17-year-old Billy Weaver travels from London to Bath on an afternoon train for business. Mr. Greenslade, the head of his office, tells Billy to find lodgings and then to report to the Branch Manager in Bath, and a porter directs Billy to the Bell and Dragon. Billy walks briskly down the street, noting that briskness is "the one common characteristics of all successful businessmen" (635). Billy walks by a row of deteriorating houses, until he sees a sign that says "Bed and Breakfast" in the downstairs window of one of the homes.
Billy looks into the window and sees green curtains next to a vase of pussy-willows, and a dachshund curled up on the carpet, and decides that this house would be more comfortable than the Bell and Dragon. But Billy decides to go to the Bell and Dragon anyway, because he likes to stay in pubs and socialize, he knows a pub will be cheaper, and he thinks boarding houses are frightening. But, when Billy turns to walk towards the Bell and Dragon, he is mesmerized by the "Bed and Breakfast" sign, and moves from the window to the front door of the house, reaching for the doorbell.
The second Billy rings the bell, a woman between the ages of 45 and 50 opens the door and warmly welcomes Billy in. She already has a room ready for Billy, and she only charges him five and sixpence a night, which is less than half of what Billy was willing to pay.
Billy hangs his hat and realizes that there are no other hats, coats, walking sticks or umbrellas in the house, indicating that there are no other visitors at the bed and breakfast. Billy realizes that the woman is a bit "dotty," but decides to take the place because it is so inexpensive. Billy comments that the house must be swamped with applicants because of the low price, and the old woman says it is, but she waits for a young man, like Billy, who is exactly right.
The woman gives Billy the second floor, and shows him his room. She asks Billy to sign the book before he goes to bed, as it is the "law of the land" (639) and they "don't want to go breaking any laws at this stage in the proceedings" (639). By this point, Billy is very aware that the old woman is strange, but decides to humor her, and goes to sign the book after unpacking.
As Billy looks down at the guest-book, he seems to recognize both of the names in the book, Christopher Mulholland and Gregory W. Temple. As he says the names to himself, the landlady comes into the room with a tea-tray in her hands. Billy asks the landlady if the two other men were famous, and she remarks that they weren't famous, but were very "tall and young and handsome" (640), like Billy. Billy notices that Gregory Temple's entry is from two years ago, and Christopher Mulholland's is from three years ago. Billy also starts to realize that the two names are connected in some way. The landlady thinks this is amusing, but asks Billy to drink some tea with biscuits before he goes to sleep.
Billy notices the woman's small white hands and red fingernails, but his vague memory of the two men continues to bother him. He remembers that Christopher Mulholland is an Eton schoolboy, but the landlady insists that Mulholland came to her as a Cambridge undergraduate. The landlady asks Billy to come and sit with her on the couch near the fire, as Billy's tea is ready. Billy sits on the edge of the couch as the landlady stares at him over the rim of her cup. Billy knows that he remembers Mulholland, and asks the landlady if he left recently. She says that both Mulholland and Temple are still living on the third floor.
The landlady asks Billy's age, and when she finds out he is 17, she remarks that Mulholland was also 17, and that this is the "perfect age" (642). The landlady also tells Billy that he has beautiful teeth, and that Temple was 28 when he came to visit her, though she never would have been able to tell given that he had no blemishes on his body. As the landlady sits silently again, he stares straight ahead and bites his lip uncomfortably. Billy comments on the convincingly taxidermied parrot, and the landlady tells him the dachshund is also taxidermy. He touches the dachshund, feeling its hard back and fur.
Billy comments that it must be difficult to stuff an animal like that, but the landlady comments that she stuffs "all of [her] little pets [her]self when they pass away" (643). The landlady offers Billy another cup of tea, and he rejects it because it tastes like bitter almonds. The landlady insists that Billy sign the book, as she tends to forget the names of those that come to her house, and Billy asks if any other people have come through the house in the past 2 or 3 years. She looks at him out of the corners of her eyes with a gentle smile and tells him he is the only one.
