THE PRIZE LODGER
By George Gissing
(Human Odds and Ends/Stories and Sketches, London: Lawrence and Bullen
The ordinary West-End Londoner—who is a citizen of no city at all, but
dwells amid a mere conglomerate of houses at a certain distance from
Charing Cross—has known a fleeting surprise when, by rare chance, his
eye fell upon the name of some such newspaper as the Battersea Times,
the Camberwell Mercury, or the Islington Gazette. To him, these and
the like districts are nothing more than compass points of the huge
metropolis. He may be in practice acquainted with them; if historically
inclined, he may think of them as old-time villages swallowed up by
insatiable London; but he has never grasped the fact that in Battersea,
Camberwell, Islington, there are people living who name these places as
their home; who are born, subsist, and die there as though in a distinct
town, and practically without consciousness of its obliteration in the
map of a world capital.
The stable element of this population consists of more or less
old-fashioned people. Round about them is the ceaseless coming and going
of nomads who keep abreast with the time, who take their lodgings by the
week, their houses by the month; who camp indifferently in regions old
and new, learning their geography in train and tram-car. Abiding
parishioners are wont to be either very poor or established in a
moderate prosperity; they lack enterprise, either for good or ill: if
comfortably off, they owe it, as a rule, to some predecessor's exertion.
And for the most part, though little enough endowed with the civic
spirit, they abundantly pride themselves on their local permanence.
Representative of this class was Mr. Archibald Jordan, a native of
Islington, and, at the age of five-and-forty, still faithful to the
streets which he had trodden as a child. His father started a small
grocery business in Upper Street; Archibald succeeded to the shop,
advanced soberly, and at length admitted a partner, by whose capital and
energy the business was much increased. After his thirtieth year Mr.
Jordan ceased to stand behind the counter. Of no very active
disposition, and but moderately set on gain, he found it pleasant to
spend a few hours daily over the books and the correspondence, and for
the rest of his time to enjoy a gossipy leisure, straying among the
acquaintances of a lifetime, or making new in the decorous bar-parlours,
billiard-rooms, and other such retreats which allured his bachelor
liberty. His dress and bearing were unpretentious, but impressively
respectable; he never allowed his garments (made by an Islington tailor,
an old schoolfellow) to exhibit the least sign of wear, but fashion
affected their style as little as possible. Of middle height, and
tending to portliness, he walked at an unvarying pace, as a man who had
never known undignified hurry; in his familiar thoroughfares he glanced
about him with a good-humoured air of proprietorship, or with a look of
thoughtful criticism for any changes that might be going forward. No one
had ever spoken flatteringly of his visage; he knew himself a very
homely-featured man, and accepted the fact, as something that had
neither favoured nor hindered him in life. But it was his conviction
that no man's eye had a greater power of solemn and overwhelming rebuke,
and this gift he took a pleasure in exercising, however trivial the
For five-and-twenty years he had lived in lodgings; always within the
narrow range of Islington respectability, yet never for more than a
twelvemonth under the same roof. This peculiar feature of Mr. Jordan's
life had made him a subject of continual interest to local landladies,
among whom were several lifelong residents, on friendly terms of old
time with the Jordan family. To them it seemed an astonishing thing that
a man in such circumstances had not yet married; granting this
eccentricity, they could not imagine what made him change his abode so
often. Not a landlady in Islington but would welcome Mr. Jordan in her
rooms, and, having got him, do her utmost to prolong the connection. He
had been known to quit a house on the paltriest excuse, removing to
another in which he could not expect equally good treatment. There was
no accounting for it: it must be taken as an ultimate mystery of life,
and made the most of as a perennial topic of neighbourly conversation.
