“There is still one door of freedom open…”

Today (December 3rd) marks the 118th anniversary of the death of Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). Coincidence (or was it something “more?”) led me to draw the seven of spades for my short story reading project, which led me to his short story, Markheim. I own this story as part of my volume “Great Ghost Stories of the World.” Published in 1885, it was somewhat reminiscent of Poe’s stories “The Tell-Tale Heart” and “The Black Cat,” both written about forty years earlier. Also clear is the influence of Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” published shortly before Stevenson’s story was written.

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**spoilers follow** (If you’d like to first read this story, one place you may do so on line for free here.)

“I seek a Christmas present for a lady.”

So tells the title character to an aged shopkeeper. This is just a pretense, however, as his real intent is of a criminal nature – to rob and plunder the old man’s quarters located above the shop. This plan could hardly be accomplished without incapacitating the shopkeeper in some way. Markheim chooses the most extreme way, stabbing the man to death when he turns to replace an item on the shelf.

Almost immediately Markheim is plagued by paranoia and fear of being discovered. Every sound from the street outside and every creak of the old house seems to him to point to a potential witness or discoverer of his actions. As Stevenson eloquently describes, “Time, now that the deed was accomplished – time, which had closed for the victim, had become instant and momentous for the slayer.” He even considers abandoning his scheme and escaping the neighborhood by “plunging into a path of London multitudes.”

His respect for “the practical” eventually persuades him that to leave now after “…having done the deed, and not to reap the profit, would be too abhorrent a failure.” He heads upstairs to search for the man’s stash of money. Soon, though no one has entered the locked building, he hears a step mounting the stairs. “What to expect he knew not, whether the dead man walking, or the official ministers of human justice, or some chance witness blindly stumbling in to consign him to the gallows.”

Whether his visitor is the devil himself (as Markheim believes) or a corporeal manifestation of his own conscience, we aren’t told for sure, but Markheim finds himself defending his “life’s work” as not his own fault, and that he was instead forced into his actions by circumstance and fate. His visitor at one point says that “Evil, for which I live, consists not in action, but in character.”

Their debate naturally causes a re-evaluation by Markheim of the path he has chosen. He claims that “…this crime on which you find me is my last,” but his visitor knows better and seems to convince Markheim that he is deluding himself on that score.

An early arrival home of the shopkeepers servant-girl forces Markheim to a decision. Does he continue his evil ways or not?

“He… went downstairs slowly,thinking to himself. His past went soberly before him; he beheld it as it was, ugly and strenuous like a dream, random as chance-medley – a scene of defeat. Life, as he thus reviewed it, tempted him no longer; but on the farther side he perceived a quiet haven for his bark.”

A good story. I didn’t find it as engaging as Poe’s work mentioned above (or Dostoevsky!) but it was an effective study of guilt and remorse – AND the possibility of redemption.

I’ve written about Stevenson a couple times before – about the novel, “Prince Otto,” and in general related to Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde How about you? Any thoughts on Stevenson or the topics covered by this story?

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