous one-eyed giant before an assemblage of eight thousand of his soldiers.
Before Twala’s annual witch hunt begins that evening, the four travelers have a conference with Infadoos. They learn from him that Twala and his son, Scragga, are hated for their cruelty. Umbopa then reveals that he is, in reality, Ignosi, son of the rightful king, whom Twala murdered. On the death of her husband, his mother fled across the mountains and desert with her child. As proof of his claim, Ignosi displays a snake tattooed around his middle. The snake is the sign of Kukuana kingship.
All the men, including Infadoos, agree that they will help him overcome Twala and gain the throne. Infadoos declares that he will speak to some of the chiefs after the witch hunt and win them to Ignosi’s cause. He is certain that they could have twenty thousand men in their ranks by the next morning.
That night, Gagool and her sister sorceresses help Twala search out more than a hundred of his men charged with evil thoughts or plots against their sovereign. When, in their wild dances, one of them stops before any one of the twenty thousand soldiers who are drawn up in review, the victim is immediately stabbed to death. In her blood thirst, Gagool does not hesitate to stop in front of Ignosi. Quatermain and his friends fire their guns to impress Twala and persuade him that Ignosi’s life should be spared.
Infadoos is true to his word. He brings all the chiefs he can muster, and Ignosi again exhibits the tattoo around his waist. The men fear he might be an impostor, however, and ask for a further sign. Captain Good, who knows from his almanac that an eclipse of the sun is due, swears that they will darken the sun the following day.
King Twala continues his festival and has his maidens dance before him the next afternoon. When they finish, he asks Quatermain to choose the most beautiful; his custom is to have the loveliest of the dancers slain each year. Foulata is selected, but before she can be killed, the white men interfere on her behalf. As they do so, the sun begins to darken. Scragga is mad with fear and throws his spear at Sir Henry, but the Englishman is luckily wearing a mail shirt, a present from Twala. Seizing the weapon, he hurls it back at Scragga and kills him.
Quatermain and his friends, including Infadoos and the girl, take advantage of the eclipse to flee from the town with the chiefs who rallied to them. Approximately twenty thousand men prepare for battle on a hill about two miles from Loo. Twala’s regiments, some thirty thousand soldiers, attack the next day. They are driven back and then set upon by their enemies who, driving at them from three directions, surround and slaughter many of the Kukuanas. The vanquished Twala is slain in a contest with Sir Henry, who lops off his head with a battle ax.
In return for the help that his white friends give him, the new king, Ignosi, orders Gagool to lead them to King Solomon’s mines, which lie in the mountains at the other end of the great road. Deep into the hills they go, past three enormous figures carved in the rock, images that Quatermain believes might be the three false gods for whom Solomon went astray. To reach the treasure room, they passed through a cave that Gagool calls the Place of Death. There, seated around a table, are all the dead kings of the Kukuanas, petrified by siliceous water dripping upon them.
While the men stand dumbfounded by the sight, Gagool, unobserved, moves a lever that causes a massive stone to rise. On the other side of it are boxes full of diamonds, gold coins, and ivory. As the men stand gloating over the treasure, Gagool creeps away. She releases a lever to bring down the door, but Foulata catches her before she can escape. Gagool stabs the girl fatally, but before she can pass under the door, it drops and crushes her.
For several hours, Quatermain and his friends believe that they are buried alive, for they have no idea where to find the secret of the door. At last, in the dark, they find a lever that discloses a subterranean passage. Through it, they find their way once more to the outside and to Infadoos, who is waiting for them.
A few weeks later, some of Ignosi’s men guide them out of Kukuanaland, across the mountains, and on the first stage of their trip back across the desert. The only treasure they have with them is a handful of diamonds Quatermain stuffed into his pockets before they found a way out of the treasure room.
Their guides, who know of a better trail than that by which the travelers came, lead them to an oasis from which they can pass on to other green spots along their way. On their return trip they find a small hut near the bank of a stream. Sir Henry’s lost brother, George, is in it. He was badly injured by a boulder two years before and was not able to travel since that time. Quatermain and his friends support George across the desert to Sitandra’s Kraal and then on to Quatermain’s home. According to their agreement before setting out on the expedition, the diamonds are divided. Quatermain and Captain Good each keep a third, and they give the rest of the stones to George, Sir Henry’s brother.