Miss Morstan is a young blonde woman whom Watson describes as “dressed in the most perfect taste” while also appearing to be of “limited means.” She explains that she has come to Holmes on a recommendation from her employer, Mrs. Cecil Forrester.
Miss Morstan is set up as a kind of damsel-in-distress. Her modest yet beautiful appearance is intended to set up the contrast between her current economic state and the potential reward of the Agra treasure.
Miss Morstan outlines the facts of her case, as Holmes watches her gleefully with “hawk-like” features. Her father, Captain Morstan, who was an officer in the Indian regiment of the British forces, had been due to come home on leave when she was 17 years old in 1878 (she was at boarding school in Scotland at the time).
Holmes is often compared to animals with a reputation for high intelligence. Miss Morstan’s story sets the Imperial backdrop for the story—the case not only takes place in the time of the British Empire, but actively involves its geography too.
Miss Morstan continues that, though her father made it to London, he subsequently disappeared, and she never saw him again. Among his belongings were “a considerable number of curiosities from the Andaman Islands,” where he had been in charge of the convict-guard. His only friend in London, she tells Holmes, was the retired Major Sholto, who said he didn’t even know Captain Morstan was in town.
The curiosities specifically tie Captain Morstan’s fate to his time on the Andaman Islands, though it is of course not yet clear how. Major Sholto’s line about not knowing his friend has returned later turns out to be untrue.
Miss Morstan goes on, explaining that six years ago an advert appeared in the newspaper asking for her address. When she responded with her address, she was soon a sent a “large lustrous pearl” in a box. Each year on the same date she has received another pearl; this time, for the first time, she has also received a note.
The pearls, sent from an anonymous source, are suggestive of some kind of store of wealth, somehow linked to Miss Morstan.
Holmes reads the note, which instructs Miss Morstan to “be at the third pillar from the left outside the Lyceum Theatre tonight at seven o’clock.” It says that she can bring friends, that she is a “wronged woman and shall have justice.” Holmes and Watson agree to accompany Miss Morstan later that evening.
The specifics of the instruction—a particular pillar of a particular theater—adds to the intrigue of the case. The meeting point, in London’s West End, also builds a sense of grandeur that hints at the treasure.
Holmes compares the handwriting on the letter is the same to that on the pearl box addresses and deduces that it is the same. Miss Morstan takes back the box, thanks Holmes, and leaves the flat.
Holmes starts building a sense of the case, employing one of his many extremely specific skills (like the ability to distinguish between different tobacco ash seen in chapter 1).
Watson exclaims how attractive he found Miss Morstan. When Holmes says he hadn’t noticed, Watson says, “you really are an automaton – a calculating machine […] there is something positively inhuman in you at times.” Holmes insists on separating emotional qualities from clear reasoning, saying that “a client to me is a mere unit, a factor in a problem.”
This is an important exchange that reveals the fault lines between Watson and Sherlock Holmes. Watson represents the way that people “normally” are—he responds emotionally to the world and can’t fully understand Holmes’ extreme devotion to his rationality. Holmes, for his part, reveals that he gets involved with cases for their own sake—because he enjoys the mental stimulation—rather than expressly to help other people.
Holmes goes out for an hour, leaving Watson to daydream about Miss Morstan. He figures out that she must be twenty-seven—“a sweet age, when youth has lost its self-consciousness and become a little sobered by experience.” He chastises himself for thinking such “dangerous thoughts.”
Doyle intends the growing attraction between Miss Morstan and Watson as a counter-example to Holmes’ way of seeing the world. However, Miss Morstan is quite a meek and mild character, and the attraction tends to be viewed almost entirely as Watson’s. Miss Morstan, though she is certainly a morally virtuous character, is also for the most part objectified.