As to the desirability of having Mr. Jordan for a lodger there could be
no difference of opinion among rational womankind. Mrs. Wiggins, indeed,
had taken his sudden departure from her house so ill that she always
spoke of him abusively; but who heeded Mrs. Wiggins? Even in the sadness
of hope deferred, those ladies who had entertained him once, and
speculated on his possible return, declared Mr. Jordan a 'thorough
gentleman'. Lodgers, as a class, do not recommend themselves in
Islington; Mr. Jordan shone against the dusky background with almost
dazzling splendour. To speak of lodgers as of cattle, he was a prize
creature. A certain degree of comfort he firmly exacted; he might be a
trifle fastidious about cooking; he stood upon his dignity; but no one
could say that he grudged reward for service rendered. It was his
practice to pay more than the landlady asked. Twenty-five shillings a
week, you say? I shall give you twenty-eight. But—' and with raised
forefinger he went through the catalogue of his demands. Everything must
be done precisely as he directed; even in the laying of his table he
insisted upon certain minute peculiarities, and to forget one of them
was to earn that gaze of awful reprimand which Mr. Jordan found (or
thought) more efficacious than any spoken word. Against this precision
might be set his strange indulgence in the matter of bills; he merely
regarded the total, was never known to dispute an item. Only twice in
his long experience had he quitted a lodging because of exorbitant
charges, and on these occasions he sternly refused to discuss the
matter. 'Mrs. Hawker, I am paying your account with the addition of one
week's rent. Your rooms will be vacant at eleven o'clock tomorrow
morning.' And until the hour of departure no entreaty, no prostration,
could induce him to utter a syllable.
It was on the 1st of June, 1889, his forty-fifth birthday, that Mr.
Jordan removed from quarters he had occupied for ten months, and became
a lodger in the house of Mrs. Elderfield.
Mrs. Elderfield, a widow, aged three-and-thirty, with one little girl,
was but a casual resident in Islington; she knew nothing of Mr. Jordan,
and made no inquiries about him. Strongly impressed, as every woman must
needs be, by his air and tone of mild authority, she congratulated
herself on the arrival of such an inmate; but no subservience appeared
in her demeanour; she behaved with studious civility, nothing more. Her
words were few and well chosen. Always neatly dressed, yet always busy,
she moved about the house with quick, silent step, and cleanliness
marked her path. The meals were well cooked, well served. Mr. Jordan
being her only lodger, she could devote to him an undivided attention.
At the end of his first week the critical gentleman felt greater
satisfaction than he had ever known.
The bill lay upon his table at breakfast-time. He perused the items,
and, much against his habit, reflected upon them. Having breakfasted, he
rang the bell.
He paused, and looked gravely at the widow. She had a plain, honest,
healthy face, with resolute lips, and an eye that brightened when she
spoke; her well-knit figure, motionless in its respectful attitude,
declared a thoroughly sound condition of the nerves.
'Mrs. Elderfield, your bill is so very moderate that I think you must
have forgotten something.'
'Have you looked it over, sir?'
'I never trouble with the details. Please examine it.'
'There is no need, sir. I never make a mistake.'
'I said, Mrs. Elderfield, please examine it.'
She seemed to hesitate, but obeyed.
'The bill is quite correct, sir.'
He paid it at once and said no more.
The weeks went on. To Mr. Jordan's surprise, his landlady's zeal and
efficiency showed no diminution, a thing unprecedented in his long and
varied experience. After the first day or two he had found nothing to
correct; every smallest instruction was faithfully carried out.
Moreover, he knew for the first time in his life the comfort of
absolutely clean rooms. The best of his landladies hitherto had not
risen above that conception of cleanliness which is relative to London
soot and fog. His palate, too, was receiving an education. Probably he
had never eaten of a joint rightly cooked, or tasted a potato boiled as
it should be; more often than not, the food set before him had undergone
a process which left it masticable indeed, but void of savour and
nourishment. Many little attentions of which he had never dreamed kept
him in a wondering cheerfulness. And at length he said to himself: 'Here
I shall stay.'
