ERNEST SOUTHEY'S EXIT.
STEPHEN FORWOOD, or, to give him the name by which as an actor he elected to be set down on the play-bill of the world, Ernest Southey, seems to have kept up for himself the stage illusion to the very last, and to have found in the chaplain. of Maidstone Gaol a gentleman but too ready, either from weakness or some other cause, to play out with him the last tragic scene in the spirit of his own conception as manager. Meanly thing which must in the end have affected the condemued man bitterly was that, although the last tableau on Thursday week was dramatic enough for any catastrophe,—the snow falling and the wind blowing as mercilessly as if Nature wished to gratify the unhappy man's love of spectacle, and ensure him a grand exit from the scene,--yet the effect of these too vivid influences upon the audience assembled to witness his last effort was discouraging, and gave him but a thin house. It is painful to use such terms as these as to the last moments even of the most deeply stained of murderers ; —and, indeed, we do not suppose that he was by any means the most guilty of murderers, if at least we speak of the guilt only of the final acts, for the dry-rot of an overpowering vanity seems to have eaten away his character so completely that he became at last little more than the actor of a part, even though he shed real blood instead of simu- lating it ; but the final scene is so completely in keeping with the wretched man's own stage conceptions of his crime, and the view which he .seems to have been permitted, if not encouraged, to take of his own moral and religious situation is so fearfully hollow and empty, that it becomes almost a social duty to wipe off the stage paint from his final get-up,' and speak a little plainly of the theological " treatment" which, as far as the evidence shows, this melodramatic murderer received before passing to the great judgment-seat.
We must remember that the conception which this quasi- trauspontine tragedian professed to take of his own crime was that he had been a high priest " offering up " his children and wife for the good of society, and at the impulse of God, as Abraham was willing to offer up Isaac. Nay, in one of his papers he likens himself to a holier one than Abraham, and with calm blasphemy speaks of his struggle to murder his children as if it had been a struggle to do the will of God in a second Geth- semane :-
" The suffering—the agony of suffering," he says, " I endured in offering up the sacrifice—the agony I endured before I consented—the exhausting efforts I made to save myself from the bitter cup—all prove at the expense of how much self-denial and self-sacrifice I accepted the duty of high priest on the occasion, and offered up for this people my whole family—my own children, and those of one who was loved by me with a refined purity of feeling such as we are told the beatified only really know. I offered them up for the nation's good, for the cause of truth. I took all the suffering I could on me, for I well knew that I must be included in the sacrifice, and be offered up myself by my fel- low man. I was willing to seal the truth with my own death in this way—willing to endure all the fearful suffering which I foresaw and realized would attend my incarceration, trial, and death ; but I did not expect I should not be allowed to show the truth, and that my trial thereby would only be a gross mockery and an insult to justice."
The woman whom he loved with this " refined purity of feeling" was, as he knew, cohabiting with another man at the same time as with himself, indeed doubt was expressed by the witnesses on the trial as to whether the poisoned children were his own or not. " The beatified," therefore, if Southey were not, in these remarks, merely playing his melodramatic part, are not in his estimation remarkable for decency of life. In another part of the same paper he assumes for himself a more definitely stage part, and instead of likening himself to our Lord, compares himself to Virginius, who slew his daughter to save her from shame :- " Could my coming death show me that it will fulfil my life's purpose, I shall feel that I am going to my. life in that death—to my real life. It would prove to demonstration my belief that I was saving the real lives of my children in saving them from the certainty of moral de- struction, and saving by the same means thousands of lives besides, both moral and physical, by showing the truth. The act shows the motive
and the ultimate truth will in time be seen to be on my aide. To save from moral death by the sacrifice of mere physical life is admitted to be a virtue in the case of Virginias, whose act was one of heart-breaking virtue. In his case the danger of his daughter's virtue and her dis- honour are especially estimated, and obviously led to the sacrifice, but not more certainly than in the case of my own, in which I strove to prevent what was really danger to the moral life of my family; but neither the court of justice nor the people of England would hear the trnth—they would not receive the light—they have allowed a spirit of hate and vengeance to blind them. I appealed in vain, and was left at last with my awful sufferings and despair. The laws and customs of England were to me a denial of justice and an outrage upon humanity, and I sunk under the unsupportable load of misery which crushed me to the earth."
And this is the same man, remember, who proposed to himself to become a billiard-marker, on the ground that " even in billiards I reasoned that I could therein show to men of position and power that I was governed by principles and aims which were worthy of better employment, and I then engaged to conduct a billiard establishment." Clearly, if we know one thing for certain about this man's life, it is that he was the good-example-boy of some private schools, so far gone in the " example " disease, that when his good example' had openly and conspicuously degenerated into the worst possible example, he was still able to keep up the illusion about it, and say of himself, in his shabbiest and lowest -condition, Now here is a billiard-marker winning money from gentlemen at play, in order to show the high principles and aims by which he is actuated.' No wonder that such a man as this should lose all sense of the difference between his true motives and his sham motives, and should murder five people without any feeling of shame or remorse, only that he might appear to the world in the grand character of a high priest, or a stern Roman father,—he did not much care which so long as people pointed at him and wondered at the terrible magnificence of his deed. The dramatic side of death, at least of the death of others, was the only one that continued to have any meaning for him. He saw that in some respects a greater sensation might be produced by actual murder on a large scale than by the simulated murder of the stage,—which, curiously -enough, there is no evidence that he ever tried,—and it does not seem to have occurred to him whether he had the right or not to else real poison and loaded pistols as stage properties, and oblige a little crowd to die in earnest, in order that he might thrill England with a genuine horror.
