At Castle Bunthorne, twenty lovesick maidens pine and wilt for the love of Reginald Bunthorne, a fleshly poet. Reginald, however, loves only Patience, the village milkmaid. Patience does not know what love is and thus does not know that the utmost happiness comes from being miserable over unrequited love. The lovesick maidens set her straight, however, by showing her that to be in agony, weeping incessantly, is to be truly happy in love. Patience tries to remind them that just a year ago they had all been in love with dragoon guards, yet the maidens still scorn her for being so ignorant about real love. A year ago the maidens had not known Reginald.
The dragoon guards, billeted in the village, see Reginald approaching, followed by the lovesick maidens, singing and playing love songs directed to the fleshly poet. The maidens ignore their former loves, having eyes only for Reginald. Reginald himself has eyes only for Patience, the milkmaid. At the insistence of the maidens, he reads them his latest poem, into which he has poured his whole soul—as he does three times a day. The maidens swoon in ecstasy at the poetry, but Patience says it is just nonsense, which it is.
Later, alone, Reginald confesses that he is a sham, that he hates poetry and all other forms of aesthetic pleasure. When Patience comes upon him, he makes the same confession to her, telling her again that he loves only her, not poetry. However, Patience knows nothing of the love of which he speaks, for she has loved only her great-aunt, and that love does not count. After Reginald has left her, one of the maidens tells Patience that to love is to feel unselfish passion. Patience, ashamed that she has never been unselfish enough to love, promises that before she goes to bed that night she will fall head over heels in love with somebody. In fact, she remembers that when she was a little girl she had liked a little boy of five. Now she is sorry that she had not loved him. It is her duty to love someone. If necessary, she will love a stranger.
Archibald Grosvenor appears unexpectedly upon the scene. He is an idyllic poet who grieves because he is completely perfect. Since he has no rival on Earth in perfection, it is his lot to be loved madly by everyone who sees him. Recognizing Patience, he tells her that he is the little boy she had known when he was five. When he asks her to marry him, she refuses. He is perfect; therefore she will not be acting unselfishly in loving him. If he had only one small imperfection, she said, she could marry him in good conscience. Candor forces him to admit that such was not the case. Patience tells him, however, that he cannot love her even if she cannot return his love, for she has faults. Grosvenor agrees, and they sadly part.
Reginald Bunthorne prepares to raffle himself to the rapturous maidens, but before they can draw for him Patience enters and begs his forgiveness for not loving him sooner. Certainly to love such a creature would be unselfish; she would do her duty. As they leave together, the lovesick maidens turn back to the dragoon guards, preparing to fall in love with them once more.
Before their embraces end, Grosvenor enters, and the fickle maidens leave the guards to follow Grosvenor. They love him madly. All desert Reginald, all but Lady Jane, one of the unattractive older women. She hopes her faithfulness will be rewarded, but...
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she knows her beauty is too far gone ever to lure Reginald away from Patience.
Grosvenor will not stop loving Patience to love the rapturous maidens. He pities them for not being able to receive his love and is annoyed by their attentions. They have followed him since Monday, with no half-holiday on Saturday. Then he reads them one of his poems. It tells of a little girl who put mice in the clock and vivisected her best doll and of a little boy who punched his little sisters’ heads and put hot pennies down their backs. The maidens nearly swoon with admiration of his lyric beauty.
Patience continues to love Reginald, even though she finds the matter difficult. He has no good habits and is not attractive, but it is her duty to love him and she does, shunning the perfect Grosvenor who loves her. None of the rapturous maidens except plain Lady Jane still loves Reginald, the others having taken their allegiance to Grosvenor. Reginald, resentful because the other maidens have forsaken him, decides to change his character; he will now be as insipid as Grosvenor. Lady Jane promises her help.
The dragoon guards return to the maidens, dressed as foppishly as even Grosvenor could dress. They act insipidly and stupidly, and the lovesick maidens are impressed by this proof of their devotion. Reginald also becomes a changed man. He is mild and kind, even handsome. He tells Grosvenor that he must change, that he has too long had the devotion that once was Reginald’s. On the threat of a curse from Reginald, Grosvenor changes his nature and becomes a cad, admitting that he has long wished for a reasonable pretext for getting rid of his perfection.
When Patience sees that Reginald is now perfect and Grosvenor is not, she is happy, for she can now unselfishly love Grosvenor. The lovesick maidens, seeing Grosvenor forsake aestheticism, know that since he is perfect he must be right. They, too, give up the arts and return to the dragoon guards. The duke of Dunstable, a dragoon officer, takes plain Lady Jane, leaving the now perfect Reginald quite alone, without a bride.