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The International Writers Magazine
:
A Sherlock Holmes Adventure

The Old ’Eighty-Eight
Gerald Grant

There were few things that gave Sherlock Holmes greater pleasure than to visit the actual scene of a crime; and this pleasure was greatly increased if the crime was, so to speak, fresh, or if the scene itself was undisturbed, thus allowing him unfettered access to whatever clues the criminal may have left.

For it is the rare criminal who does not leave some small trace of their presence, and the ghastly acts they commit, and I am pleased to report that such evidence rarely escaped the close eye of Holmes and his lens. He could reconstruct the presence of a criminal to a most extraordinary degree, and I recall that on more than one occasion a tiny, apparently trivial clue turned out to be the key to solving a crime of extreme complexity. At these moments, there was something of the bloodhound in Holmes. He was never more alert than when inspecting minutely some room or alleyway, and an intense excitement would become evident in his demeanour when the trail was revealed to his scrutiny – the very same point, I might add, at which the dog wags its tail and takes off in pursuit of the scent.

However, one incident that I recorded demonstrated the exact opposite: an occasion when Holmes solved a quite remarkable mystery without once stirring from his chair beside the fire in our Baker Street chambers.
It was a cold afternoon towards the end of February 1895, with the city shivering beneath a grey and frosty sky, and with word of impending snow arriving from the North, so that men turned their collars up against the wind and made haste for their warm and comfortable homes. After busying myself with my practice for the morning, I joined Holmes at his behest in the middle of the afternoon, and found him curled in his favourite armchair before a roaring blaze, which I was not sorry to seat myself close by. Holmes was in a distracted mood, sunk into the lethargy that could befall him for weeks at a time. It was not long after his remarkable efforts which I recorded in ‘The Master of Mullard Hall’, and after the peaks of deduction and analysis that he had achieved in that case, I feared that it would be some time before his spirits and his constitution recovered. However, upon my entering the room he roused himself slightly and I observed a familiar gleam in his eye.
‘Ah Watson,’ said he. ‘I am glad that you are able to join me.’
‘It is a pleasure,’ I responded, ‘as always. But tell me, Holmes, have you some new case that you are pursuing?’
‘No, I have not. At least nothing of significance. The British criminal has been noticeably quiet and reticent of late; I believe the whole community to be in hibernation. There was some unusual business with Schorring, the Swiss banking house; but I was able to provide the Swiss authorities with some minor suggestions that enabled them to resolve the matter themselves. It was not particularly taxing. However, I am expecting at any moment visitor who may well provide some fresh investigation or enquiry. His correspondence was pleasingly brief.’
Holmes handed me a telegram, which was indeed to the point:

