The Honourable John Yates, this new friend, had not much to recommend hi_eyond habits of fashion and expense, and being the younger son of a lord wit_ tolerable independence; and Sir Thomas would probably have thought hi_ntroduction at Mansfield by no means desirable. Mr. Bertram's acquaintanc_ith him had begun at Weymouth, where they had spent ten days together in th_ame society, and the friendship, if friendship it might be called, had bee_roved and perfected by Mr. Yates's being invited to take Mansfield in hi_ay, whenever he could, and by his promising to come; and he did come rathe_arlier than had been expected, in consequence of the sudden breaking-up of _arge party assembled for gaiety at the house of another friend, which he ha_eft Weymouth to join. He came on the wings of disappointment, and with hi_ead full of acting, for it had been a theatrical party; and the play in whic_e had borne a part was within two days of representation, when the sudde_eath of one of the nearest connexions of the family had destroyed the schem_nd dispersed the performers. To be so near happiness, so near fame, so nea_he long paragraph in praise of the private theatricals at Ecclesford, th_eat of the Right Hon. Lord Ravenshaw, in Cornwall, which would of course hav_mmortalised the whole party for at least a twelvemonth! and being so near, t_ose it all, was an injury to be keenly felt, and Mr. Yates could talk o_othing else. Ecclesford and its theatre, with its arrangements and dresses, rehearsals and jokes, was his never-failing subject, and to boast of the pas_is only consolation.
Happily for him, a love of the theatre is so general, an itch for acting s_trong among young people, that he could hardly out-talk the interest of hi_earers. From the first casting of the parts to the epilogue it was al_ewitching, and there were few who did not wish to have been a part_oncerned, or would have hesitated to try their skill. The play had bee_overs' Vows, and Mr. Yates was to have been Count Cassel. "A trifling part,"
said he, "and not at all to my taste, and such a one as I certainly would no_ccept again; but I was determined to make no difficulties. Lord Ravenshaw an_he duke had appropriated the only two characters worth playing before _eached Ecclesford; and though Lord Ravenshaw offered to resign his to me, i_as impossible to take it, you know. I was sorry for him that he should hav_o mistaken his powers, for he was no more equal to the Baron—a little ma_ith a weak voice, always hoarse after the first ten minutes. It must hav_njured the piece materially; but I was resolved to make no difficulties. Si_enry thought the duke not equal to Frederick, but that was because Sir Henr_anted the part himself; whereas it was certainly in the best hands of th_wo. I was surprised to see Sir Henry such a stick. Luckily the strength o_he piece did not depend upon him. Our Agatha was inimitable, and the duke wa_hought very great by many. And upon the whole, it would certainly have gon_ff wonderfully."
"It was a hard case, upon my word"; and, "I do think you were very much to b_itied," were the kind responses of listening sympathy.
"It is not worth complaining about; but to be sure the poor old dowager coul_ot have died at a worse time; and it is impossible to help wishing that th_ews could have been suppressed for just the three days we wanted. It was bu_hree days; and being only a grandmother, and all happening two hundred mile_ff, I think there would have been no great harm, and it was suggested, _now; but Lord Ravenshaw, who I suppose is one of the most correct men i_ngland, would not hear of it."
"An afterpiece instead of a comedy," said Mr. Bertram. "Lovers' Vows were a_n end, and Lord and Lady Ravenshaw left to act My Grandmother by themselves.
Well, the jointure may comfort him; and perhaps, between friends, he began t_remble for his credit and his lungs in the Baron, and was not sorry t_ithdraw; and to make you amends, Yates, I think we must raise a littl_heatre at Mansfield, and ask you to be our manager."
This, though the thought of the moment, did not end with the moment; for th_nclination to act was awakened, and in no one more strongly than in him wh_as now master of the house; and who, having so much leisure as to make almos_ny novelty a certain good, had likewise such a degree of lively talents an_omic taste, as were exactly adapted to the novelty of acting. The though_eturned again and again. "Oh for the Ecclesford theatre and scenery to tr_omething with." Each sister could echo the wish; and Henry Crawford, to whom, in all the riot of his gratifications it was yet an untasted pleasure, wa_uite alive at the idea. "I really believe," said he, "I could be fool enoug_t this moment to undertake any character that ever was written, from Shyloc_r Richard III down to the singing hero of a farce in his scarlet coat an_ocked hat. I feel as if I could be anything or everything; as if I could ran_nd storm, or sigh or cut capers, in any tragedy or comedy in the Englis_anguage. Let us be doing something. Be it only half a play, an act, a scene; what should prevent us? Not these countenances, I am sure," looking toward_he Miss Bertrams; "and for a theatre, what signifies a theatre? We shall b_nly amusing ourselves. Any room in this house might suffice."
"We must have a curtain," said Tom Bertram; "a few yards of green baize for _urtain, and perhaps that may be enough."
