Chapter VII: The Stapletons of Merripit House
The house seems more cheerful in the fresh light of the next day, so Sir Henry speculates that the gloom was merely in their imaginations. When Watson mentions the woman's cry, Sir Henry recalls the sound but had dismissed it as a dream. They question Barrymore to learn that there are only two women in the house; he is certain that Mrs. Barrymore was not the screamer. However, when Watson meets Mrs. Barrymore, he notices signs that she had been crying the night before, and assumes that Mr. Barrymore has lied to them.
Watson therefore decides to investigate whether Barrymore was actually at Baskerville, as his telegram had indicated. He visits the postmaster at nearby Grimpen, who had insisted that he placed the initial telegram directly into Barrymore's hands. Upon interrogation, however, he admits that he actually delivered the telegram to Mrs. Barrymore, who promised to pass it along to her husband. Assuming Barrymore was the bearded man, Watson's only theory is that Barrymore was attempting to scare Sir Henry away from London so that he and Mrs. Barrymore could have the manor to themselves, but he admits that theory is inadequate.
As Watson is walking back to Baskerville, Stapleton "the naturalist" overtakes him (163). Having learned about Watson from Dr. Mortimer, Stapleton shares his own theory about Sir Charles's death: the man's anxieties had grown so great that the appearance of a random dog led to his death. Stapleton also surprises Watson by asking about Holmes's opinions on the matter; he insists that the detective is well-known even on the moor.
Watson hesitates when Stapleton invites him home (to Merripit House) to meet his sister Miss Stapleton, but then decides to go. As they walk there, Stapleton indicates the Grimpen Mire, a place where men or animals can disappear into the quicksand-like ground if they are not careful. Bragging that he has discovered the two safe paths through the mire, Stapleton describes the peaceful natural scenery on the other side. When Watson professes an interest in seeing it, Stapleton insists that one should not brave the danger without knowing the landmarks as he does.
Suddenly, Watson hears a dull murmur which swells into a deep roar. Though Stapleton admits that locals believe this is the sound of the dreaded hound, he dismisses such conjecture, claiming the sound must have a perfectly natural cause.
When they arrive near Merripit House, Watson sees Miss Stapleton outside, and notices that she is beautiful, almost the opposite of her brother. Immediately, Stapleton spies an insect and rushes to collect it. Away from her brother's notice, before even introducing herself, Miss Stapleton commands Watson to return to London. He barely has time to question her before Stapleton returns and introduces them formally, at which point she is surprised to learn he is not Sir Henry, as she had thought.
They walk towards the house, and Stapleton reveals that he had once managed a school, but lost it when an epidemic took the lives of three students. He had lost most of his money in the venture, and Miss Stapleton is now unhappy to live so far away from civilization.
After asking for permission to visit Sir Henry, Stapleton invites Watson to view his insect collection. However, Watson insists he should return, and sets off for Baskerville Hall. He is not far from Merripit when Miss Stapleton intercepts him and asks him to ignore her warning. Watson offers to convey the warning to Sir Henry if she will explain it, but she offers nothing other than a reiteration of her fear. She also asks him to keep this secret from her brother, since he believes it necessary that someone live in Baskerville Hall, since the moor locals rely on the Baskerville philanthropy.
Chapter VIII: First Report of Dr. Watson
This is the first of two chapters that are comprised of Watson's letters to Holmes. He notes, however, that one page is missing from the letter.
This first letter is dated October 13th, written from Baskerville Hall. Watson begins by describing the effects the moor has on the soul: he feels about though he is amongst prehistoric man, rather than in modern England.
Watson explains that the locals believe Selden has left the area, since it has been two weeks since his escape. He also confesses his worry for the Stapletons, who live far removed from their closest neighbor. He then notes that Sir Henry seems to be romantically interested in Beryl Stapleton. However, he worries that Stapleton himself - who had recently shown Watson the place of Hugo Baskerville's fabled death - would not approve of a match between them.
Watson then describes his interactions with others. Dr. Mortimer had recently toured him through the yew alley where Sir Charles died. Meanwhile, Watson has visited Mr. Frankland, of Lafter Hall, whom Watson explains is well known and frequently distrusted for his litigious nature. He is slowly spending his fortune on lawsuits, many of which are arbitrary and rooted in outdated laws. Frankland is also an amateur astronomer; he owns a telescope.