REQUIRE YOUR ASSISTANCE WITH CRIMINAL MATTER WILL CALL 4PM TODAY STOP DR G GELDING ESQ STOP

‘Who is Dr. G. Gelding?’ I asked.
‘I do not know,’ said Holmes. ‘But I believe that we are about to find out, for that may surely be him now…’
The bell rang and a few moments later a portly, round-chested man entered the room.
‘Mr. Holmes – honoured!’ said the man, in a deep voice, clasping my friend’s hand and bowing rather theatrically. ‘And yourself – Dr. Watson!’ he said, turning to me and repeating the manoeuvre. ‘I have heard much that is to the good of your reputations.’
‘Pray sit down, Dr. Gelding,’ said Holmes, indicating an armchair. ‘I observe that you have had a long and rather tiresome walk to visit us, although I trust that it has had a suitably beneficial affect on your health.’
‘Why, sir!’ said Dr. Gelding, quite taken aback and standing up again immediately. ‘How can you possibly know that?’
‘Yes Holmes, do tell!’ said I, laughing.
‘Really, it was rather simple,’ said Holmes, examining his pipe. ‘Your forehead is slightly damp, indicating that you have taken greater exercise than simply dismounting from a carriage and climbing the seventeen steps up to these rooms. You have, therefore, walked some distance. Furthermore, as you are a man who visibly has the means to afford transportation should he desire it, it was clear that walking was your own decision, and that you wore a sturdy pair of boots for the purpose. The boots, although new, have some dried mud on their sides and uppers, indicating both recent purchase and regular use. As few men walk through the city so regularly for pleasure, I can only presume that you have another, stronger motive, of which your health is the most obvious factor.’
‘Astonishing, sir!’ said Dr. Gelding, stamping his foot with delight, so that I feared for the ornaments on my friend’s mantelpiece. ‘Quite astonishing, what!’
He turned to me and I nodded my assent; for no matter how often I observe Holmes’s deductive capacity, my appreciation for it never decreases.
‘Now,’ said Holmes, ‘as I also observe that you are not a medical doctor, how may I assist you?’
‘No sir!’ said our visitor, standing again. ‘No sir, no! I insist you tell me how you know that I am not a medical man. Am I known to you in advance?’
‘No, and really, it was even more simple. You are wearing the pin of the Royal Chemistry Society on the lapel of your jacket. I am quite familiar with it, having undertaken one or two minor investigations in that line myself.’
‘I am, sir!’ said Dr. Gelding, looking down to examine his lapel, so that his various chins flattened themselves against his neck. He was a most extraordinary man. As he stamped his foot again and smiled heartily at Holmes, I observed the long whiskers that inhabited his florid face and the red knuckles on his stout hands. He could have passed admirably for a Yorkshire pig farmer, and a man less likely to be a doctor of chemistry I could never have imagined.
‘And I am now convinced, sir – convinced! – that I was correct in seeking your advice. Your comments so far have vindicated my decision! Vindicated it!’
‘Of that I am glad,’ said Holmes, who, I could see, was tiring of our visitor’s bluster. ‘Now Dr. Gelding, if you could please explain in what matter we can be of assistance.’
‘I will, sir, I will!’

He sat back in his chair. ‘My name is Dr Gideon Gelding. I am indeed trained in chemistry, specifically in the separation of liquids of varying density; but I am now in the employment of Jones & Furlock, Vinters, of Lower Pentland Street. You have perhaps heard of them? They have no small reputation as importers of fine wines and spirits in the capital and enjoy the patronage of some of the most knowledgeable connoisseurs at the very highest levels of society.’ His voice, thankfully, was then lowered. ‘It is a most extraordinary business that I wish to consult you upon; for although we have contacted the police, they can make nothing of it.’

Holmes did not respond to this and simply waited for our visitor to continue. He drew breath and did so.
‘I believe I have mentioned already that our offices are on Lower Pentland Street. The premises are spread over three floors, with the shop at street level and the offices located above. Behind the premises, which can only be entered by the main door from the street, is a large warehouse, where all of our considerable stock is stored. This is attached to the offices and can only be entered through a door at the rear of the shop, or by the large gates through which deliveries are received, which open off Routledge Street. There is no way, therefore, of gaining access to either the warehouse or to the offices without entering though the front or the rear. Unless, of course, one were able to climb through one of the vents in the roof of the warehouse and then drop forty feet to the floor. I state all this simply to demonstrate the complexity of what I am about to describe.’

‘Quite so,’ said Holmes, nodding. ‘Please continue.’

‘On the first Tuesday of every second month, as is our practice, a consignment arrives from the continent on the cargo ship the Elizabeth Grey, which docks for unloading at Greenwich, and from which the bottles and barrels are transported to our warehouse the very same day. I do not know how much you know of spirits, sir, but when dealing with the rarer kind it is vital that they are stored at the correct temperature and therefore transportation to our warehouse must be effected immediately. Some may also contain a sediment which is quite disturbed by the sea passage, and which must be rested as soon as possible so that their contents may settle. Therefore, as is our habit, the warehouse foreman Mr. Waverley and myself received the consignment on the first Tuesday of this month, and checked the inventory to ascertain that everything had been delivered correctly. I can confirm that it had and that not one item was missing.
‘Now, it so happens that this consignment contained a particularly valuable case of bottles, some of the very last of the famous madeira verdelho of 1859, an exquisite vintage; quite the best year for that particular madeira so far. Several of our leading clients had ordered it specifically, you understand. I mention this so that you will understand the strangeness of what I am to describe. Amongst other sundry spirits and liqueurs, many of not inconsiderable value, the consignment also contained four barrels of the old 1888 Portuguese wine, which although not displeasing to the palate is not of a comparable vintage to many of our other wares. It is, however, rather profitable, and Jones & Furlock import substantial amounts in the original barrels, which we then decant and bottle at the warehouse for sale through the shop. This is unusual, but expeditious. Have you followed me thus far, sir?’

