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In Robert Louis Stevenson’s short story Markheim, the “dealer,” the proprietor of the pawn shop or antique store into which Markheim enters, warns his customer that he is not to be taken lightly. He knows his business, and always expects to be one-step ahead of any customers who might approach him out of less-than-altruistic motives. Whether the customer is virtuous but ignorant, or clever and felonious, this dealer intends to prevail in any transaction. It is in this context that he utters the following comments at the beginning of the story:
"Yes," said the dealer, "our windfalls are of various kinds. Some customers are ignorant, and then I touch a dividend on my superior knowledge. Some are dishonest," and here he held up the candle, so that the light fell strongly on his visitor, "and in that case," he continued, "I profit by my virtue."
Markheim, of course, is revealed as a cold-blooded murderer, but his impending encounter with Satan will prove his own capacity for redemption. In the immediate aftermath of his murder of the dealer, Markheim grows increasingly paranoid and is haunted by his actions. The mirror that the dealer had initially tried to sell him now serves as a metaphor for Markheim’s guilt. Presented with a mirror by the dealer as a potential gift for his girlfriend, Markheim responds with horror: “[T]his damned reminder of years, and sins and follies - this hand-conscience!” As he moves about the store, searching for hidden wealth, Stevenson’s character is rapidly coming apart, and his abhorrence at the seeing his reflection becomes all-consuming:
“He began to bestir himself, going to and fro with the candle, beleaguered by moving shadows, and startled to the soul by chance reflections. In many rich mirrors, some of home designs, some from Venice or Amsterdam, he saw his face repeated and repeated, as it were an army of spies; his own eyes met and detected him; and the sound of his own steps, lightly as they fell, vexed the surrounding quiet. And still, as he continued to fill his pockets, his mind accused him with a sickening iteration, of the thousand faults of his design.”
Markheim, we learn, will encounter the Devil, who informs him that the dealer’s maid will soon arrive, and suggests that Markheim could profit from her death, as she would otherwise discover the murder and turn the killer over to the police. Markheim rejects the Devil’s advice, and turns himself in, secure in the knowledge that he will be executed for his crime.
The dealer’s comment at the opening of the story does not constitute a pun. It is, rather, an expression of wisdom born of years of experience at negotiating with all-manner of clientele. Markheim, we learn, is no stranger to the dealer, but the former’s brutal slaying of the latter, all for the promise of a pittance, demonstrates that there is no profit in Markheim’s criminality. The dealer, however, is but an instrument of Markheim’s destruction. His tone is abrasive and lacking in humanity towards a customer to whom he is acquainted. Markheim’s decision to accept the consequences of his action rather than sell his soul, however, suggests that he hopes to profit from the virtue demonstrated by that decision.
One could, presumably, conclude that the dealer’s comment – “I am the essence of discretion, and ask no awkward questions; but when a customer cannot look me in the eye, he has to pay for it” – constitutes a sort of pun, in light of the preceding recitation of reasons Markheim will pay a premium of any purchase he makes on this particular day, Christmas, when the dealer would otherwise be closed and addressing other matters. One could also argue that Markheim’s protestations regarding the dealer’s assumption that his customer has arrived with the intent of selling something, for example, his uncle’s cabinet, more properly constitutes a pun :
“I have no curios to dispose of; my uncle's cabinet is bare to the wainscot; even were it still intact, I have done well on the Stock Exchange, and should more likely add to it than otherwise, and my errand to-day is simplicity itself.”
A “curio” is a rare object, usually of some value. The cabinet, about which the dealer has been aware, due, probably, to previous transactions between these two men, is “bare to the wainscot.” A “wainscot” is the wood paneling that comprises the lower section of a multi-paneled wall. It’s a little hard to identify a pun here. The only truly noticeable pun in Markheim involves the word “tongue,” as when Stevenson’s narrative refers to the sources of sound that collectively contribute to Markheim the character’s growing anxiety:
“The thought was yet in his mind, when, first one and then another, with every variety of pace and voice - one deep as the bell from a cathedral turret, another ringing on its treble notes the prelude of a waltz - the clocks began to strike the hour of three in the afternoon.
“The sudden outbreak of so many tongues in that dumb chamber staggered him.”
“Tongues” generally refers, of course, to human oral communication. Stevenson uses it, however, to refer to the ticking hands and alarms of the clocks and to the proverbial church bell: “cathedral turret,” an interesting metaphor for a story involving Satan. Additionally, “speaking in tongues” is a Biblical reference to the apostles, another reference to the religious theme of Markheim. If one had to identify a pun in this story, then, this could be it. The only problem is that is doesn’t occur on page one.
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