Not that his constant removals had been solely due to discomfort and a
hope of better things. The secret—perhaps not entirely revealed even to
himself—lay in Mr. Jordan's sense of his own importance, and his
uneasiness whenever he felt that, in the eyes of a landlady, he was
becoming a mere everyday person—an ordinary lodger. No sooner did he
detect a sign of this than he made up his mind to move. It gave him the
keenest pleasure of which he was capable when, on abruptly announcing
his immediate departure, he perceived the landlady's profound
mortification. To make the blow heavier he had even resorted to
artifice, seeming to express a most lively contentment during the very
days when he had decided to leave and was asking himself where he should
next abide. One of his delights was to return to a house which he had
quitted years ago, to behold the excitement and bustle occasioned by his
appearance, and play the good-natured autocrat over grovelling
dependents. In every case, save the two already mentioned, he had parted
with his landlady on terms of friendliness, never vouchsafing a reason
for his going away, genially eluding every attempt to obtain an
explanation, and at the last abounding in graceful recognition of all
that had been done for him. Mr. Jordan shrank from dispute, hated every
sort of contention; this characteristic gave a certain refinement to his
otherwise commonplace existence. Vulgar vanity would have displayed
itself in precisely the acts and words from which his self-esteem
nervously shrank. And of late he had been thinking over the list of
landladies, with a half-formed desire to settle down, to make himself a
permanent home. Doubtless as a result of this state of mind, he betook
himself to a strange house, where, as from neutral ground, he might
reflect upon the lodgings he knew, and judge between their merits. He
could not foresee what awaited him under Mrs. Elderfield's roof; the
event impressed him as providential; he felt, with singular emotion,
that choice was taken out of his hands. Lodgings could not be more than
perfect, and such he had found.
It was not his habit to chat with landladies. At times he held forth to
them on some topic of interest, suavely, instructively; if he gave in to
their ordinary talk, it was with a half-absent smile of condescension.
Mrs. Elderfield seeming as little disposed to gossip as himself, a month
elapsed before he knew anything of her history; but one evening the
reserve on both sides was broken. His landlady modestly inquired whether
she was giving satisfaction, and Mr. Jordan replied with altogether
unwonted fervour. In the dialogue that ensued, they exchanged personal
confidences. The widow had lost her husband four years ago; she came
from the Midlands, but had long dwelt in London. Then fell from her lips
a casual remark which made the hearer uneasy.
'I don't think I shall always stay here. The neighbourhood is too
crowded. I should like to have a house somewhere further out.'
Mr. Jordan did not comment on this, but it kept a place in his daily
thoughts, and became at length so much of an anxiety that he invited
a renewal of the subject.
'You have no intention of moving just yet, Mrs. Elderfield?'
'I was going to tell you, sir,' replied the landlady, with her
respectful calm, 'that I have decided to make a change next spring. Some
friends of mine have gone to live at Wood Green, and I shall look for a
house in the same neighbourhood.'
Mr. Jordan was, in private, gravely disturbed. He who had flitted from
house to house for many years, distressing the souls of landladies, now
lamented the prospect of a forced removal. It was open to him to
accompany Mrs. Elderfield, but he shrank from the thought of living in
so remote a district. Wood Green! The very name appalled him, for he had
never been able to endure the country. He betook himself one dreary
autumn afternoon to that northern suburb, and what he saw did not at all
reassure him. On his way back he began once more to review the list of
But from that day his conversations with Mrs. Elderfield grew more
frequent, more intimate. In the evening he occasionally made an excuse
for knocking at her parlour door, and lingered for a talk which ended
only at supper time. He spoke of his own affairs, and grew more ready to
do so as his hearer manifested a genuine interest, without impertinent
curiosity. Little by little he imparted to Mrs. Elderfield a complete
knowledge of his commercial history, of his pecuniary standing—matters
of which he had never before spoken to a mere acquaintance. A change was
coming over him; the foundations of habit crumbled beneath his feet; he
lost his look of complacence, his self-confident and superior tone.
Bar-parlours and billiard-rooms saw him but rarely and flittingly. He
seemed to have lost his pleasure in the streets of Islington, and spent
all his spare time by the fireside, perpetually musing.
On a day in March one of his old landladies, Mrs. Higdon, sped to the
house of another, Mrs. Evans, panting under a burden of strange news.