Holmes was now leaning back in his chair with his eyes half closed, and nodded faintly to indicate his assent. I suspect that our visitor was expecting a more lively interest in his story, but nevertheless persevered.

‘Well, upon our examining the consignment, although nothing was missing, we discovered that the barrels of the ’eighty-eight wine had been slightly damaged, so that some of their contents had been lost and the rest spoiled. This was unfortunate in financial terms and also most unusual, for we employ agents both at Greenwich and in Porto who oversee the stevedores to ensure the careful loading and unloading of each consignment. The ship’s passage had been uneventful and she had reported neither rough seas nor any damage to the cargo. So there was little that we could do, other than dispose of the barrels and count ourselves fortunate that it was not a more precious commodity that had been damaged. We therefore left the damaged barrels out in the centre of the warehouse, for removal the following day, whilst the verdelho madeira was stored in our cellar. This is built in a vault directly below the warehouse, and can only be entered through a door in the warehouse which is always bolted and double pad-locked. I might add that it is acknowledged as the finest commercial cellar in London and, to the discerning connoisseur, its contents would be worth many thousands of pounds and many enjoyable dinner parties!

‘At five thirty that evening I departed from the offices to return home. Mr. Waverley secures the premises when the last man has left. Sometimes the clerks are a little slow in departing for the evening and so it was that night, for Mr. Waverley did not lock the premises and depart before a quarter past six. He and I arrived at the same time the following morning and let ourselves in through the front entrance at approximately eight o’clock. Proceeding to the warehouse, we discovered the barrels of the old ’eight-eight to have been smashed to pieces, and their contents, what remained of it, was now soaking into the stones of the warehouse floor. The door to the cellar had also been smashed open but here is the curious fact: nothing had been stolen. Not one bottle had been taken. We investigated the rest of the premises but there was no other disturbance and it did not appear that the offices had been opened, despite the presence of a safe that often held the day’s takings. Since then, we have increased our security and the police have examined the warehouse minutely – but they have found nothing, sir, nothing!’
Dr. Gelding broke off and sat back. He extracted a large, crumpled handkerchief from a pocket and mopped his brow, for the telling of this narrative appeared to have cost him some effort.

‘That is extremely interesting,’ said Holmes, forming a steeple of his fingers and frowning intently, a sign that always signalled the interest a story had aroused in him. ‘Extremely curious indeed. Would you object if I were to ask you some further questions?’
‘I would not, sir!’
Dr. Gelding sat forward, his legs apart and his hands resting on his plump thighs. He looked at Holmes sternly, rather in the manner of a prize pugilist eyeing an unworthy challenger.
‘How much money was stored in the safe that night?’ said Holmes
‘Very little, sir. By chance it was a day on which we made a deposit at the bank.’
‘Would the clerks be aware of that?’
‘They would.’
‘And the safe had not been touched or tampered with in any way?’
‘It had not.’
‘I see. You mentioned that Mr. Waverley was the last to leave and that he was delayed on that particular night. Tell me, has he been with the firm long?’
‘Thirty-two years, sir. But I can see where you are heading and I must stop you there; for I can vouch for him. I can vouch for him impeccably! I can-’
‘Thank you,’ said Holmes. ‘That will not be necessary. However, can you tell me why was he delayed in leaving?’
‘One of the clerks was working late, a Mr. Channing. He is an extremely diligent young fellow. Very promising.’
‘And has he been with the firm long?’
‘No, sir. Two months or thereabouts, no more.’
‘And he came with good recommendations?’
‘The very best. We were remarkably fortunate to find someone so capable when a previous clerk, Mr. Ossler, who had been with the firm many years, left us unexpectedly at short notice, when his wife fell ill.’
‘I see.’
Holmes sat in silence for several minutes, staring at the leaping flames of the fire and apparently lost in some distant reverie. Our visitor shifted in his seat and I could tell from his expression that he found a perverse satisfaction in Holmes’ silence – mistaking it, I believe, for bafflement.
‘And nothing at all was taken from the cellar? In particular, no bottles of the Verdelho Madeira were missing?’
‘No sir, not a thing. Not a single item was removed.’
‘The Madeira – tell me, doctor, would its value be obvious to the untrained eye?’
‘I doubt it; although surely the fact that we store it in a locked vault, kept at a cool temperature, would indicate that it was something unusual or precious?’ said Dr. Gelding.
‘Yes, quite so. Now, you said there was no damage to the doors, at either the front or the rear?’
‘There was not, none whatsoever.’
‘Then how do you propose that the thief entered the premises?’
‘I do not know and cannot understand it, for only myself and Mr. Waverley possess keys.’
‘You keep them on you at all times?’
‘At all times, sir!’ Dr. Gelding patted a pocket on his waistcoat.
‘And Mr. Waverley–’
‘–is beyond suspicion, sir, as I have said!’
‘Ah, but perhaps he is less diligent in the care of his keys?’

