Once upon a time, not so very long ago, there was a lad named Reginald who loved a lass named Penelope. She returned his love; they were a pair whose love was so sweet and so fine that even the poets might envy their mutual devotion. Alas, Reginald lacked the means to support a wife. In the hopes of gaining a fortune, however modest, whereby he could clasp his dear Penelope to his breast within the sacred bonds of matrimony without the fear that the fruit of their union might become unclad waifs, he went out West as one of the many who heeded the deceitful call of mountain gold. Penelope swore that she would be eternally faithful and I am sure that she meant to be.
Roger had worshipped Penelope from afar and, when Reginald departed, laid suit to Penelope. In truth he was a stick and sad stuff but he had good prospects; his father was a prosperous merchant and he was an excellent catch. I fear that Penelope was a little bored with being an unmarried daughter so it is not surprising that Roger’s suit was welcome to her even though she did not mean to take him seriously. She did tell him that her heart belonged to Reginald and that she could never love another. I do not wish you to believe that she did not warn him that heart was given to another. Still, when a year went by and no word was heard from Reginald, she succumbed to Roger’s suit. It should be understood that Penelope, while possessed of that beauty which youth endows the feminine face and while possessed of a good and sympathetic heart, was not strong willed and was readily overborne by insistence of others.
Even though she had sworn that she loved only Reginald and even though Roger never quite cast her into raptures, she found that married life suited her. If she was not quite enthralled by those marital duties that husbands are wont to insist upon neither was she positively repelled by them. They were but a small price to pay for the sweetness of her darling children and the satisfaction of being the mistress of her own establishment.
What of Reginald, you ask. Well, he meant to write. He really did mean to write. Life in the mining camps was hard though and I am afraid that he partook of those rude diversions so commonly found in mining camps. Such wealth as he gained in his mining endeavours was quickly lost in the saloons and at the card tables where gamblers prey on innocents such as he. Shame overcame him and he came to believe that his darling Penelope was too good for him, that he was not worthy of her. He might well have become a derelict were it not that he fell desperately ill and was nursed to health by a local Magdalene.
You might suppose that his shame would have been all the greater for having discovered that a common prostitute had more goodness and charity than himself but it was not so. His close brush with that dark chasm that awaits us all awoke within him that sense of righteousness and purpose that had so insensibly been lost in the dives of the mining camps wherein human souls are corrupted. Refreshed in moral virtue he returned home only to discover that Penelope was forever lost to him in the arms of another man. Bereft, he swore that love would never find him again and he set to work to amass a vast fortune which he left to charity.
What of Penelope? The return of Reginald awakened within her breast the passion which had slumbered within her breast whilst she had lain in the arms of her dull but respectable husband. Her desire for her beloved Reginald was such a nature that she would have been content to be his mistress if no other course were available. If she had been a stronger character and it had been a happier time she might have well cast respectability to the winds and followed her heart no matter where it led. Alas, she was weak and the times did not permit such an abandonment of that virtue which is peculiar to the feminine nature. She fell into a deep depression over the thought of what she had so thoughtlessly lost and at length died of a long melancholy. She was mourned by Roger who really had loved her and belatedly by Reginald who did not hear of her death until some ten years later.
And what of that fair Magdalene who had nursed Reginald back to health with the tender care that is the particular province of the feminine nature? One would like to report that she abandoned her profession of shame and donned once more the cloak of virtue. Alas, it was quite the contrary. Not content with vending her favors to whatever rough hand held gold, she determined that fortune lay in vending the favors of others. In time she was the mistress of a dozen or more houses of shame and, I regret to say, became both immensely wealthy and inordinately respectable.
Thus is true love defeated and vice rewarded in this best of all possible worlds.
— James Fennimore Harter
This page was last updated February 1, 2001.