Dixon Hawke and his young assistant, Tommy Burke, had only themselves to blame when they found themselves snowbound near Peak View House, in the rugged neighbourhood of Moresby.
They were hot on the trail of a pair of London burglars who had made a getaway with some four thousand pounds from a certain insurance company's office, and the Moresby police were able to provide them with evidence tending to show that the two they were seeking had been operating in that district.
Against the advice of the Moresby inspector, they set out to drive over the moor road to Wicklow, their next logical centre of inquiry.
"If you get stuck halfway," said the inspector, "there's Peak View House on the right about four miles out. Graham's the name of the people. New tenants."
Ten minutes after Hawke and Tommy had set out on this journey, the windscreen was caked with snow, except for the segment persistently kept clear by the windscreen wiper.
Tommy was able to see through this segment just sufficiently far ahead to make driving at a slow pace practicable. Hawke, by his side, could see nothing.
Suddenly the youth muttered an exclamation and swung the wheel to his right. The car tilted and sank slightly, and the yellow haze which had been thrown back by the headlights was blotted out completely. The engine stopped.
"We'd better scramble out, guv'nor. Curse the old fool!"
"What's that?" demanded the defective.
"I was referring to Father Christmas," said the youth. "Didn't you see him?"
They managed to force open the nearly side door sufficiently to enable them to squeeze through and scramble clear of the drift into which the car had been driven.
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The Hooded Figure
When they reached the crown of the road where the snow was, perhaps, a foot deep, Hawke turned and stared questioningly at his young assistant.
Tommy gazed frowningly about him, vainly trying to penetrate the flickering curtain formed by the swirling shower of enormous snowflakes.
"Fellow with a beard,'' he said presently. "Oldish kind of bloke. He had snow on his eyebrows and whiskers. Looked just like Father — dash it, guv'nor, he was Father Christmas! He wore a hood!"
"You nearly ran into someone dressed as a Father Christmas."
"He wasn't a foot away from the bonnet. He's bound to be around somewhere."
Hawke flashed on his pocket-torch, and the two searched the ground within a radius of several yards.
Not only did they fail to find the gentleman who had caused them to run into the drift, but they even failed to find his footprints.
"The snow would have covered them," said Hawke, "at the rate it's falling. Look, our own footprints arc almost filled in already.
"And we're beginning to look like a couple of snowmen. Hadn't we better make for that house the inspector spoke about? It can't be far away."
As they trudged through the snow, they speculated as to what could have become of the bearded man.
"It's strange!" said Tommy. "Must have been an optical illusion. Those mince pies I had at lunchtime, I mean — "
"Is that a light over there, Tommy?"
"Cheers, guv'nor! Must be Peak View House."
They heard the whining of a dog as they forged up the drive, and when Hawke hammered on the front door of the two-winged, gabled house, the animal barked furiously.
A man of medium height cautiously opened the door and peered out, holding a hurricane-lantern above his head.
He started when Hawke spoke.
"A — a breakdown!"
His jumpiness and hesitancy of speech suggested that the man's nerves, for some reason, were on edge.
"Well, you must come in. Can't — can't stay out on a night like this."
"It's very kind of you."
Hawke and Tommy stepped over the threshold, removed their coats and hats, and shook the snow out of them.
Surveying his host in the light of the swinging oil-lamp in the hall, the detective saw that he was an amiable, probably rather slow-thinking individual with red cheeks, a Roman nose, and dark, thinning hair.
The detective presented his card.
"Oh — er — thank you — er — Mr. — er — Hawke. My name's Graham — Harold Graham. Come in."
He pushed open a door and led the way into a long room illuminated by two bright, incandescent oil-lamps, and heated by a roaring coal fire which burned in a large, open grate.
Standing immediately inside the doorway, her proximity to the door hinting that she had been listening at the keyhole, was a pale-faced young woman with anxious eyes and nervously twitching hands, who stared at the visitors in an oddly apprehensive manner.
"My wife," announced Mr. Graham. "Mr. Hawke, my dear. Gentleman's car got in a snowdrift."