Dr. Gelding frowned and nodded, as if finally Holmes had said something that had not already occurred to him.

‘Smashing the barrels would presumably make quite some noise,’ said Holmes, resuming his questioning. ‘Did no one hear anything?’
‘Not a thing, sir, not a thing. But there are only commercial premises around us, so it is unlikely that there would be anyone nearby who would hear anything in the night. The police did make enquiries but again they found nothing.’
‘That is not unusual,’ said Holmes, drily. ‘And the barrels were badly damaged?’
‘Smashed to pieces, sir! Utterly destroyed! They are nothing but firewood now.’
‘Ah. And how many did you say there were?’
‘Four.’

Holmes again fell silent, except that this time he reached for a notebook and made several rapid notes on one of the pages, checking against something he had written previously on another page. He looked up and smiled at our visitor.

‘Dr. Gelding, just a couple more questions and then I believe I will have all the information that I require. This is really a most interesting case, and becomes more interesting the longer that one considers it. But before I progress any further, may I ask what you believe to have occurred?’

‘You may, sir. You may…’ Dr. Gelding made himself more comfortable and cleared his throat. ‘I believe, Mr. Holmes, that someone broke into the warehouse; how, I do not know. They then broke into the cellar, expecting to find something else – money, perhaps. Angry at finding nothing but old bottles and quite ignorant of their value, they destroyed the nearest thing to hand – the barrels of the old ’eighty-eight – before leaving empty-handed. What I have not decided is exactly how they entered and left the warehouse. But there sir; there you have it.’ He patted his knees, conclusively, and sat back.

‘Thank you kindly, doctor. You have clearly given much attention to the strange circumstances that you have described and I must commend the detail of your account. If I may ask, what route does the Elizabeth Grey take when she brings your monthly consignment?’
‘What route? Why, what for, sir? What bearing can that possibly have on this case?’
‘Ah,’ said Holmes, ‘possibly none, but to satisfy my own curiosity…’
‘Well,’ said Dr. Gelding, ‘she sails from Porto to London, where the cargo is unloaded. From London she sails to Southampton, where she loads various goods for export, which are transported to the continent, usually to Santander; before she continues to Lisbon and Porto, to prepare for the return journey to London.’
‘So on the first crossing, she does not stop between Porto and London?’
‘That is correct, sir.’
Dr. Gelding glared at my friend, evidently dismayed at the direction of Holmes’ conversation.
‘Thank you Dr. Gelding, I believe that will be all. Ah, no, there is one final little matter to confirm. The clerk that you mentioned, Mr. Channing, who delayed Mr. Waverly in leaving the premises that night; he was a short, rather stocky man with fair hair, I believe? And he has unfortunately been ill and unable to attend work for the past week?’
‘He has, sir, and you have described him perfectly. But how can you possibly–’
But at this moment Holmes held up his hand, rather in the manner of a man calmly instructing an angry bull to cease charging at him, and our visitor fell silent, although with evident displeasure.
‘Dr. Gelding,’ said Holmes, ‘you must excuse me for just a minute. Watson, would you possibly attend to the fire…?’
‘Gladly.’

