The banner headline of "The Times" extra edition was startling:
The Mahadavan was the world's largest diamond. That it had been stolen was amazing for it was kept in a vault under continual surveillance. Whoever had managed to bypass such tight security must have been a criminal of genius.
This was just the thing to interest my friend Sherlock Holmes and I expected him to arrive quite soon to chat about it. As there was still a nip in the air on this early spring morning Holmes would undoubtedly be chilled to the bone, so I stoked more logs onto the fire.
A short while later, just as expected, I heard a familiar rat-ta-tat telling me that my great friend was at the front door.
"Come in, Holmes, and get a warm. I have a fine blazing fire."
"No time for that, Watson, I'm off to Holland, right now. There's not a moment to lose. If you would like to come, too, grab your coat and hat and let's go. I can tell you about it on the way."
Within ten minutes, I found myself seated opposite Holmes in a hanson cab, rattling along toward Kings Cross Station.
"You will, of course, have read about the theft of the Mahadavan diamond. Well, I know who stole it; none other than my old enemy, Professor Moriarty."
"Ye gods, Holmes, is that so? Though the thief must have been a master criminal, how do you know it was Moriarty?"
"I was aware that he had recently arrived in London from Amsterdam and so I had him watched. My spies reported that just this morning he left London by train heading north toward Scotland. Enquiries at the station revealed that he was going to Newcastle. My assessment is this: He has the diamond and has gone to Newcastle where he will catch the night ferry to Holland. In Amsterdam, where he was recently, possibly to hire a diamond cutter, he will have the Mahadavan cut into several smaller stones which he will be able to sell, unlike the Mahadavan, itself, that nobody can afford to buy, for it is priceless. Shortly, we will catch the express which will get us to Newcastle in time to board the same night ferry as Professor Moriarty."
"But how will you get the diamond off him?"
"I don't know at the moment, Watson, other than to say that I don't think he will carry it with him when he disembarks. I will simply have to work it out after I have seen the lie of the land, or rather, in this case, the lie of the ship."
No sooner had we boarded the train, than Holmes suggested we sleep during the trip as he anticipated being awake during the ferry crossing. He stretched his tall frame along the seat and immediately went to sleep. I do not sleep so readily, but only needed to read half a page of a very boring book I carry for the purpose and I soon nodded off. The journey proved uneventful and we arrived in Newcastle refreshed and ready for action.
After boarding the ferry and checking out our cabin we took a turn around the deck for Holmes was keen to get every detail into his mind.
The ferry was fairly full and the passengers were in good humour as the calm sea offered the prospect of a voyage free from seasickness. Children were already being entertained by a Punch and Judy show and with ice-cream, candy floss and hydrogen-filled balloons on sale, they were particularly happy.
There seemed to be three kinds of passengers; Dutchmen returning home, for they showed little interest in what was happening on the pier; Next, Englishmen at the handrail talking to relatives and friends onshore, with some holding streamers; Thirdly, tourists, seeing the place for the first time and interested in everything ashore and afloat.
At 3 o'clock sharp, the vessel cast-off on its 18-hour crossing to Ijmuiden, the port of Amsterdam. We were hardly outside of Newcastle harbour when Holmes made a stunning remark.
"I think I have worked out how Moriarty intends getting the stolen diamond past the port security, customs and the police."
"What? Already? You've worked something out, already? How will he do it, Holmes?"
"Balloons? For goodness sake, how have you worked that out?"
"I asked a ship's officer if balloons were usually sold on board and he said this was the first time. Likely, the balloon salesman is one of Moriarty's henchmen. Moriarty can use a balloon to carry the diamond off the ship when it arrives in Holland. Other of his henchmen in a boat could catch it and escape before the authorities can arrest or forestall them. Once they have the diamond it will be virtually impossible to ever get it back for if they were intercepted they would simply drop the diamond into the sea."
"If you are right, Holmes, then it is imperative that they never get their hands on the diamond."