The man laughed nervously.
"Wondered who it could be," he went on. "I was just saying to my wife — 'Supposing it's my Uncle Joe from Australia springing his surprise on us after all!' I've got a rich uncle in Australia, you see, and he's often written to say he'd come back home and give us a surprise one of these line days. But then — ha-ha! — this isn't exactly one of the fine days, is it?"
His nervousness acted like an accelerator on his tongue.
"You will stay the night?" queried the woman.
"Of course they will, my dear," said her husband.
"It's very good of you," added Hawke tactfully.
Mrs. Graham's reaction was astonishing.
She breathed a heavy sigh, and, with clasped hands and drooping eyelids, said: "Thank goodness!"
"My wife's got a fit of the jumps," said Graham apologetically. "You see, we haven't been in this place long. I sold my business on the other side of the county and came to open a shop in Moresby, which I'm doing after Christmas. But it's a bit lonely here, you see — quiet, Peter. Drat the dog; what's the matter with him?"
The mongrel, which had been sniffing round the visitors' feet, had growled, then barked, and was now staring through the open doorway towards the front door, teeth bared, and hair bristling.
Mr. Graham glanced down at the card which the visitor had given him.
"I say," he said suddenly. "You wouldn't be the Mr. Dixon Hawke, would you? Not the well-known detective, I mean!"
"I expect I'm the fellow you have in mind," answered Hawke. "As a matter of fact, my assistant and I are looking for two men who are wanted for burglary in London. They're working this district. We have been expecting to be able to hand them over to the police at any moment. I suppose you haven't had anyone attempting to break into here, have you?"
"Well," said Mr. Graham, "we've had a knuckle of ham and half a roast chicken taken, and some bread — "
But at this point Mrs. Graham broke in excitedly.
"It's like this, Mr. Hawke. As I said to Harold, I wouldn't stop in this house another night. Not after seeing that awful man, I wouldn't. He seemed to be wearing one of those Father Christmassy hats, you know, coming to a point at the top; there was snow all over his whiskers, and a kind of wild look in his eyes."
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The Face at the Window
Hawke was all attention now, and so was Tommy.
"When did you see this fellow?" queried Hawke.
Mrs. Graham took a deep breath, and began again.
"The night before last," she said, "soon after this snowstorm had started, we were sitting in here when we were startled out of our wits by an unearthly kind of howl from out the front, near that larch tree.
"I said to Harold: 'Go out and see what it is,' but Harold, being a bit of a coward, just pretended he hadn't heard anything, and sat on here by the fire.
"About an hour later," went on the woman, "the dog started these antics that you saw just now — whining and howling at the front door."
"You'd never known the dog do that before?"
"Never!" declared the woman emphatically.
"I stood over there by that window," continued Mrs. Graham, "and I distinctly heard somebody groaning and moaning in a weird kind of way that almost froze my blood. Harold still pretended not to hear it, but I made him go out with the hurricane lamp, in case it was somebody hurt lying out there in the snow. He took the dog on the lead, but didn't find anyone. The dog growled and whined when it got near that large tree, but there was nobody there."
"Were there any footprints in the snow?" queried Hawke.
"It was falling so thick and heavy," answered Mr. Graham, "that my own footprints were covered up almost as soon as I made 'em. No, sir, I didn't find any footprints, and didn't see anybody lurking about. A bit queer it was, I moat admit."
"A bit queer!" exclaimed his wife indignantly. "It certainly was a bit queer, and I never got a wink of sleep that night. And then, again, last night we had the same scare all over again — only worse this time. A bearded face with a hood over its head looked in the window."
Mr. Graham coughed in a half-apologetic manner.
"You know, my dear, there's such a thing as letting your imagination run away with you."
"Now, you saw it, too, Harold Graham," retorted his wife.
Hawke smiled at the bickering of the homely couple, but listened with interest to what they were saying.
"You saw the face," reiterated Mrs. Graham, " and don't try to say it was your imagination, because you haven't got any imagination."
"Well, it certainly did look like a face," admitted her spouse.