Whilst I did this, I observed Holmes cross to the table and quickly write out two or three telegrams, which he then summoned the page to run and despatch. Having done this, he returned to his armchair and sat down, reaching for his pipe and tobacco, and smiling at our visitor quite amicably.
‘Well, sir,’ said Dr. Gelding, ‘and what will you do now?’
‘Nothing,’ said Holmes, again raising his hand as a pre-emptive measure. ‘I have done all I need to, and by this time tomorrow I am more than confident that the men who broke into your warehouse and smashed the barrels will be in custody. I have alerted Scotland Yard to their location and urged the force to act promptly.’

The simplicity and candour with which Holmes delivered this statement rendered Dr. Gelding speechless. Indeed, had I not observed his robust manner during the telling of his story, then as a medical man I would, at that moment, have feared for his heart.

‘Watson, do pass the doctor a glass of water, will you be so kind? I believe it may aid his composure…’
I laughed as I did so, for although I was as interested as our visitor to learn how Holmes had reached his conclusions with such remarkable speed, I daresay I was a little less surprised. I poured out a glass of water and handed it to Dr. Gelding, who swallowed it in one draught and then managed another, and had soon recovered enough to speak.
‘But how, sir…? How? I insist that you tell me!’
‘Watson,’ said Holmes, turning to me. ‘Do you have any suggestions that might throw light upon this matter for Dr. Gelding?’
‘None, Holmes. I’m as baffled as he is.’
Holmes reclined in his chair and I sensed the dual conflict in his nature. He was a man who was naturally guarding of his unique processes of deduction; and yet there was also something of the showman in him, who relished the chance to unveil a complex mystery to an expectant audience.

‘Well, doctor, several points from your narrative alerted me to the strangeness of the case,’ said he. ‘First of all, why break in and steal nothing? That is hardly the usual activity of the London burglar. You suggested that they were looking for money and destroyed the barrels in anger, but I suggest to you that even the lowest of London criminals would remove a bottle or two of something before leaving, if only to accompany their dinner the following night. Therefore it was obvious to me that they broke into the warehouse of Jones & Furlock with some quite different motive. For why go to the trouble of opening the cellar, cutting through a lock and two bolts, and then steal nothing? Why destroy four wooden barrels, an activity that would require strenuous effort and particular equipment such as axes or hammers, for no purpose? And why not enter the offices and search for money or something of value there? Indeed, if it was a burglary, then it was either carried out by the most inept burglars in London, or something else entirely was intended. I favoured the latter option and as you provided us with more details, doctor, I became convinced that the burglary was a cover, a sham, to hide their real purpose.’
‘Which was?’
‘To recover something hidden in the barrels. That was why they smashed them to pieces, destroying them as you described. They had to make sure that what they were looking for was not there. But I’m afraid they hacked away to no avail; for what they were seeking had already been removed during the journey. This became clear to me when you mentioned that the barrels arrived in a damaged state. Someone had already tampered with them on the ship between Portugal and England, removing whatever had been placed inside; other of course, than the old ’eighty-eight wine. Whatever it was, it was clearly extremely precious, if it would force men to go to the length of robbing a ship during its passage, in itself no easy undertaking; or of breaking into your warehouse in the night. Clearly, it was far more valuable than anything contained in your own cellar, impressive though I’m sure it is; and I believe that you might count yourself lucky that the criminals who entered your premises did not vent their frustration towards other of your wares. That they did not, I can only assign to their knowledge or suspicion of who it was that had beaten them to the barrels’ contents, and their certainty of exacting some kind of retribution in the near future. Do you follow me so far?’
‘I do sir, I do! But I must question your reasoning, for what on earth could be hidden in a barrel of old Portuguese wine…? Eh?’
Holmes smiled, serenely.
‘Diamonds, doctor,’ said he. ‘Diamonds would neither be damaged by the wine, nor in turn affect the flavour of the wine, and could therefore be inserted and removed without anyone knowing otherwise. I am convinced that that was their intention; and that had someone not interfered during the ship’s passage, then your barrels would have arrived undamaged. In the night, someone would then have entered your warehouse and extracted the diamonds, again leaving the wine untouched, so that you would have been none the wiser, and their activity would have remained undetected. This mysterious occurence has, I believe, exposed a smuggling ring of enormous ingenuity.’
‘No sir, no. This is too much! Diamonds in a barrel of wine! Why whoever heard of such nonsense?’ He turned to me, as if expecting my support, but I merely referred my gaze to Holmes, who was now visibly enjoying our guest’s pomposity. ‘Nonsense, I say!’
‘I assure you, Dr. Gelding,’ said Holmes, ‘that it is both possible and probable. But allow me to supply some extra details that may perhaps convince you. The burglary of your premises was clearly staged. They entered your warehouse with the intention of leaving no trace of their visit. However, the damage to the barrels forced them to change their plans, and abandon whatever ingenious method they had devised for extracting the diamonds. Instead they were forced to smash the barrels to pieces, to verify utterly that the diamonds had already been removed. Having done this, there was no way they could hide the damage. So, they attempted to conceal their real motive by staging a burglary – breaking open the door to your cellar and, I am sure, carrying out a cursory examination of your offices, although in too subtle a manner for our friends the police to detect. However, they removed nothing, meaning that they are either burglars of exceptional honour, or your premises offered nothing else that would materially assist them. I favoured the latter option. Then, having arranged what they thought was a convincing enough case of petty burglary, they departed from the scene. Damaging one of the doors to make it seem as though they had gained entry by force would have been an extra touch; but I believe I would have seen through that as well. Instead, they simply locked the door behind them.’
‘But how did they get the keys, sir? How? I have already vouched for myself and Mr. Waverley!’
‘And I do not question that,’ said Holmes. ‘However, these are extremely clever men and I am certain that they found some earlier opportunity to remove the keys from either yourself or Mr. Waverley, and have duplicate copies made, entirely without your knowledge. After all, you must remember that it was their intention to come and go at your warehouse unnoticed each month. In fact, it was imperative that they could collect the diamonds that arrived as part of your consignment and that this remained completely unknown. For their plan to succeed, it was essential for them to have easy access to your premises, whenever they desired, without your knowledge.’
‘You mean they have done this before?’ said our visitor.
‘No, doctor, this was their first attempt.’