In "The Landlady," Billy Weaver is an ambitious young businessman who takes a job in Bath. When he arrives in Bath, he is told by a porter that he should stay at the Bell and Dragon pub. But, when he passes by a boarding house, he looks inside and finds a pleasant and comfortable interior among the decaying houses that surround it. There is something ominous about the scene, but Billy still decides to stay at the boarding house. The cracked facades of the surrounding houses foreshadow a more menacing decay, but the possible comfort, as opposed to the more impersonal, though social pub, tempts Billy into staying in the boarding-house. Indeed, though Billy is a young man, something drives him to crave comfort rather than the youthful culture of the pub.
One thing that draws Billy to the boarding-house is its mesmerizing sign. Billy becomes tantalized by the sign, as the words bed and breakfast are "like a large black eye staring at him through the glass, holding him, compelling him, forcing him to stay where he [is] and not walk away from that house" (637). This black eye is a terrifying allusion to the evil eye, and a menacing indication that Billy is being watched and seduced by a hidden force that he cannot control. At this point, Billy feels like he cannot walk away, but Billy still has agency as he moves through the house and settles on the second floor. Though the landlady offers him cheap rent, he finds her suspicious and still chooses not to leave. When Billy sees the guestbook, he begins to remember the names in the book and suspect the landlady, but he still agrees to drink tea with her. When Billy tastes a bitter almond flavor in his tea, he refuses a second cup, but still does not leave, as the story grows more ominous, and the suspicion that the landlady will taxidermy Billy grows. This black eye function like witchcraft, tempting and charming Billy to stay despite the dangers he intuits.
When Billy goes to sign the guestbook, he recognizes the names of the two men in the book. When he asks the landlady about these men, she replies that they are the only people ever to visit the house, and that they still live on the third floor. The landlady asks Billy's age, and when Billy responds that he is 17, she replies that this is the "ideal" age (for what, she doesn't say), and remembers that though Mr. Temple, one of the visitors, was 28, he had skin "just like a baby" (643) and that he didn't "have a blemish on his body" (643). Billy finds this strange, but shifts the conversation to the taxidermy animals that the landlady owns. The landlady comments that she stuffs "all of her little pets" when they die (643). Because there are only two pets in the living room and she uses a strange past tense when describing her past 2 guests, it becomes more and more apparent that the landlady is likely stuffing these men. Her comparison of the men to "pets" suggests the disposability that she assigns to the lives of these men, and her remark that Mr. Temple had no blemishes adds a strange, fetishistic quality to her taxidermy. Indeed, it seems that she collects these men like objects, displaying them on the third floor of her house after they sign her guestbook.
Thus, when Billy signs the guestbook, he seemingly signs his life away, as his decision to stay in the boarding house will most likely lead to his death. The "proceedings," (639) a direct set of steps that Billy must take in order to not break "the law of the land" (639), seem to indicate that Billy is both taking steps to stay within the house, and being appraised by the landlady. Indeed, the landlady tells him that she receives many applications from potential tenants, but she only chooses very particular young men to live in her boarding-house. This suggests that he is specifically judged and chosen by the landlady, and he is taking all of the appropriate measures to stay in her home, possibly forever. After Billy signs the book, he realizes the animals in her home are stuffed and that the tea he is drinking has a strange taste. But, he continues to stay in the boarding-house, and seems to consciously sign his life away as he realizes the landlady's more insidious nature. Ultimately, the landlady successfully seduces Billy into staying in her home.
Throughout the story, several symbols of comfort and safety, including a warm, friendly-looking bed and breakfast, a kind, middle-aged woman, a comfortable and inexpensive boarding house, and an offer of tea and biscuits, take on a more insidious nature. Indeed, as the story progresses it takes on a more dire tone. All of these traditional images of safety are unsettled in this story, as these comfortable, maternal and homely signs are inverted. As Billy realizes the warning signs and the troubling nature of the boarding-house, the images of comfort in this story become images of decay, danger, and death.