"And what's more, during the night —
Graham interrupted her with another cough, and looked at Hawke in a way suggesting that he did not wish to be associated with his wife's irresponsible remarks.
"During the night, Mr. Hawke," continued Mrs. Graham, "I heard somebody moving about in the snow, and I got out of bed and looked out of the window. There he was, a figure with a pointed hood on his head. He walked away towards that big ham of ours. It was a ghost, that's what it was. The place is haunted, and I'm going to get out of it tomorrow."
"There aren't any such things as ghosts," protested Mr. Graham weakly.
"And that being so," put in Hawke briskly, "we must find out what really is the cause of these disturbances." After partaking of a sumptuous meal, prepared by Mrs. Graham, Hawke put on his coat and hat. Tommy and Graham did likewise; then the three went out, Graham holding the dog on the lead and the detective and his assistant carrying hurricane-lanterns.
They went down the long drive as far as the entrance to the field in which the house was situated. Nothing happened until they had half-completed the return journey by another route, when the dog once more attracted notice towards itself.
The attention of the three searchers was arrested by a low growl, followed by a succession of yelps, which terminated in a melancholy and unmusical howl.
"It's that larch tree again," exclaimed Graham. "There's something about it that scares him. Come on, Peter. Fetch it, boy!"
But far from showing any inclination to "fetch it," the dog tugged back, digging its paws in the snow when its master pulled on the lead.
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Stumpy Green's Fate
Hawke pushed his way through the snow, and, holding his lantern above his head, peered up into the branches of the larch tree. The dog continued to howl.
"He isn't howling for nothing," declared Hawke, and proceeded to walk round to the other side of the tree.
After taking about four paces, ho uttered a startled exclamation and went sprawling in the snow.
"What is it, guv'nor?" cried Tommy, rushing forward.
Hawke scrambled to his feet and scooped into the snow with his hands.
The light from the lanterns showed them a trouser-leg, and then a boot, and, in a short space of time, they had uncovered the body of a dead man.
"We'll carry him into the boiler-room at the back of the house," said Graham. "There's an old camp bedstead there."
The body having been carried into the stone-floored room, which was used as a wash-house, wood-store, and lumber-room, Hawke made a systematic examination, both of the body and the clothing.
"There's a slight contusion on the back of the skull," announced the detective, "but death was due to exposure."
He stood up and stared frowningly at the petrified features.
"There's something familiar about the face!"
"Stumpy Green, guv'nor?"
"Yes, my boy, I believe it is."
A few moments later they had removed addressed envelopes from the dead man's pockets which established his identity as "Charlie Green."
"He's one of the two we were after," Hawke explained to Graham. "I was pretty certain they came along this way. The question that occurs to me now is — where's his confederate, Matson? Is he the chap who's wandering about looking like Father Christmas?" Tommy shook his head.
"Matson's an undersized little weasel," he said. "This Father Christmas chap's a big, burly bloke."
Hawke explained to the astonished Graham that his assistant had actually seen the figure which Mrs. Graham had taken for a Christmastide spectre.
"Then the missus hasn't been seeing things after all! It's true! We must tell her."
"The bearded man would appear to be a homicidal madman," remarked Hawke. "Is that likely to help her to sleep better? I think it's preferable to let her believe in the ghost idea for the time being."
On thinking the matter over, Graham agreed with this.
For Mrs. Graham's benefit, Hawke was presently advancing the theory that the dead man had been about to call at the house, or, perhaps, to burgle it, when he fell, stunned himself, and was subsequently suffocated beneath the snow.
About an hour after the four had retired for the night, Hawke heard a faint commotion in the bedroom next to that which had been assigned to him, and then he was aroused by the excited Graham, who knocked furiously on his door.
"He's there, Mr. Hawke! Outside in the field. Look through your window," said Graham, hurrying into the detective's room holding an overcoat over his pyjama-clad shoulders.
Hawke looked out, and was able to see the bearded man with the hood. The snow had ceased falling, and the white landscape was faintly illuminated by a hazy moon.
The man was walking across the field with unsteady gait, and apparently without any definite goal in view.