‘But Holmes,’ said I, ‘how can you possibly know that someone was using the barrels to smuggle diamonds?’

‘A good question, Watson, and an example of where a little further knowledge places me at your advantage. You doubtless read in the papers last summer of the spectacular diamond finds in South Africa by a man named Olen Van Krueger? He discovered several new fields from which, it was estimated, diamonds of many thousands of pounds in worth would be extracted. The early samples were unprecedented in both size and quality. Well, it is axiomatic to my profession that where there is something with the potential for great wealth, the criminal will always be tempted to try his hand; and, in my experience, the greater the potential prize, the greater and more daring are the risks he will take.
‘It was not long after those stories appeared in the newspapers that Scotland Yard contacted me for assistance. It seemed that my predictions were correct; someone was attempting to smuggle large numbers of Van Krueger diamonds, as they are known, into England, where they are cut and fashioned as diamonds from other fields and then sold through the black-market, thus reducing the value of the original find. The companies leading their extraction and distribution were understandably concerned. I have been investigating this for many months, and I had identified everything I needed to know; except for their method of smuggling the diamonds into this country. I succeeding in tracing the diamonds’ journey from Cape Town to the continent, but there the trail went cold. I was missing the final clue that would demonstrate how the first shipment of diamonds would be moved from the continent to London, and the agent in Lisbon in the employ of Scotland Yard was murdered six weeks ago.

‘That suggested that something was about to happen, and that some attempt was about to be made to bring the diamonds into the country. I alerted Scotland Yard immediately and they have been watching closely every port and every known jewellery distributor in the London underworld. But we heard nothing. We knew that the diamonds had arrived in Lisbon before Christmas and that they must surely be on the way to London in the New Year; but we knew not how or by what means they were to be transported. Well doctor, when you told me your strange story I immediately made the connection to my own investigations, for it was clear that their plan had been ruined and their method of smuggling accidentally revealed.’

