Mr Pontifex had set his heart on his son's becoming a fellow of a college before he became a clergyman. This would provide for him at once and would ensure his getting a living if none of his father's ecclesiastical friends gave him one. The boy had done just well enough at school to render this possible, so he was sent to one of the smaller colleges at Cambridge and was at once set to read with the best private tutors that could be found. A system of examination had been adopted a year or so before Theobald took his degree which had improved his chances of a fellowship, for whatever ability he had was classical rather than mathematical, and this system gave more encouragement to classical studies than had been given hitherto.
Theobald had the sense to see that he had a chance of independence if he worked hard, and he liked the notion of becoming a fellow. He therefore applied himself, and in the end took a degree which made his getting a fellowship in all probability a mere question of time. For a while Mr Pontifex senior was really pleased, and told his son he would present him with the works of any standard writer whom he might select. The young man chose the works of Bacon, and Bacon accordingly made his appearance in ten nicely bound volumes. A little inspection, however, showed that the copy was a second hand one.
Now that he had taken his degree the next thing to look forward to was ordination—about which Theobald had thought little hitherto beyond acquiescing in it as something that would come as a matter of course some day. Now, however, it had actually come and was asserting itself as a thing which should be only a few months off, and this rather frightened him inasmuch as there would be no way out of it when he was once in it. He did not like the near view of ordination as well as the distant one, and even made some feeble efforts to escape, as may be perceived by the following correspondence which his son Ernest found among his father's papers written on gilt-edged paper, in faded ink and tied neatly round with a piece of tape, but without any note or comment. I have altered nothing. The letters are as follows:—
"My dear Father,—I do not like opening up a question which has been considered settled, but as the time approaches I begin to be very doubtful how far I am fitted to be a clergyman. Not, I am thankful to say, that I have the faintest doubts about the Church of England, and I could subscribe cordially to every one of the thirty-nine articles which do indeed appear to me to be the ne plus ultra of human wisdom, and Paley, too, leaves no loop-hole for an opponent; but I am sure I should be running counter to your wishes if I were to conceal from you that I do not feel the inward call to be a minister of the gospel that I shall have to say I have felt when the Bishop ordains me. I try to get this feeling, I pray for it earnestly, and sometimes half think that I have got it, but in a little time it wears off, and though I have no absolute repugnance to being a clergyman and trust that if I am one I shall endeavour to live to the Glory of God and to advance His interests upon earth, yet I feel that something more than this is wanted before I am fully justified in going into the Church. I am aware that I have been a great expense to you in spite of my scholarships, but you have ever taught me that I should obey my conscience, and my conscience tells me I should do wrong if I became a clergyman. God may yet give me the spirit for which I assure you I have been and am continually praying, but He may not, and in that case would it not be better for me to try and look out for something else? I know that neither you nor John wish me to go into your business, nor do I understand anything about money matters, but is there nothing else that I can do? I do not like to ask you to maintain me while I go in for medicine or the bar; but when I get my fellowship, which should not be long first, I will endeavour to cost you nothing further, and I might make a little money by writing or taking pupils. I trust you will not think this letter improper; nothing is further from my wish than to cause you any uneasiness. I hope you will make allowance for my present feelings which, indeed, spring from nothing but from that respect for my conscience which no one has so often instilled into me as yourself. Pray let me have a few lines shortly. I hope your cold is better. With love to Eliza and Maria, I am, your affectionate son,
"Dear Theobald,—I can enter into your feelings and have no wish to quarrel with your expression of them. It is quite right and natural that you should feel as you do except as regards one passage, the impropriety of which you will yourself doubtless feel upon reflection, and to which I will not further allude than to say that it has wounded me. You should not have said 'in spite of my scholarships.' It was only proper that if you could do anything to assist me in bearing the heavy burden of your education, the money should be, as it was, made over to myself. Every line in your letter convinces me that you are under the influence of a morbid sensitiveness which is one of the devil's favourite devices for luring people to their destruction. I have, as you say, been at great expense with your education. Nothing has been spared by me to give you the advantages, which, as an English gentleman, I was anxious to afford my son, but I am not prepared to see that expense thrown away and to have to begin again from the beginning, merely because you have taken some foolish scruples into your head, which you should resist as no less unjust to yourself than to me.
"Don't give way to that restless desire for change which is the bane of so many persons of both sexes at the present day.
"Of course you needn't be ordained: nobody will compel you; you are perfectly free; you are twenty-three years of age, and should know your own mind; but why not have known it sooner, instead of never so much as breathing a hint of opposition until I have had all the expense of sending you to the University, which I should never have done unless I had believed you to have made up your mind about taking orders? I have letters from you in which you express the most perfect willingness to be ordained, and your brother and sisters will bear me out in saying that no pressure of any sort has been put upon you. You mistake your own mind, and are suffering from a nervous timidity which may be very natural but may not the less be pregnant with serious consequences to yourself. I am not at all well, and the anxiety occasioned by your letter is naturally preying upon me. May God guide you to a better judgement.
—Your affectionate father, G. PONTIFEX."
On the receipt of this letter Theobald plucked up his spirits. "My father," he said to himself, "tells me I need not be ordained if I do not like. I do not like, and therefore I will not be ordained. But what was the meaning of the words 'pregnant with serious consequences to yourself'? Did there lurk a threat under these words—though it was impossible to lay hold of it or of them? Were they not intended to produce all the effect of a threat without being actually threatening?"
Theobald knew his father well enough to be little likely to misapprehend his meaning, but having ventured so far on the path of opposition, and being really anxious to get out of being ordained if he could, he determined to venture farther. He accordingly wrote the following:
"My dear father,—You tell me—and I heartily thank you—that no one will compel me to be ordained. I knew you would not press ordination upon me if my conscience was seriously opposed to it; I have therefore resolved on giving up the idea, and believe that if you will continue to allow me what you do at present, until I get my fellowship, which should not be long, I will then cease putting you to further expense. I will make up my mind as soon as possible what profession I will adopt, and will let you know at once.
—Your affectionate son, THEOBALD PONTIFEX."
The remaining letter, written by return of post, must now be given. It has the merit of brevity.
"Dear Theobald,—I have received yours. I am at a loss to conceive its motive, but am very clear as to its effect. You shall not receive a single sixpence from me till you come to your senses. Should you persist in your folly and wickedness, I am happy to remember that I have yet other children whose conduct I can depend upon to be a source of credit and happiness to me.
—Your affectionate but troubled father, G. PONTIFEX."
I do not know the immediate sequel to the foregoing correspondence, but it all came perfectly right in the end. Either Theobald's heart failed him, or he interpreted the outward shove which his father gave him, as the inward call for which I have no doubt he prayed with great earnestness—for he was a firm believer in the efficacy of prayer. And so am I under certain circumstances. Tennyson has said that more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of, but he has wisely refrained from saying whether they are good things or bad things. It might perhaps be as well if the world were to dream of, or even become wide awake to, some of the things that are being wrought by prayer. But the question is avowedly difficult. In the end Theobald got his fellowship by a stroke of luck very soon after taking his degree, and was ordained in the autumn of the same year, 1825.