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Welcome, Uncle Joe!
Look at him," gasped Graham. "He's a madman, all right. What shall we do?"
Hawke was busy dressing.
"You — you're not going out after him, are you?"
"I don't relish being done to death in bed during the night!"
Hawke strode out of the bedroom and roused Tommy.
The three presently went downstairs, followed by Mrs. Graham, who seemed much more courageous about the business than her husband.
"You and Tommy go out the back way," Hawke instructed Graham, "and I'll go out the front. We'll try to surround him."
A few moments later Hawke was making his way swiftly over the snow.
He had proceeded about a hundred yards when there were shouts to his right.
"Coming your way, guv'nor," came Tommy's voice, and then the detective found himself confronted by a wild-eyed figure with the characteristics of the traditional Santa Claus minus the latter's benevolence.
The stranger was a big man, weighing probably sixteen stone, and he attacked the detective desperately.
Hawke took a painful blow on the side of the head, and ducked in time to avoid a second. The two closed and went rolling over in the deep snow.
The fortunes of the battle went against Hawke, who found himself gulping in mouthfuls of snow as the big man pushed his head down deeper and deeper into it.
He struggled with every ounce of his strength to get free, and suddenly the weight on him eased.
Struggling up, gasping and dragging off the mask of snow which clung to his face, the detective saw Tommy and Graham struggling with the bearded man, and he again plunged into the fray.
The fight, which was one of the toughest the two Londoners had ever been in, lasted about three minutes, and then Hawke managed to land a smashing uppercut, which sent the big man to earth in a limp heap.
On Hawke's instructions Graham hurried indoors and fetched a clothes-rope, and when the bearded man came to he was securely bound hand and foot.
"Where am I?" he moaned, and blinked up at Graham, who was now holding a hurricane-lantern.
"Harold!" exclaimed the man.
Graham looked bewildered.
"Don't you know me! It's my beard, likely. I'm Joe Graham. Your Uncle Joe, from Australia."
Hawke put a number of questions to the man, and realised that he had been a victim of concussion, with resultant loss of memory. He had no recollection of the struggle which had just ensued.
"Yes, it's Uncle Joe all right," said the amazed Graham; and, a few minutes later, the man was being assisted indoors, Tommy bringing up the rear carrying the sack which Uncle Joe had been wearing as a head covering, after the style of a coal-heaver.
Within the living room, presently, the visitor, who was bruised and exhausted, was given brandy.
"I can't understand it," he said, when he was told what had just happened. "You say I've been wandering about outside for two days and nights? All I can remember is that I got off the bus at Moresby and walked up here, and when I was getting near the house I saw a couple of suspicious-looking chaps prowling about. After that — dashed if I know! There's a sort of a blank, and then I found myself sitting on the ground tied up, with you holding the lantern and looking down at me."
"That would be when you heard that shout, Mrs. Graham," nodded Hawke. "Your uncle accosted those two fellows, Green and Matson, and there was a struggle in which Green and your uncle were laid out. Only your uncle recovered, but memory was thrown temporarily out of gear. It's happened to a good many people. I expect we shall hear more about it when Matson's picked up."
Next morning the party searched the grounds, and found Uncle Joe's hat, which had evidently been knocked off in the course of his struggle with the crooks; and in a corner of one of the barns they found some scraps of food which the Grahams' unfortunate relative had stolen from his nephew's pantry during the period when his mind was blank.
It was Christmas Day, and the body of Green having been removed to Moresby mortuary, Hawke and Tommy accepted the Grahams' pressing invitation to stay for the festivities.
"Matson's having his dinner in Wicklow Police Station," announced Hawke on returning from Moresby. "The inspector's been on the phone to them over there. According to Matson's story, Uncle Joe, you and Green coshed one another simultaneously. Matson ran off along the road."
"Well," ruminated the big Colonial. "I said I'd give you a surprise?"
"And in my last letter," replied Graham, "I told you that you'd get a welcome you'd remember all your life. Now then, my dear," he added, turning to his wife, "let's give the turkey a shaking-up."
~ The End ~