In the last section of the letter, Watson describes what he considers the most essential element of his visit thus far: the continuing mystery of the Barrymores. Sir Henry asked Barrymore directly whether he had received the telegram, and the man, surprised, confirmed that Mrs. Barrymore had given it to him. Watson continues to note the signs of crying on Mrs. Barrymore, and worries that her husband is abusive. The night before writing this letter, Watson had awoken at 2:00 a.m. and saw a man who looked like Barrymore crossing the moor towards the house, and then entering an unoccupied part of the house. Watson snuck after him, and saw the man peering out of the window. After a while, Barrymore groaned and then left for his room. Later that night, Watson heard a key turn in a lock.
Chapter IX: The Second Report of Dr. Watson: The Light upon the Moor
This letter is dated October 15th.
Two days after seeing Barrymore in the room, Watson examined it to find it has "the nearest outlook on the moor" (225). Hence, he believes Mr. Barrymore was looking for something on the moor. Initially, he believed the man was meeting a lover, but then disregarded that notion as unfounded.
Sir Henry was not surprised to hear Watson's report on that night's events, and they decided to follow the man out onto the moor one night. After agreeing on the plan, Sir Henry prepared to set out, and refused Watson permission to accompany him as protection. Watson followed him anyway, to find he was meeting Miss Stapleton.
From afar, Watson observed them in a heated argument. When Sir Henry attempted to kiss her, Stapleton himself suddenly appeared and entered the argument. After the Stapletons departed, Watson approached Sir Henry, and apologized for snooping, explaining that he was only keeping his promise to Holmes. Though initially annoyed, Sir Henry laughed off the transgression, and then confessed his belief that Stapleton was crazy. This had been his first time alone with Miss Stapleton, who was begging him to leave the moor. When Sir Henry promised to leave if she would accompany him, Stapleton had interrupted them. The man is confused why the brother would so strongly oppose such an advantageous match for his sister. Watson is equally confused by the behavior.
Later that afternoon, Stapleton visited Baskerville Hall to apologize. He promised to approve the match if Sir Henry will wait three months before proposing.
Watson then changes the topic to another "thread" of the mystery (233). One night, he and Sir Henry followed Barrymore to the room. Sir Henry confronted the butler, who initially claimed he was only fastening the window. When pressed, the butler then admitted he was holding a candle to the window for someone's benefit, but refused to reveal any more. Watson then noticed another candle light across the moor. When Sir Henry threatened to fire the man, Mrs. Barrymore appeared and admitted the truth: the convict Selden is her brother, and they were leaving food nightly for him. She explained that he had always been spoiled as a child, and that she feels responsible for him.
Sir Henry withdraws his threat to Barrymore, and then he and Watson set out to capture Selden. It begins to rain as they are out on the moor, and they then hear that strange cry Watson had heard earlier. Sir Henry was visibly frightened, especially when Watson admitted that locals believed this to be the cry of the Hound of the Baskervilles.
When the men reached the light across the moor, they initially found no one there. Watson suddenly spotted the criminal fleeing, and they set out in pursuit. However, Selden hurled a large rock and them, and then outran them.
In the distance, Watson noticed a figure silhouetted by the lightning. He indicated the figure to Sir Henry, but it disappeared before the latter saw it. Sir Henry speculated that this was a guard looking for the convict, but Watson was clearly not entirely convinced.
In these chapters, Sir Henry and Watson begin to fall prey to superstition because of the gloomy atmosphere of both the house and the moor. They are no longer protected by bustling, urban life, which tends to support a more rational outlook. One reason that superstition is less associated with urban life is the plethora of witnesses: there are always many people who see an event, and hence is there less room for occult mythology to grow. In the country, there is a lot more space, and there are fewer people who witness events. When they do see these events, they see them from far away. All of this makes it easier for legends like that of the hound to perpetuate. For instance, the sound that Watson hears is easily attributed to the mythical hound since it is occurring far away from any witness who can testify to its true cause. The moor symbolizes the seemingly occult and mysterious ways of nature, which may seem not always act according to explainable, natural law. Several factors - the townspeople whom Watson sees as primitive, the figure in the distance, and of course the sound of the hound - all feed this strange atmosphere.