"That is so, Watson, and I have thought out a way to get it, but we will need the assistance of a child."
"A child, Holmes? Why a child?
"I need to get some of the balloons but clearly cannot buy them myself without alarming Moriarty, hence why I need the help of a child."
"I understand, but where will you find such a child?"
"Perhaps that Tasmanian gentleman leaning against the taffrail and his grandson might be willing to help us."
"What are you talking about, Holmes? You don't know them, so how can you make such deductions?"
"Elementary, my dear Watson! Consider these points. The gentleman, by his absorbed interest in all the activities, appears to be a tourist. I suggest they are recent arrivals from a land of summer sunshine for the complexion of both is brown from suntan, whereas we English and the Dutch are white after our winter months.
When I heard the boy say, 'I love fairy floss.' and not 'I love candy floss.' he spoke an Australianism in an accent that left no doubt. As they are not as intensely brown as others of their countrymen, I believe them to be from a southern state."
"But why Tasmania? And what makes you think the boy is his grandson?"
"That is a guess, but a reasonable one. Tasmania was discovered by a Dutchman, Abel Tasman, and named after him. Before us we see an Australian on his way to Holland, so the odds favour Tasmania. On the other point, you will note the affection each has for the other. Clearly, there is a close bond with just enough facial characteristics to indicate blood relatives. However, the age difference suggests not father-son but rather grandfather-grandson."
"You have me fascinated, Holmes, but if we are to seek their assistance we must make their acquaintance. Please allow me to make contact with him and if he is agreeable you can divulge your plan."
"Very well, Watson, go ahead. If he will join us bring them to our cabin."
When I reflect on the next few minutes, my admiration for Holmes, great as it was, only increased. The gentleman was, indeed, an Australian and to my great surprise, a Tasmanian! How well had Holmes chosen from among the passengers for the gentleman was Inspector Gray of the Tasmanian Police Force. What is more, he knew of Sherlock Holmes and had studied a number of his cases and relished the opportunity to work with Holmes. And the boy, Toby, was, just as Holmes had said, his grandson!
Holmes and Inspector Gray became instant friends with a mutual interest in defeating criminals wherever in the world they might be. Holmes explained the details of the present case and what he believed would happen next. He gave his opinion in his usual decisive manner:
"Professor Moriarty will put the diamond into a wooden box, tie the box to a hydrogen-filled balloon and cast it adrift. The balloon will be weighted to cause it to gradually descend to the sea where it will float with the balloon acting as a marker. Moriarty's henchmen, in a fast motorboat, will dash from hiding, scoop up the diamond, and as quickly disappear.
I will defeat that scheme by a simple method. I will do exactly the same as Moriarty! That is, release a balloon that drops into the sea but do it several times and so confuse his henchmen that they won't know which balloon to pick up. We, though, will know which balloon is which because we will mark our balloons and so be able to select Moriarty's balloon because it will be the odd one out. We can make a beeline for it, whereas, Moriarty's henchmen will have to pick up all of the balloons to be sure they have the diamond. That will take them far too long and they will get caught by the Dutch river police whom I have warned to be ready to swoop.
My problem is to get some balloons from the balloon salesman, whom I suspect as being one of Moriarty's henchmen. You can now see why we have asked for you and Toby to help us. We need about half a dozen balloons for release."
"Toby and I will buy them," said the Inspector, "but buying that many might make them wonder why, or ask questions."
"A good point," said Holmes.
"What about a balloon for Amy and one for Ollie, too, Pa pa?" said Toby.
"Amy and Oliver are Toby's sister and brother," explained the Inspector.
"An excellent suggestion, Toby," said Holmes, "but also ask for two balloons for yourself."
With that, Inspector Gray and Toby left on their balloon-buying mission. When they returned some minutes later, the Inspector gave us an account of their adventure.
