Sir Henry arrives with Mortimer early the next morning. The young Baskerville has odd news: he’s received an ominous letter advising him to stay away from the moor if he values his life or his sanity. The letter is constructed almost entirely of words cut from a newspaper and glued to paper.
Newspapers of the time were made with poorly processed wood pulp. Its acidic nature made the paper fragile and prone to rapid deterioration. This would have given the letter an even more ephemeral, mysterious feel.
Where the author of the letter has been unable to find a word (such as the relatively rarified “moor”), he or she has written the word in using a carefully disguised handwriting.
The fragile nature of turn-of-the-century newspapers would also have made cutting out individual letters to form the word nearly impossible. The difficulty of this task underscores the sender’s desire for Sir Henry to stay away from the moor.
Just as he did with the walking stick, Holmes is able to pull some clues from the letter. First, he recognizes the series of words as being from an article on free trade in the previous day’s Times newspaper. He also believes that the author used small nail scissors to cut the words out, and that they did so hurriedly.
Most importantly, however, Holmes decides that the author used a hotel pen to write and address the note. This is because the pen itself was faulty and the ink low, which would be rare in a privately owned pen. How the author knew where to send the letter, however, remains a mystery to all: Sir Henry has only just arrived.
The modern ballpoint pen was still some three decades off, so the pen Holmes is referring to was surely a fountain pen. These pens had their own internal supply of ink, like a ballpoint pen, but had to be refilled frequently.
Holmes asks Sir Henry if he’s noticed anything odd, or had anything odd happen to him, since arriving in the country. Sir Henry notes that he doesn’t think it’s worth mentioning, but he purchased a new pair of boots upon arriving, and one of the pair has gone missing.
Note that this theft, and the mysterious letter, both happen when only Mortimer knows where Sir Henry is. If Mortimer is not a red herring, then he is surely a very daring criminal.
Sir Henry asks to know what’s going on, since he’s just arrived from America to receive his inheritance and knows nothing about Mortimer’s suspicions regarding the nature of his uncle’s death. Mortimer fills him in, and Holmes says they are trying to decide if it’s safe for Sir Henry to go to Baskerville Hall. Sir Henry replies that he doesn’t care if it’s safe: he’s going.
Sir Henry is called “Sir” because he is a baronet—the lowest order of nobility and one that could, at times, be purchased. Still, Holmes and Mortimer show him a good bit of deference here, and Sir Henry shows a good bit of command.
Still, Sir Henry wants time to think about everything and suggests that they all meet up later over lunch. Holmes and Watson agree, and Sir Henry and Mortimer leave. Unknown to them, Holmes and Watson follow closely behind, to see if anyone is following Sir Henry. This is the only way Holmes can explain the letter being addressed to Sir Henry so soon after his arrival.
While other writers, such as Charles Dickens in Bleak House or Edgar Poe in “The Man of the Crowd,” remark on the seeming impossibility of following someone through crowded London streets, Sir Henry is not only able to be followed, but Holmes is able to quickly identify his follower.
Sure enough, Holmes quickly discovers that someone is watching the young Baskerville from a horse-drawn cab, but the mysterious bearded man realizes he’s been seen before Holmes can apprehend him. He escapes, but not before Holmes is able to get the number from the side of his cab.
Before rejoining Sir Henry, Holmes hires a boy to check the wastepaper of all local hotels in an effort to try to find the newspaper used to create the letter. He also sends a telegram to Mr. Barrymore—to be delivered directly into his hands only with a confirmation of delivery. Holmes wants to see if Mr. Barrymore is at home because Barrymore is the only person involved in the situation so far that has a beard. If Barrymore’s not at Baskerville Hall, it might mean he was the man was who following them.
These actions are decisive, but they are also decidedly unlikely to work. Holmes admits as much about the hotel wastepaper, sure that it will have already been disposed of. If Barrymore’s not at Baskerville Hall, though, it doesn’t mean he’s at London. Furthermore, even if it’s claimed that he’s at Baskerville Hall, it doesn’t mean that he truly is.