Could it be believed! Mr. Jordan was going to marry—to marry that woman
in whose house he was living! Mrs. Higdon had it on the very best
authority—that of Mr. Jordan's partner, who spoke of the affair without
reserve. A new house had already been taken—at Wood Green. Well! After
all these years, after so many excellent opportunities, to marry a mere
stranger and forsake Islington! In a moment Mr. Jordan's character was
gone; had he figured in the police-court under some disgraceful charge,
these landladies could hardly have felt more shocked and professed
themselves more disgusted. The intelligence spread. Women went out of
their way to have a sight of Mrs. Elderfield's house; they hung about
for a glimpse of that sinister person herself. She had robbed them,
every one, of a possible share in Islington's prize lodger. Had it been
one of themselves they could have borne the chagrin; but a woman whom
not one of them knew, an alien! What base arts had she practised? Ah,
it was better not to inquire too closely into the secrets of that
Though every effort was made to learn the time and place of the
ceremony, Mr. Jordan's landladies had the mortification to hear of his
wedding only when it was over. Of course, this showed that he felt the
disgracefulness of his behaviour; he was not utterly lost to shame. It
could only be hoped that he would not know the bitterness of repentance.
Not till he found himself actually living in the house at Wood Green did
Mr. Jordan realize how little his own will had had to do with the recent
course of events. Certainly, he had made love to the widow, and had
asked her to marry him; but from that point onward he seemed to have put
himself entirely in Mrs. Elderfield's hands, granting every request,
meeting half-way every suggestion she offered, becoming, in short, quite
a different kind of man from his former self. He had not been sensible
of a moment's reluctance; he enjoyed the novel sense of yielding himself
to affectionate guidance. His wits had gone wool-gathering; they
returned to him only after the short honeymoon at Brighton, when he
stood upon his own hearth-rug, and looked round at the new furniture
and ornaments which symbolized a new beginning of life.
The admirable landlady had shown herself energetic, clear-headed, and
full of resource; it was she who chose the house, and transacted all the
business in connection with it; Mr. Jordan had merely run about in her
company from place to place, smiling approval and signing cheques. No
one could have gone to work more prudently, or obtained what she wanted
at smaller outlay; for all that, Mr. Jordan, having recovered something
like his normal frame of mind, viewed the results with consternation.
Left to himself, he would have taken a very small house, and furnished
it much in the style of Islington lodgings; as it was, he occupied a
ten-roomed 'villa', with appointments which seemed to him luxurious,
aristocratic. True, the expenditure was of no moment to a man in his
position, and there was no fear that Mrs. Jordan would involve him in
dangerous extravagance; but he had always lived with such excessive
economy that the sudden change to a life correspondent with his income
could not but make him uncomfortable.
Mrs. Jordan had, of course, seen to it that her personal appearance
harmonized with the new surroundings. She dressed herself and her young
daughter with careful appropriateness. There was no display, no purchase
of gewgaws—merely garments of good quality, such as became people in
easy circumstances. She impressed upon her husband that this was nothing
more than a return to the habits of her earlier life. Her first marriage
had been a sad mistake; it had brought her down in the world. Now she
felt restored to her natural position.
After a week of restlessness, Mr. Jordan resumed his daily visits to
the shop in Upper Street, where he sat as usual among the books and the
correspondence, and tried to assure himself that all would henceforth
be well with him. No more changing from house to house; a really
comfortable home in which to spend the rest of his days; a kind and most
capable wife to look after all his needs, to humour all his little
habits. He could not have taken a wiser step.
For all that, he had lost something, though he did not yet understand
what it was. The first perception of a change not for the better flashed
upon him one evening in the second week, when he came home an hour
later than his wont. Mrs. Jordan, who always stood waiting for him at
the window, had no smile as he entered.
'Why are you late?' she asked, in her clear, restrained voice.
'Oh—something or other kept me.'
This would not do. Mrs. Jordan quietly insisted on a full explanation of
the delay, and it seemed to her unsatisfactory.
'I hope you won't be irregular in your habits, Archibald,' said his
wife, with gentle admonition. 'What I always liked in you was your
methodical way of living. I shall be very uncomfortable if I never
know when to expect you.'