At this moment Dr. Gelding stamped his foot in delight, apparently having forgotten the financial loss and inconvenience incurred by his company, so pleased was he with Holmes’ deductions.
‘Continue, sir!’ said he. ‘Continue!’
‘I also realised that the presence in your cellar of a unique and extremely valuable Madeira was completely irrelevant; but, like many an intriguing coincidence, it had the potential to divert our attention from the true facts of the case.’

‘But Holmes,’ said I. ‘Are you saying that you know who the criminals are?’

‘Yes, I identified the gang some time ago and have simply been waiting for them to make their move, so I might catch them in the act or even with the jewels in their hands. It is for that reason that I was able to describe the physique of Mr. Channing to the doctor here, despite the fact that I have never met or even seen the man. Nor indeed will I ever meet him, for he was murdered last week, and discovered drowned on the banks of the Thames. You will surely remember, Watson, remarking on my lack of interest in the case?’

I nodded. We had discussed it over dinner the previous week and at the time I had chided Holmes for his lack of enthusiasm in a case that had baffled the police; for they knew not who the murderer was, nor even the identity of the dead man.

‘The police confusion was a ruse that I suggested,’ said Holmes. ‘His name was not Channing but Porter – Nathaniel Porter, son of Robert Porter, a well-known smuggler dealing in opium, jewellery, and other illicit substances who operates from premises in the East End. Far from being uninterested, I was simply waiting for the rest of the facts of the case to unravel. His death signalled that something had gone badly awry with their plans, and also made me suspicious that the stones had now arrived in London.’
‘But sir,’ said Dr. Gelding. ‘He was exemplary as a clerk, quite exemplary! Are you telling me that Mr. Channing – or Mr. Porter, or whatever the devil his name was – was nothing more than a common criminal?’
‘I would not say a common criminal,’ said Holmes. ‘The Porter family are exceedingly cunning and have evaded capture for many years. It must be remembered that the finest minds I have encountered have nearly always been of a criminal bent.’
‘But his references…?’
‘Were forged, doctor. It is easily done. I am certain that the illness of Mrs. Ossler, the wife of your former clerk, was no accident and that she may well recover in time. As for Nathaniel Porter, as an intelligent and competent young man, he was able to adapt to the work quickly enough so as not to raise your suspicions. He was placed there to observe the operation of the office, and to report every time a delivery was received. The significance that was attached to this plot can therefore be comprehended, if Robert Porter was prepared to place his own son at the centre, running the highest risk of exposure. But they were envisaging many profitable years of diamond smuggling through these means; and Porter also knew his son’s adeptness at the family trade. It was probably him who arranged for the keys to be duplicated, and I do not doubt that he was one of the party that entered the warehouse on the evening in question and led his colleagues directly to the barrels of the old ’eighty-eight.’

‘But he is dead; why?’ I asked.

‘That we will not know until the rest of the gang are rounded up, which is, I believe, exactly what Scotland Yard will undertake this very afternoon. I have supplied them with all but one of the names. However, most likely the gang have been double-crossed at some point, and as the inside man at Jones & Furlock, the finger of suspicion was most naturally pointed at young Nathaniel Porter. Although intelligent, he was a fiery tempered individual by all accounts, and I have little doubt that his death resulted from an accusation and an angry denial of his guilt.’
‘Ingenious, sir, quite ingenious,’ said Dr. Gelding. ‘I am indebted, quite indebted to you for clearing up this question. You have saved the firm of Jones & Furlock from many uneasy nights, of that I can assure you.’
‘Then that, along with my professional fee, shall be sufficient reward.’

‘But Holmes,’ said I. ‘Surely two questions remain?’

‘Ah Watson, you are getting sharper every year! It is a pleasure to observe. Yes, you are quite correct; I have neglected to tell you two things. Firstly, what happened on the boat, and secondly, the name of the man that I did not supply to Scotland Yard. Allow me to answer.
‘I do not know who tampered with the barrels to remove the diamonds before the ship even reached London. At first I suspected the intervention of a rival gang; but as I know of no other such gang in operation in London at this time, capable of such action, I have reached another conclusion. The crossing from Porto to London is a long one, and tedious, too. I suspect that a sailor on the ship was in the employment of the gang, or had been placed amongst the crew to watch over the cargo, just as they placed Mr. Porter in the offices of Jones & Furlock. That would fit with their methods. However, if that is the case then it was one step too far; for whoever this individual was, he made full advantage of the long days at sea to remove the most precious cargo in the ship’s hold, although he was unable to avoid damaging the barrels in the process. I am sure that if we took an inventory of the ship’s crew we would, now, find that one name was missing, and that this individual is at this very moment in another city on another continent, negotiating the sale of some exceptional Van Krueger diamonds.’