"Oh, quite enough," cried Mr. Yates, "with only just a side wing or two ru_p, doors in flat, and three or four scenes to be let down; nothing more woul_e necessary on such a plan as this. For mere amusement among ourselves w_hould want nothing more."
"I believe we must be satisfied with less," said Maria. "There would not b_ime, and other difficulties would arise. We must rather adopt Mr. Crawford'_iews, and make the performance, not the theatre, our object. Many parts o_ur best plays are independent of scenery."
"Nay," said Edmund, who began to listen with alarm. "Let us do nothing b_alves. If we are to act, let it be in a theatre completely fitted up wit_it, boxes, and gallery, and let us have a play entire from beginning to end; so as it be a German play, no matter what, with a good tricking, shiftin_fterpiece, and a figure-dance, and a hornpipe, and a song between the acts.
If we do not outdo Ecclesford, we do nothing."
"Now, Edmund, do not be disagreeable," said Julia. "Nobody loves a play bette_han you do, or can have gone much farther to see one."
"True, to see real acting, good hardened real acting; but I would hardly wal_rom this room to the next to look at the raw efforts of those who have no_een bred to the trade: a set of gentlemen and ladies, who have all th_isadvantages of education and decorum to struggle through."
After a short pause, however, the subject still continued, and was discusse_ith unabated eagerness, every one's inclination increasing by the discussion, and a knowledge of the inclination of the rest; and though nothing was settle_ut that Tom Bertram would prefer a comedy, and his sisters and Henry Crawfor_ tragedy, and that nothing in the world could be easier than to find a piec_hich would please them all, the resolution to act something or other seeme_o decided as to make Edmund quite uncomfortable. He was determined to preven_t, if possible, though his mother, who equally heard the conversation whic_assed at table, did not evince the least disapprobation.
The same evening afforded him an opportunity of trying his strength. Maria, Julia, Henry Crawford, and Mr. Yates were in the billiard-room. Tom, returnin_rom them into the drawing-room, where Edmund was standing thoughtfully by th_ire, while Lady Bertram was on the sofa at a little distance, and Fanny clos_eside her arranging her work, thus began as he entered—"Such a horribly vil_illiard-table as ours is not to be met with, I believe, above ground. I ca_tand it no longer, and I think, I may say, that nothing shall ever tempt m_o it again; but one good thing I have just ascertained: it is the very roo_or a theatre, precisely the shape and length for it; and the doors at th_arther end, communicating with each other, as they may be made to do in fiv_inutes, by merely moving the bookcase in my father's room, is the very thin_e could have desired, if we had sat down to wish for it; and my father's roo_ill be an excellent greenroom. It seems to join the billiard-room o_urpose."
"You are not serious, Tom, in meaning to act?" said Edmund, in a low voice, a_is brother approached the fire.
"Not serious! never more so, I assure you. What is there to surprise you i_t?"
"I think it would be very wrong. In a general light, private theatricals ar_pen to some objections, but as we are circumstanced, I must think it would b_ighly injudicious, and more than injudicious to attempt anything of the kind.
It would shew great want of feeling on my father's account, absent as he is, and in some degree of constant danger; and it would be imprudent, I think, with regard to Maria, whose situation is a very delicate one, considerin_verything, extremely delicate."
"You take up a thing so seriously! as if we were going to act three times _eek till my father's return, and invite all the country. But it is not to b_ display of that sort. We mean nothing but a little amusement amon_urselves, just to vary the scene, and exercise our powers in something new.
We want no audience, no publicity. We may be trusted, I think, in chusing som_lay most perfectly unexceptionable; and I can conceive no greater harm o_anger to any of us in conversing in the elegant written language of som_espectable author than in chattering in words of our own. I have no fears an_o scruples. And as to my father's being absent, it is so far from a_bjection, that I consider it rather as a motive; for the expectation of hi_eturn must be a very anxious period to my mother; and if we can be the mean_f amusing that anxiety, and keeping up her spirits for the next few weeks, _hall think our time very well spent, and so, I am sure, will he. It is a ver_nxious period for her."
As he said this, each looked towards their mother. Lady Bertram, sunk back i_ne corner of the sofa, the picture of health, wealth, ease, and tranquillity, was just falling into a gentle doze, while Fanny was getting through the fe_ifficulties of her work for her.
Edmund smiled and shook his head.
"By Jove! this won't do," cried Tom, throwing himself into a chair with _earty laugh. "To be sure, my dear mother, your anxiety—I was unlucky there."
"What is the matter?" asked her ladyship, in the heavy tone of one half- roused; "I was not asleep."
"Oh dear, no, ma'am, nobody suspected you! Well, Edmund," he continued, returning to the former subject, posture, and voice, as soon as Lady Bertra_egan to nod again, "but this I will maintain, that we shall be doing n_arm."
"I cannot agree with you; I am convinced that my father would totall_isapprove it."
"And I am convinced to the contrary. Nobody is fonder of the exercise o_alent in young people, or promotes it more, than my father, and for anythin_f the acting, spouting, reciting kind, I think he has always a decided taste.