'Yes, my dear, but—business, you see—'
'But you have explained that you could have been back at the usual
'Well, well, you won't let it happen again. Oh really, Archibald!' she
suddenly exclaimed. 'The idea of you coming into the room with muddy
boots! Why, look! There's a patch of mud on the carpet—'
'It was my hurry to speak to you,' murmured Mr. Jordan, in confusion.
'Please go at once and take your boots off. And you left your slippers
in the bedroom this morning. You must always bring them down, and put
them in the dining-room cupboard; then they're ready for you when you
come into the house.'
Mr. Jordan had but a moderate appetite for his dinner, and he did not
talk so pleasantly as usual. This was but the beginning of troubles such
as he had not for a moment foreseen. His wife, having since their
engagement taken the upper hand, began to show her determination to keep
it, and day by day her rule grew more galling to the ex-bachelor. He
himself, in the old days, had plagued his landladies by insisting upon
method and routine, by his faddish attention to domestic minutiae; he
now learnt what it was to be subjected to the same kind of despotism,
exercised with much more exasperating persistence. Whereas Mrs.
Elderfield had scrupulously obeyed every direction given by her lodger,
Mrs. Jordan was evidently resolved that her husband should live, move,
and have his being in the strictest accordance with her own ideal. Not
in any spirit of nagging, or ill-tempered unreasonableness; it was
merely that she had her favourite way of doing every conceivable thing,
and felt so sure it was the best of all possible ways that she could not
endure any other. The first serious disagreement between them had
reference to conduct at the breakfast-table. After a broken night,
feeling headachy and worried, Mr. Jordan took up his newspaper, folded
it conveniently, and set it against the bread so that he could read
while eating. Without a word, his wife gently removed it, and laid it
aside on a chair.
'What are you doing?' he asked gruffly.
'You mustn't read at meals, Archibald. It's bad manners, and bad for your
'I've read the news at breakfast all my life, and I shall do so still,'
exclaimed the husband, starting up and recovering his paper.
'Then you will have breakfast by yourself. Nelly, we must go into the
other room till papa has finished.'
Mr. Jordan ate mechanically, and stared at the newspaper with just as
little consciousness. Prompted by the underlying weakness of his
character to yield for the sake of peace, wrath made him dogged, and the
more steadily he regarded his position, the more was he appalled by the
outlook. Why, this meant downright slavery! He had married a woman so
horribly like himself in several points that his only hope lay in
overcoming her by sheer violence. A thoroughly good and well-meaning
woman, an excellent housekeeper, the kind of wife to do him credit and
improve his social position; but self-willed, pertinacious, and probably
thinking herself his superior in every respect. He had nothing to fear
but subjection—the one thing he had never anticipated, the one thing he
could never endure.
He went off to business without seeing his wife again, and passed a
lamentable day. At his ordinary hour of return, instead of setting off
homeward, he strayed about the by-streets of Islington and Pentonville.
Not till this moment had he felt how dear they were to him, the familiar
streets; their very odours fell sweet upon his nostrils. Never again
could he go hither and thither, among the old friends, the old places,
to his heart's content. What had possessed him to abandon this precious
liberty! The thought of Wood Green revolted him; live there as long as
he might, he would never be at home. He thought of his wife (now waiting
for him) with fear, and then with a reaction of rage. Let her wait!
He—Archibald Jordan—before whom women had bowed and trembled for
five-and-twenty years—was he to come and go at a wife's bidding? And
at length the thought seemed so utterly preposterous that he sped
northward as fast as possible, determined to right himself this very
Mrs. Jordan sat alone. He marched into the room with muddy boots, flung
his hat and overcoat into a chair, and poked the fire violently. His
wife's eye was fixed on him, and she first spoke—in the quiet voice
that he dreaded.
'What do you mean by carrying on like this, Archibald?'
'I shall carry on as I like in my own house—hear that?'
'I do hear it, and I'm very sorry too. It gives me a very bad opinion
of you. You will not do as you like in your own house. Rage as you
please. You will not do as you like in your own house.'
There was a contemptuous anger in her eye which the man could not face.
He lost all control of himself, uttered coarse oaths, and stood
quivering. Then the woman began to lecture him; she talked steadily,
acrimoniously, for more than an hour, regardless of his interruptions.