‘Bravo, Holmes,’ I said. ‘And the name you withheld?’

‘Vanity, Watson,’ said he. ‘Nothing more than vanity, and my own wish to be present when the information I have just conveyed to you is laid before him. Dr. Gelding, are you by any chance familiar with Lord Rufus Lipsett?’
The doctor’s face coloured.
‘I am, sir. Why, he is one of our most esteemed clients. But what of it?’
‘His is the name that I have withheld. He is at the centre of this plot.’
‘Lord Lipsett?’ said Dr. Gelding. ‘Impossible. Why Mr. Holmes, I can assure you that you are badly mistaken.’
‘I fear that I am not, doctor. It was plain to me from the outset that the organisation of this operation was being co-ordinated by a most daring and ingenious mind; and yet, also, by a mind of great refinement and not a little humour. He is, you have confirmed, a regular client of Jones & Furlock. Tell me doctor, does he visit the premises often?’
‘He does sir. He often visited to sample a new wine or to inspect a recent consignment.’
‘And he has seen inside your warehouse?’
‘Why, only last week sir! I myself led him to our cellar so that he could inspect for himself the conditions in which we stored our spirits.’

Holmes chuckled with pleasure.

‘Then I can only applaud the man’s daring even more,’ said he. ‘That he stood there with you, doubtless noting every detail that he needed to know about the size of the warehouse, the number of exits, the composition of the locks and bolts… Really, the man is quite a showman, and his method was quite ingenious. I expect that it occurred to him whilst visiting your premises on a different matter: that of stocking his fine cellars each month. Of course, he did not carry out the midnight visit to the warehouse himself, it was too great a risk; but doubtless he conveyed a full description to Porter, down to the smallest detail, in advance of their attempt upon the barrels. I did not supply his name to Scotland Yard so that I might have the pleasure of presenting this to him myself, and if you will care to join us, Dr. Gelding, I propose that we pay a visit to Lord Lipsett at eleven o’clock tomorrow morning, when he will, I believe, just have arisen.’
‘I will, sir! But I only hope that you are not mistaken.’
‘I am not,’ said Holmes. ‘Now doctor, I think that is all?’
Still shaking his head with bemusement and congratulating Holmes on this feat of deduction, the doctor took his leave of us.

The arrests proceeded almost exactly as Holmes had predicted: the gang were rounded-up, including agents in Porto, Lisbon, Dahomey and Johannesburg. Robert Porter confessed to the murder of his own son during an argument and, by all accounts, that weighed more heavily upon him than the loss of his liberty and his reputation in the London underworld. Scotland Yard took the praise for breaking such a complex smuggling ring, much to Holmes’ amusement, although the first consignment of smuggled diamonds were never recovered. Only the interview with Rufus Lipsett did not proceed as planned, for we arrived at his formidable house in Belgravia only to find the servants hurriedly packing, the furniture being dismantled and taken away. Upon enquiring, we discovered that his Lordship had departed at first light that morning, announcing his intention to reside in India for the foreseeable future; and although the ports and stations were watched carefully, he has never been heard of or seen again. In concluding this story, I must note that a fortnight or thereabouts after the interview with Dr. Gelding, Holmes took delivery one morning of a rather heavy package. It was accompanied by a short note expressing the gratitude of Jones & Furlock, Vintners, of Lower Pentland Street; although whether it was a bottle of the magnificent Verdelho Madeira, or simply a taste of the old ’eighty-eight wine, I never had the pleasure of finding out.

© Gerald Grant - March 2006

Gerald Grant is a long time devotee of Sherlockana.

The Hungerton Dungeon
A Sherlock Holmes adventure
Gerald Grant


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