"Markheim" is an 1884 short story by the Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson who is best known for his works Treasure Island
and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
. Originally published in The Pall Mall Gazette
evening newspaper, "Markheim" later appeared in Stevenson's 1887 short story collection, The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables
. The story concerns strange, vaguely supernatural happenings at an antique shop on Christmas Day that may involve the Devil himself.
The story is set in London around the time of its publication in the late nineteenth century. The man in the title, Markheim, comes to an antique store late in the day on Christmas, even though he believes it will likely be closed for the holiday. It is revealed that Markheim often comes to this antique store either after hours or on days when it is closed. And when he does, it is usually to sell a rare item he claims to have inherited from his deceased uncle, though the shady antiques dealer who owns the shop believes it is more likely that the items Markheim sells are stolen. Knowing that the items are likely stolen, the dealer always buys them for far less than he plans to sell them.
After verbally raising these suspicions and expressing them to the seller, Markheim brusquely flinches at the accusation. In any case, Markheim has nothing to sell on this day and instead wishes to buy something for a well-off woman to whom he is betrothed--or so he claims. The dealer doesn't believe Markheim's story, but obviously doesn't have much of an issue with dealing with shady or underhanded individuals like himself. That said, his suspicions of Markheim grow heightened when he suggests the man buy his supposed beloved a mirror. Markheim expresses immediate and intense revulsion at the mirror, stating frightfully that no man wants to look at his own reflection. Despite this revulsion, Markheim is hesitant to reject the mirror outright. Growing weary and impatient of Markheim, the dealer gives him an ultimatum: either buy something or get out of his store. Markheim reluctantly asks if he can look at some more gift ideas, but then stabs the dealer to death as soon as he turns around to retrieve another item.
Markheim is incredibly rattled and becomes even more so after noticing he is surrounded by mirrors. There are also ticking clocks everywhere which rattle him further. Eventually, he begins to calm himself down, reminding himself that the door to the shop is locked from the inside and that the dealer's maid is gone for the holiday. His anxiety returns, however, when he hears footsteps above him, which complicates his plan to rob the dealer for money to start a business. After locating keys on the dealer's body, Markheim goes up the stairs where he encounters a stranger who asks: "Did you call me?"
This stranger seems to be a supernatural being of some sort because it knows all about Markheim's sordid history, which is full of theft, debts, and gambling losses. Markheim insists that he is simply having a hard time and that he is ultimately a good person, but the stranger effectively refutes him every time he raises an argument for why he's good at heart. As their conversation continues, it becomes increasingly clear that the stranger is probably the Devil himself.
After a debate about life, intentions, and the nature of good and evil, Markheim hears the maid enter the building. The Devil-like stranger tells Markheim that he should tell the maid that her boss is hurt and then kill her after luring her into the building. If he does this, the stranger says, he will also tell Markheim which key opens the dealer's safe, but he also says that if he tries to use the money to start a business, the venture will be unsuccessful, just like all of Markheim's past ventures. After weighing his choice and after considering his up-to-now sordid existence, Markheim makes a decision. Despite having embraced a life of evil and darkness, Markheim isn't ready to give up on being a good person yet. And so he confesses his crime to the maid and tells her to call the police.
After he makes this decision, the Devil-man's face transforms, displaying "a wonderful and lovely change" expressing "tender triumph."
Like many of Stevenson's tales, "Markheim" is a chilling examination of good and evil that resists easy moralizing.