At the piano in the well-worn but comfortable Kirby sitting room in a village in the north of England, Wilfred Kirby picks out a tune from a London musical. Sarah, the nurse who tended the Kirby children and has remained a family fixture, informs the bored young man that he does not have the talent his older sister Stella has. Lilian, Dr. Kirby’s second child, has an equally low opinion of her younger brother’s musical ability and tells him so. Wilfred teases his sister about Geoffrey Farrant, who runs a nearby estate, while Lilian questions Wilfred about the barmaid he keeps trying to ring up on the Kirbys’ new telephone. Wilfred admits that he is unhappy wherever he is. He had eagerly anticipated his leave, but now he is beginning to look forward to his return to Nigeria. He is dissatisfied with his work and his life but expects that everything will be better in three or four years. When Sarah shows them the costume, now moth-eaten, that she made for Stella for an amateur performance at the Town Hall, Lilian and Wilfred discuss their sister, an actor whom they have not seen in eight years and have not heard from in three. Against her mother’s wishes, Stella had left home to make the stage her career. In the intervening years, Mrs. Kirby died, and Lilian has assumed the running of the house.
As they put a record on the gramophone, they hear a voice through the door. Stella, the prodigal daughter, has returned home, a little the worse for wear—like the tattered costume. She reveals to Sarah what she cannot admit to her brother and sister. Her career is a disappointment and she considers herself a failure. Dr. Kirby, delighted to see his daughter, whom he wrongly believes to be successful, admits to his firstborn what he has never told anyone else: He has envied her determination to follow her dream. He had the opportunity to make something of himself as a specialist in London, but he gave in to his wife’s wishes and settled for a steady but unexciting existence as a hardworking practitioner in Eden End. He is aware that his heart condition is serious and that he will not live long enough to see the better world he feels certain will be dawning in a year or two.
Alone with her sister, Lilian forces Stella to admit that she is married to an actor with whom she had toured in Australia three years earlier. Although they have not divorced, they had remained together only a year. Stella had lost touch with Charlie Appleby, her husband, but she unexpectedly saw him in her agent’s office in London shortly before traveling north to Eden End. Geoffrey Farrant arrives to see Lilian but is thrilled to learn that Stella is home; Lilian retires with a headache. The act ends with the rest of the family gathered around the piano. Stella is playing a waltz while Wilfred and...
(The entire section is 1144 words.)