Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson is known for classic works, including “Treasure Island,” “Kidnapped,” and most famously, the novella “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
But one of his lesser-known works from the late 1800s is the short story “Markheim,” both a morality tale and a surprising theological reflection from an apparent nonbeliever.
The story is of “Markheim,” a thief who on Christmas Day decides to murder an unnamed antique store owner with whom he has worked before in selling stolen articles.
He tells the store owner that he wants to buy something for the woman whom he intends to marry. The store owner suggests a mirror, which leads to an exchange of insults between the pair.
When the storekeeper leans down to show him another item, Markheim attacks and kills the man. That sets off a whirl of interior terror and leads Markheim to enter the residence above the store, where he is visited by a person whom he recognizes as a “thing not of earth or of God.” The “visitant” as Stevenson calls him, warns the thief and murderer that a servant will soon return to the shop.
“What are you?” Markheim asks the man. “The devil?”
“What I may be cannot affect the service I propose to render thee,” is the response.
When Markheim expresses the belief that his new acquaintance does not know him, the stranger tells him, “I know you to the soul,” and offers to help the murderer as “a Christmas gift.” Markheim refuses the offer and then says that perhaps he will have a deathbed conversion.
“I have no objection to a deathbed repentance,” says the devil.
“Because you doubt their efficacy!” shoots back the murderer.
Dialogues like these are all the more interesting considering that Stevenson was a religious skeptic. He once visited a French Trappist monastery in the Alps and the monks prayed for his conversion when he told them he had lost faith. “Don’t you want to come to heaven with us?” a young monk asked him.
Skeptic or not, Stevenson attributes a surprisingly profound speech to the devil about deathbed conversions.
He did not say he doubted the efficacy of last-minute conversion, he said, “but I look on these things from a different side. …The man has lived to serve me, to spread black looks under the colour of religion, or to sow tares in the wheat field. … Now that he draws so near to his deliverance, he can add but one act of service — to repent, to die smiling, and thus to build up in confidence and hope the more timorous of my surviving followers.”
In other words, Stevenson’s fictional devil likes the sin of presumption and thinks the example of a few who escape their sins will promote others to sin more boldly. He is encouraged knowing that not all are in the position to achieve final repentance because they don’t always have the time to prepare for their death.
He then tells Markheim that he is indifferent to types of sin. What follows is a profoundly Christian insight on God’s ability to draw good from the worst of our mistakes.
“Evil, for which I live, consists not in action but in character. The bad man is dear to me, not the bad act, whose fruits, if we could follow them far enough down the hurtling cataract of the ages, might yet be found more blessed than those of the rarest virtues.”
Markheim argues with the devil that he also has aspirations to do what is good. Are his vices the whole story, does he not have virtues, too? The other answers that “through many changes of fortune and varieties of humour, I have watched you steadily fall.”
The devil asks the murderer if there is any case where his conduct requires sacrifice.
“No, in none! I have gone down in all.”
“Then,” said the visitor, “content yourself with what you are, for you will never change; and the words of your part on this stage are irrevocably written down.”
It’s a dialogue that captures the genius of Stevenson, who ascribes to Satan a fundamental temptation: to despair of ever being good, which is sin’s greatest ally.
When I counsel addicts as part of my parish ministry, I hear the echo of those words, “content yourself with what you are.” People in the throes of addiction believe sometimes that they cannot change, that their fate is as inevitable as an actor’s words in a script.
The story ends with the return of the shopkeeper’s servant girl, whom the devil encourages Markheim to kill: “I promise you success.”
The sinner responds with a monologue that is a reflection on grace: “If my life be an ill thing, I can lay it down. Though I be, as you say truly, at the beck of every small temptation, I can yet, by one decisive gesture, place myself beyond the reach of all.
“My love of good is damned to barrenness; it may, and let it be! But I have still my hatred of evil, and, from that, to your galling disappointment, you shall see that I can draw energy and courage.”
Stevenson’s morality tale ends beautifully and dramatically, with the killer confronting the servant girl: “You had better go to the police. I have killed your master.”
It’s an ending that makes me want to believe that Stevenson the “unbeliever” went to heaven with his friends the monks.