Usually when wandering The Hound of the Baskervilles, one likes to keep a certain distance, to take in the amazing scenery, to see the details at the edges of Watson's experience. But going into the eleventh chapter, and having Perkins drive us into Coombe Tracey as Watson follows one of his two leads, I find myself wanting to go into extreme close-up mode. And it's Watson's fault.
I sympathize with the man, I do. After all, he's been trapped on the moors for weeks with only the . . . well, unexciting, shall we say . . . Eliza Selden Barrymore to look at, peppered with occasional sightings of Beryl Stapleton at a distance. So when he finds himself in a room with a reasonably attractive woman, what's his first impression?
"Exteme beauty." Not just regular beauty. Extreme beauty.
Fair enough. Laura Lyons was an artist's wife, and artists are going to tend toward models. But then Watson starts going wild with detail: rich hazel eyes, rich hazel hair, freckled cheeks, "flush with the exquisite bloom of the brunette, the dainty pink which lurks at the heart of the sulphur rose." Holy cats! If you hear those words coming out of any man's mouth (or pen), he's completely smitten. You don't just lay that kind of prose down about any old female. Mrs. Barrymore certainly didn't get her category of pink categorized so exactly.
Watson even makes what I believe is a partial statement in his enamored view of the lovely Laura: "The freckles started out on the lady's face." At first that phrase made no sense to me, then I listened to it again: "The freckles started out on the lady's face . . . ." and then they went where? Oh, Watson! There's apparently more than one hound on the moor! No wonder Laura Lyons flushes that sulphur rose pink so much.
But that's all first impression stuff. Unlike many another lady given the full Watson appreciation treatment, Laura Lyons gets a recorded second impression, where suddenly she's coarse, hard, and has "some looseness of lip." Looseness of lip? Huh-whah? As one who has appreciated female beauty for at least four decades now, I don't recall ever noting a woman whose lips were loose. It sounds almost like Watson is making some non-lip-related slur as he lays out his second impression . . . a second impression which seems like it may have found its inspiration in "sour grapes."
Was Watson, in imagining Laura Lyons having been trysting with the late Sir Charles, suspecting that he was interviewing a woman in need of a lover, and got a little bitter when she wasn't falling easy prey to his charms? This is a man with an experience of women on three continents after all.
In watching Watson's little scene with Laura play out, it's hard to imagine what a Victorian's point of view on it all would have been, since we're definitely not of that era. Would some of Watson's slight adjustments of tone have been throwing a bit of suggestive invitation into the mix? He definitely leaves thinking that she's held something back from him, and he talks about being blocked from "the object of my mission," which we assume is the case.
Were this the age of cell phones, we should not be so surprised to find Laura Lyons's father standing beside the road when Perkins drives Watson past his house, ready to give him heck for being so forward with his daughter. But what Laura Frankland Lyons's father is up to always seems a little worse to me.
Yes, on the surface he seems to be the Andrea Plunket of Dartmoor, using money and lawyers to bother people for his own entertainment. But as I've said before, and I'll say again, a guy who says, "I have brought off a double event," during the years of the Jack the Ripper murders is not a guy I want to hang with. The "double event" is a phrase too well known to Ripperologists. But let's skip that detail and get to something more pertinent to the case.
And that is Old Frankland's arch-enemies, "the Fernworthy folk," who seem to burn him in effigy on a regular basis. They picnic in the woods with their papers and their bottles. Okay, bottles, I get. A little wine is a classic romantic picnic treat. But papers? It wasn't like they stopped at the Coombe Tracey McDonald's before heading out to the woods. We'll soon be seeing an example of a moor picnic, with tinned peaches, tinned tongue, a loaf of bread, a definite bottle . . . and no papers.
We usually assume the bottles and papers are litter, but why would one have papers in the woods? Perhaps to do a little sketching of some scenery, perhaps with a lovely artist's model posing au naturale in the midst of Nature herself? Was Fernworthy, perhaps a minor British art colony? Artistic rages would explain something as over-the-top as burnings in effigy. And it would also explain Franklands enmity towards them, if his son-in-law was a member of the Fernworthy community and some of those "papers" contained nude sketches of his own daughter. Bottles and papers were much more irritating that mere litter to Frankland -- they were alcohol and exploitation.
But Franklank, however valid or invalid his crankiness, leads us to our next destination with his moor-peering telescope. Somebody is camping on the moor, and they're apparently using the Victorian version of Jimmy John's to get their lunches.
Moor camping in the neighborhood of Black Tor, Belliver Tor, and Vixen Tor comes with your choice of old stone huts, which apparently are arranged in a circle like a sort of "cozy court" motel. You want to check-in early of course, to get the one with the most roof. You can have your own stone slab to sleep on, wood fire heating, a bucket for washing and drinking, and all the tongue sandwiches you can construct with a loaf of bread and a can of tongue. It sounds like great fun for a fourteen-year-old boy, so it's a wonder that Watson didn't suspect the kid he and Frankland saw crossing the moor as having his own little adventure.
Of course, the cold and wet life on the moor might be a little rougher than a kid would take to voluntarily. You'd either have to be a desperate criminal or a man of incredible discipline who could do without the slightest comforts.
And who might we know like that?