Well, such was the man with whom when convicted the Maid- stone-Gaol theologians had to do, and we do not know that there was anything that could have been done for him in the short apace of life allotted to him on earth, especially as that short space of life was doomed to end exactly with the sort of scenic effect that had prosti- tuted his whole imagination. If he could by some moral compulsion have been forced to become suddenly and absolutely obscure, and to live, say another lifetime, without ever attracting a single spark of theatrical interest from any one, he might possibly have begun to learn something of the realities of life. But a more hopeless -endeavour than to effect a sudden conversion of a man whose whole nature and conscience had worn away to a mere gaudy stage- -dress, and to do this with the prospect of a grand spectacle—a tragic exit from the stage—glittering before his eyes, we cannot conceive. He appears to have been fed with Bishop Butler's Analogy, Mainers Limits of Religious Thought, Liddon's Uni- versity Sermons, Mr. Robertson's Sermons,—and all with this effect, —that while at his last hour he assured the people that he died -" trusting only to the merits of the God-Man Jesus Christ," he -declined steadily to admit that he had been guilty of any- thing but original sin common to him and all the other mem- bers of the human race. " My acts," he said to the chap- lain, " in putting my three adopted children and Mrs. Forwood and my daughter to death, were attributable to motives which, so far as I can by the keenest self-analysis determine, were of a virtuous character; but I now feel all human motives are sinful, and I acknowledge every act of my life to be a sin. I believe all human actions to be sinful even those which according to the human standard are considered to be virtues." The chaplain, it is said, then asked him whether he acknowledged the justice of the sentence of the law, and " he replied in an -emphatic manner that he did not do so, observing at the same time that he thought his acts should be measured by some higher standard than human laws ;"—which seems to us to mean simply that he perceived a new dramatic element in the doctrine of original sin and salvation by the merits of Christ alone, which he could safely adapt into his part without ceasing to be that great high priest or Roman father, whose parts combined in one he had been striving to act. By help of confessing to `original sin' and professing individual innocence of any guilt except the guilt of being a man, he could secure the co-operation and partial sympathy of his clerical co-actor, and bring the tragedy to a close without putting off the speculative glory of a Hamlet, nay gaining something like an Horatio to do the confidential friend receiving his last breath. He had been very indignant in his prison that he was not allowed to wrap himself gloomily in the cloak of solitary meditation which he thought appropriate to his position, and had indulged in these theatric ittrnins •— " If solemn preparation by ma for eternity is a duty recognized and urged upon me by the tate, its conduct in oertain respects is s direct denial and even a profane mockery thereof. The constant presence of a second per-son, combined as it is with a light always kept burning in the room, renders it absolutely impossible for mo to realize that total isolation from the world, that solemn feeling of being entirely alone with God, which I have known in the deep and blessed experiences of the times that are passed. The materialism present seems to annul or absorb my volitions, as if the soul being so sensatized had not power to resist the magnetic animal influence. It constantly sinks and chains me down to its own low level, when I would be in close communion with the Risen from the Dead—when I would be asking Him to reveal to me if He is the way—when I would be pouring out my soul to Him for His com- passion and help. It is really putting an impassable barrier between me and heaven, which precludes me from the use of those mesas by which we can alone get there. It is as if the State, having heinously persecuted me and driven me out of this life, puts with satanic malig- nity, by its regulations, an individual to stand and watch that I do -not escape its cruel clutches by reaching heaven before my time and to pall mo down in any attempt I might make to get there. I wish to be left alone with God."
And on the scaffold he kept up the part,—we doubt whether it had not ceased to be a part, whether it was not almost all that was left of him which thus struggled for a theatric effect,—to the last. He requested the chaplain as a favour that he would only utter the sentence of prayer he should dictate to him, which was, "Lord, into Thy hands we commend the soul of this our brother, for Thou hest redeemed him, 0 Lord, thou God of Truth." The prisoner said that his reason for this was that " he wished to con- centrate the whole powers of his soul and spirit into one mighty act of volition," and render himself up to God in the words he mentioned; His request was of course complied with, and so the unhappy actor, giving express notice of " one mighty act of volition" that was to wring, as it were by a sudden and dra- matic fulfilment of the condition of justification by faith, his right to eternal blessedness out of the very hands of God, and this without any penitence for his own evil—except what he could acknowledge in the name of human nature itself,—made his grand- iose exit from the stage.
That any man should have been able to view life and death, the death of others no less than of himself, in so absolutely theatric a light, shocks us with the sort of pain carried home by any suggestion of the possibility of human nature dwindling to a mere outward show, all its reality and simplicity departed. But that our theology should help him to do so, by giving him hard metaphysics with which to cram himself into an affectation of in- tellectual conviction, and then by accepting his assurance that every act of his and every other life had been sinful, as equivalent to an expression of penitence, and as a fair foundation for hope of God's pardon, seems to us absolutely monstrous. Is theology to become part of the mere stage properties of life? Cannot our clergy- men,—when engaged, too, in the saddest of clerical duties, those of prison chaplains,—teach nothing by sad silence in the presence of such a falsehood as Ernest Southey's religious airs on his exit from the stage ? Was it decent in them to consent to act in concert with him in this final bit of blasphemous extravaganza, a bit of which God and Christ were the subjects, and for which the wretched man himself, if there was any fresh guilt possible to such a one, must incur yet additional suffering at the hands of his eternal Judge ?