I am sure he encouraged it in us as boys. How many a time have we mourned ove_he dead body of Julius Caesar, and to be'd and not to be'd, in this ver_oom, for his amusement? And I am sure, my name was Norval, every evening o_y life through one Christmas holidays."
"It was a very different thing. You must see the difference yourself. M_ather wished us, as schoolboys, to speak well, but he would never wish hi_rown-up daughters to be acting plays. His sense of decorum is strict."
"I know all that," said Tom, displeased. "I know my father as well as you do; and I'll take care that his daughters do nothing to distress him. Manage you_wn concerns, Edmund, and I'll take care of the rest of the family."
"If you are resolved on acting," replied the persevering Edmund, "I must hop_t will be in a very small and quiet way; and I think a theatre ought not t_e attempted. It would be taking liberties with my father's house in hi_bsence which could not be justified."
"For everything of that nature I will be answerable," said Tom, in a decide_one. "His house shall not be hurt. I have quite as great an interest in bein_areful of his house as you can have; and as to such alterations as I wa_uggesting just now, such as moving a bookcase, or unlocking a door, or eve_s using the billiard-room for the space of a week without playing a_illiards in it, you might just as well suppose he would object to our sittin_ore in this room, and less in the breakfast-room, than we did before he wen_way, or to my sister's pianoforte being moved from one side of the room t_he other. Absolute nonsense!"
"The innovation, if not wrong as an innovation, will be wrong as an expense."
"Yes, the expense of such an undertaking would be prodigious! Perhaps it migh_ost a whole twenty pounds. Something of a theatre we must have undoubtedly, but it will be on the simplest plan: a green curtain and a little carpenter'_ork, and that's all; and as the carpenter's work may be all done at home b_hristopher Jackson himself, it will be too absurd to talk of expense; and a_ong as Jackson is employed, everything will be right with Sir Thomas. Don'_magine that nobody in this house can see or judge but yourself. Don't ac_ourself, if you do not like it, but don't expect to govern everybody else."
"No, as to acting myself," said Edmund, "that I absolutely protest against."
Tom walked out of the room as he said it, and Edmund was left to sit down an_tir the fire in thoughtful vexation.
Fanny, who had heard it all, and borne Edmund company in every feelin_hroughout the whole, now ventured to say, in her anxiety to suggest som_omfort, "Perhaps they may not be able to find any play to suit them. You_rother's taste and your sisters' seem very different."
"I have no hope there, Fanny. If they persist in the scheme, they will fin_omething. I shall speak to my sisters and try to dissuade them, and that i_ll I can do."
"I should think my aunt Norris would be on your side."
"I dare say she would, but she has no influence with either Tom or my sister_hat could be of any use; and if I cannot convince them myself, I shall le_hings take their course, without attempting it through her. Family squabblin_s the greatest evil of all, and we had better do anything than be altogethe_y the ears."
His sisters, to whom he had an opportunity of speaking the next morning, wer_uite as impatient of his advice, quite as unyielding to his representation, quite as determined in the cause of pleasure, as Tom. Their mother had n_bjection to the plan, and they were not in the least afraid of their father'_isapprobation. There could be no harm in what had been done in so man_espectable families, and by so many women of the first consideration; and i_ust be scrupulousness run mad that could see anything to censure in a pla_ike theirs, comprehending only brothers and sisters and intimate friends, an_hich would never be heard of beyond themselves. Julia did seem inclined t_dmit that Maria's situation might require particular caution and delicacy—bu_hat could not extend to her— she was at liberty; and Maria evidentl_onsidered her engagement as only raising her so much more above restraint, and leaving her less occasion than Julia to consult either father or mother.
Edmund had little to hope, but he was still urging the subject when Henr_rawford entered the room, fresh from the Parsonage, calling out, "No want o_ands in our theatre, Miss Bertram. No want of understrappers: my siste_esires her love, and hopes to be admitted into the company, and will be happ_o take the part of any old duenna or tame confidante, that you may not lik_o do yourselves."
Maria gave Edmund a glance, which meant, "What say you now? Can we be wrong i_ary Crawford feels the same?" And Edmund, silenced, was obliged t_cknowledge that the charm of acting might well carry fascination to the min_f genius; and with the ingenuity of love, to dwell more on the obliging, accommodating purport of the message than on anything else.
The scheme advanced. Opposition was vain; and as to Mrs. Norris, he wa_istaken in supposing she would wish to make any. She started no difficultie_hat were not talked down in five minutes by her eldest nephew and niece, wh_ere all-powerful with her; and as the whole arrangement was to bring ver_ittle expense to anybody, and none at all to herself, as she foresaw in i_ll the comforts of hurry, bustle, and importance, and derived the immediat_dvantage of fancying herself obliged to leave her own house, where she ha_een living a month at her own cost, and take up her abode in theirs, tha_very hour might be spent in their service, she was, in fact, exceedingl_elighted with the project.