Nervously exhausted, he fled at length from the room. A couple of hours
later they met again in the nuptial chamber, and again Mrs. Jordan began
to talk. Her point, as before, was that he had begun married life about
as badly as possible. Why had he married her at all? What fault had she
committed to incur such outrageous usage? But, thank goodness, she had a
will of her own, and a proper self-respect; behave as he might, she
would still persevere in the path of womanly duty. If he thought to make
her life unbearable he would find his mistake; she simply should not
heed him; perhaps he would return to his senses before long—and in this
vein Mrs. Jordan continued until night was at odds with morning, only
becoming silent when her partner had sunk into the oblivion of uttermost
The next day Mr. Jordan's demeanour showed him, for the moment at all
events, defeated. He made no attempt to read at breakfast; he moved
about very quietly. And in the afternoon he came home at the regulation
Mrs. Jordan had friends in the neighbourhood, but she saw little of
them. She was not a woman of ordinary tastes. Everything proved that,
to her mind, the possession of a nice house, with the prospects of a
comfortable life, was an end in itself; she had no desire to exhibit her
well-furnished rooms, or to gad about talking of her advantages. Every
moment of her day was taken up in the superintendence of servants, the
discharge of an infinitude of housewifely tasks. She had no assistance
from her daughter; the girl went to school, and was encouraged to study
with the utmost application. The husband's presence in the house seemed
a mere accident—save in the still nocturnal season, when Mrs. Jordan
bestowed upon him her counsel and her admonitions.
After the lapse of a few days Mr. Jordan again offered combat, and threw
himself into it with a frenzy.
'Look here!' he shouted at length, 'either you or I are going to leave
this house. I can't live with you—understand? I hate the sight of you!'
'Go on!' retorted the other, with mild bitterness. 'Abuse me as much as
you like, I can bear it. I shall continue to do my duty, and unless you
have recourse to personal violence, here I remain. If you go too far, of
course the law must defend me!'
This was precisely what Mr. Jordan knew and dreaded; the law was on his
wife's side, and by applying at a police-court for protection she could
overwhelm him with shame and ridicule, which would make life
intolerable. Impossible to argue with this woman. Say what he might, the
fault always seemed his. His wife was simply doing her duty—in a spirit
of admirable thoroughness; he, in the eyes of a third person, would
appear an unreasonable and violent curmudgeon. Had it not all sprung out
of his obstinacy with regard to reading at breakfast? How explain to
anyone what he suffered in his nerves, in his pride, in the outraged
habitudes of a lifetime?
That evening he did not return to Wood Green. Afraid of questions
if he showed himself in the old resorts, he spent some hours in a
billiard-room near King's Cross, and towards midnight took a bedroom
under the same roof. On going to business next day, he awaited with
tremors either a telegram or a visit from his wife; but the whole day
passed, and he heard nothing. After dark he walked once more about the
beloved streets, pausing now and then to look up at the windows of this
or that well remembered house. Ah, if he durst but enter and engage a
lodging! Impossible—for ever impossible!
He slept in the same place as on the night before. And again a day
passed without any sort of inquiry from Wood Green. When evening came
he went home.
Mrs. Jordan behaved as though he had returned from business in the usual
way. 'Is it raining?' she asked, with a half-smile. And her husband
replied, in as matter-of-fact a tone as he could command, 'No, it
isn't.' There was no mention between them of his absence. That night,
Mrs. Jordan talked for an hour or two of his bad habit of stepping on
the paint when he went up and down stairs, then fell calmly asleep.
But Mr. Jordan did not sleep for a long time. What! was he, after all,
to be allowed his liberty out of doors, provided he relinquished it
within? Was it really the case that his wife, satisfied with her house
and furniture and income, did not care a jot whether he stayed away or
came home? There, indeed, gleamed a hope. When Mr. Jordan slept, he
dreamed that he was back again in lodgings at Islington, tasting an
extraordinary bliss. Day dissipated the vision, but still Mrs. Jordan
spoke not a word of his absence, and with trembling still he hoped.