"It went off better than I thought possible. I bought a balloon for Toby and he then asked "Can I have a balloon for Amy and one for Ollie?" The salesman asked what his name was and who were Amy and Ollie. Toby told him. Toby then asked for a second balloon. I said "Ok, except Amy and Ollie will want two each as well." That gave us six. Then came a big surprise. The salesman said, "You are such a good customer, Toby, that I am giving you two more for free."
We all laughed at this, with Holmes remarking "With the enemy helping us, it is unlikely that you were suspected, so I think we can go ahead as planned. While you were away, we have torn open an old life-jacket and removed the cork filling. We will slice the cork into eight blocks and attach one to each balloon string."
The cork was quickly cut into palm-sized pieces. Now, we had to make the hydrogen-filled balloons fall rather than rise. The balloons were let float to the cabin ceiling with their strings dangling. The cork floats were then tied on, and weights, in the form of nails, were hammered into the cork, one nail at a time until all of the balloons began to fall. I climbed onto the table and a balloon was handed to me. I held it high and then released it. Holmes had calculated how long it ought to take to fall to the floor and from this, the time it would take to fall into the sea. Extra nails were added to each balloon until Holmes was satisfied they would fall exactly as he wanted.
"Now we must put some identifying marks on our balloons. I have a can of ship's paint for the purpose. It only needs painting on in patches, sufficient for us to tell the difference from Moriarty's balloon."
"May I paint faces on them, please, Mr Holmes," said Toby.
"If your grandfather agrees."
"Yes. Paint them on any way you like, Tobes."
Toby painted each balloon with two funny faces, one on the front and one on the back.
Everyone, except me, then turned in. Despite having slept on the journey from London, Holmes was, as usual, soon sound asleep for he was always able to detach his mind from the job in hand whenever nothing could actually be done.
Early the following morning, whilst still an hour from port, Holmes arranged us before separate portholes, each with two balloons. On his signal, which would be a pistol shot, we were to release our balloons through the portholes. The pistol shot would also alert the Dutch police. They were to speed into the harbour in their launches and give chase to the criminals and also to pick up the balloon with the diamond.
Just before 9 o'clock the ferry entered the harbour. Most of the passengers were on deck as was the balloon-seller. At precisely 9 o'clock, the balloon-seller let go of his balloons and several dozen ascended, drawing astonished gasps of surprise from the passengers. At that same instant, Holmes fired his pistol for he had seen that a sole balloon had been released from a porthole and was slowly drifting toward shore and descending to the sea. Within seconds, eight more balloons, with funny faces, were accompanying that first balloon.
Suddenly, from behind an anchored yacht, a motorboat could be seen moving at high speed toward us. In the boat were Moriarty's henchmen. They had seen the balloons rise from the ferry and that had been the signal for them to act. After a few seconds the motorboat changed course, first to the right, then to the left, and then seemed to have no sense of direction. The steersman was clearly bamboozled by our balloons and had no idea which one to go for. The continual changes of course caused his craft to lose momentum and it was quickly surrounded by several police boats and the villains apprehended. One of the police boats picked up the unpainted balloon and now made its way to our ferry. A Dutch officer clambered up the rope ladder and handed Holmes a plain wooden box.
A few minutes later the ferry tied up and passengers began disembarking. By the taffrail, where Holmes and I had first seen our Australian friends, our team of four crime fighters gathered to say goodbye. During the handshakes and farewells, Holmes drew our attention to someone descending the gangway.
"There he goes. That's the master criminal, Professor Moriarty. He is too cunning to be caught with incriminating evidence upon him. He won't be arrested but, at least, he will be angry with himself for losing what he had. And here it is!"
Holmes put his hand into his pocket and pulled out a glass-like stone, the size and shape of a hen's egg. He held it up to catch the sunlight and this dazzling object made us gasp. Everyone except Toby, that is.
"It looks like a shiny little balloon, Pa pa. May I paint funny faces on it?"
On that happy note the case of the Mahadavan Diamond came to an end.