Associated with this theme of the supernatural is the theme of evil. Evil seems to pervade the moor, and the legend of Henry Baskerville paints the picture of an unequivocally evil man, almost more a metaphor than a human. Similarly, Selden is a figure known to be vicious and dangerous. The unknown figure in the distance carries just as much potential for evil, considering the rainy atmosphere in which he is first scene, and that ever-present threat of the hound. All of these figures are most frightening because Watson knows nothing about them. Like Henry Baskerville does, they seem to represent a darkness, an evil.
However, evil is itself an expression of superstition and irrationalism. Therefore, the stakes for Watson - who is attempting to combat his growing superstition with his intellectual will - are larger than simply remaining untouched with country legends. He also must resist the temptation to see the world in terms of moral evil, rather than in terms of human psychology and motive, the realm that Holmes operates in.
This conflict - between inherent evil and nuanced rationality - is also explored through Doyle's attitude towards criminality. It is notable that Dr. Watson describes Selden as a "crafty and savage animal," and mentions that he has an "evil yellow face" (241). This description is symptomatic of a larger belief in the unchangeable and savage nature of the criminal, popular during that time period. Even Mrs. Barrymore does not seem to believe that her brother is able to be reformed into a civilized person. However, she does explain the circumstances by which he became a criminal. Thus, Doyle is attempting to comment on such strict beliefs, offering a more modernized attitude to criminality, as caused less by inherent evil than by circumstance. Though the novel does not explicitly address questions of reform, it does apply Holmes's more nuanced understanding - that generalized types are only the first step towards understand individuals - to a pressing social question.
The difficulty of observing pure facts continues to resonate in these chapters. For instance, Watson does not notice much about Stapleton, and attempts to refrain from noting the man's strangeness (since that would constitute an impression rather than a fact). However, it is somewhat clear to the reader that Stapleton is a suspicious character. His over-eagerness, his almost arrogantly delivered knowledge of the moor and of Holmes's celebrity, and his fixation on his sister are all signs of his strangeness. It is unclear whether Watson misses these signs, or simply does not want to taint his reports to Holmes with subjective impressions, but the way he relates the man to the reader offers us some clues.
On a side note, Stapleton's professed knowledge - of the moors and of Holmes - conforms the novel's greater theme of knowledge as power. Because of what he knows, he is able to control others and shape impressions. In the same way that Holmes uses information as a key, Stapleton uses knowledge as a tool, in ways that become clearer as the story progresses.
It is notable that Chapters VIII and IX are related as letters. There is an earlier novelistic form known as the epistolary novel, a story told entirely through letters sent between characters. Doyle is not simply staging an homage to this tradition, however. Instead, the use of the letters - and later of Watson's diaries - conform to the greater themes of observation and subjectivity. Whereas most of the novel is framed as Watson's story told from hindsight to readers, these letters are written at the time of the event, to Holmes himself. Therefore, they reflect his viewpoint, his attempt to make sense of the facts he observes. Later, we realize how inadequate his interpretations are, but Doyle's intent is not to mock Watson, but rather to illustrate how the art of deduction begins with the art of proper observation. Finally, the use of these varied formats adds an air of verisimilitude to the story, helping it feel true and accurate, obviously an important effect for a story so concerned with themes of rationality.
Also, Watson's voyeuristic nature is made explicit in the letters. We tend to associate Watson with the impartial observer: he is not the active hero of the story, but rather the third party. What this also means is that we know very little of Watson's private life. Earlier, Holmes noted that Watson spends so much time at his club because he lacks many personal friends. This character approach reveals a distinction between the detective story and other, more traditional novels. These more traditional novels tend to give us privileged access to private spaces: the minds of others, bedrooms, and other interior, private spaces. In other words, most novels and stories are primarily concerned with the psychology of their heroes. Watson, on the other hand, serves a plot function in many ways. Though he does attempt to self-correct his snooping observations of Sir Henry, apologizing for his behavior, he is clearly a man driven to watch from a hidden vantage, as evidenced on the night that he trails Barrymore. If he was not this kind of person, then the story's progress would be significantly hampered.
Finally, the reader at this point may wonder why Holmes has not yet appeared to investigate the crime scene. These chapters mostly feature Dr. Watson in action. Though he is able to disentangle one thread of the mystery, he is clearly making slow progress. Further, he shows independence, disobeying Holmes's instructions by allowing Sir Henry to head out onto the moor at night. And yet he is well aware that his progress is limited, confessing in Chapter IX that they need Holmes. Clearly, Doyle is well aware of what his readers would want at this point, and moves quickly to remedy his hero's absence.