Magnolia, "The Knave of Hearts" and the Convent at Loretto

Magnolia, "The Knave of Hearts"
and the Convent at Loretto

We are introduced to the character Magnolia in  The Little Colonel at Boarding School (1903), already in Chapter 2A New Friend, and it is in Chapter 6, Uninvited Guests, that she becomes "The Knave of Hearts." But it is in Chapter 4, The Shadow Club, that we first learn her story and some clues to her real-life identity:  

Just as they reached the spring a shout went up from the circle of little girls gathered around Magnolia. She was facing them defiantly, her fat little face red with mortification.

"What's the matter, Elise?" asked Allison, in a big-sister tone. "Why are you all teasing Magnolia?"

"I'm not teasing her," cried Elise, indignantly. "I told her just now not to mind anything they said, and I'd lend her my paper-doll bride to play with till next Friday afternoon."

"She said that she learned to read in a graveyard, off of the tombstones." giggled Anna Louise, "and it seemed so funny that we couldn't help laughing,"

Magnolia hung her head, twisting a corner of her apron in her fat little fingers, and wishing that the earth would open and swallow her. She had seen the amusement in the Little Colonel's face, and it hurt worse than the ridicule of all the others combined. She felt that she must die of shame.

"That's nothing to laugh at," said Betty, seeing the distress in her face, and divining what the child was suffering. "I used to have lovely times in the old graveyard at the Cuckoo's Nest. Don't you remember how peaceful and sweet it was, Lloyd?" she asked, turning to the Little Colonel, who nodded assent. "Davy and I used to walkup there every afternoon in summer to smell the pinks and the lilies, and read what was carved on the old stones. And we'd sit there in the grass and listen to the redbirds in the cedars, and make up stories about all the people lying there asleep. And Davy learned most of his letters there."

"That's the way it was at Loretta, wasn't it, Maggie!" exclaimed Elise, encouragingly. "Tell them about it."

But Maggie hung her head and twisted the toes of her stubby shoes around in the dust, unable to say a word.

"I'll tell them, then," said Elise, turning to the larger girls. "They used to live near the convent at Loretta, and one of their neighbours, a girl lots older than Maggie, used to take her up to the graveyard nearly every day. There wasn't any place else to go, you know, and it was lonesome out there in the country. This girl was named Corono, after one of the Sisters who was dead. She had been awfully good to both their families, when they were sick, and Corono and Maggie used to make daisy-chains and crowns out of the honeysuckles and roses, 'cause Corono means crown, and put them on her grave. And every time they would go, Maggie would learn a new letter off one of the tombstones, and after awhile she got so she could read."

"How interesting!" exclaimed Lloyd, all unconscious of the way her words set Maggie's heart to beating with pleasure. Elise turned toward her with a motherly air that seemed very funny considering that she was smaller than the child whom she was championing so valiantly. "I'm going to ask them about that album right now, Maggie. You run back to school and get it."

photo from

The photo above is of the cemetery at the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Loretto near Bardstown, Kentucky.  This is undoubtedly the same place where a Magnolia learned to read.

The Bardstown area is sometimes called "Kentucky's Holy Land" because of the large number of Roman Catholic convents and monasteries in the area including: St Rose Priory [1806], the Abbey of Gethsemane [1852], The convent/mother houses ofLoretto [1812], The Sisters of Charity of Nazareth [1822], and St. Catherine of Siena [1822] as well as St Joseph's Proto-Cathedral [1816].

So was there a real-life model for the Knave of Hearts, little Magnolia Budine? We don’t know, although we suspect there might have been, because Annie Fellows Johnston provides so many details of her life story in Chapter VIII of “The Little Colonel at Boarding-School:”

Little Magnolia Budine was the only one in the room impatient for the exercises to close. She sat near a front window looking out at every sound of approaching wheels, to see if the old carryall had stopped at the high green gate in front of the seminary. She had been hoping all afternoon that her father would come for her earlier than usual, and she half-expected that he would. The chill November days were short, and she knew that he would want to reach home before dark.

It was not that she failed to appreciate the interesting articles in the Star, but she was in a hurry for the ten-mile drive to be over. The reason for her impatience was packed away in the old carpet-bag, waiting outside in the hall. Unless she reached home before dark, a certain pleasure she had in store would have to be delayed till morning. So intent was she on listening for the sound of wheels, that she failed to hear the title of a short poem which one of the editors announced as written by E. L. L. When Elise nudged her, whispering, "That's about you, Maggie," she turned with a start and blush to find every one looking at her. She was so confused she heard only the last verse:

"Not only did he steal the tarts 
     Made by the gracious queen, 
He captured all the schoolgirls' hearts
     That little knave --- on Hallowe'en."

The applause which followed was loud and long. Her heart gave a proud, glad throb at this public compliment, but her face felt as if it were on fire, and she longed to drop under her desk out of sight. It was just at this moment that Mrs. Clelling told her in a low tone that her father had come and she might be excused. How she ever got to the door with all those eyes fastened on her was more than she could tell. She felt as if each foot weighed a ton, and that she was an hour travelling the short space.

Snatching her hat from the cloak-room and pinning a big gray shawl around her, she caught up the carpet-bag and ran down to the gate. An occasional snowflake, like a downy white feather, floated through the air. The wind was raw and damp, and she was glad to climb in behind the sheltering curtains of the old carryall and lean up against her father's rough, warm overcoat.

"Well, Puss, how goes it?" he asked, pulling an old bedquilt up over his knees and tucking it well around her.

"Fine, daddy!" she answered, squeezing his arm in both her mittened hands and snuggling up to him like a contented kitten."  I think now it's the nicest school in the world, and I like it better and better every day."

"Got a good report this week?"

"Yes, I haven't missed a single word in spelling. Mrs. Clelling had to show me nearly two hours about borrowing in subtraction, but I don't have any more trouble with it now, and I had a longer list of adjectives on my language-paper than anybody else in the class."

There was a look of pride in the old farmer's weather-beaten face. He had had little education himself. He had barely learned to read and write in the few short terms he had been able to attend school when he was a boy. He couldn't have told an adjective from any other part of speech, and his wonder at her amount of learning was all the greater on that account. He patted her hand affectionately. "That's right! That's right!" he exclaimed. "The family's dependin' on you, Puss, to do us all credit." Then he began repeating what she had heard a hundred times before. He never failed to tell her the same story as they jogged homeward every Friday night and back again the following Monday morning. She had heard it so often that it sounded in her ears like the familiar refrain of an old song to which she need pay no heed. She only waited patiently until he had finished.

"The older children didn't have no chance when they was young like you. We were too far away from the public schools to send 'm except just a spell spring and fall, and we couldn't afford the pay schools. but after we moved up here and Marthy got married and Tom and Hilliard was big enough to do for 'emselves and getting good wages, times was easier. Ma says to me, 'We'll give the baby a fair start in the world, anyhow,' and I says, 'she'll have the best diplomy that Lloydsboro Seminary can give if I have to carry her there and home again on my back every day till she gets it.'"

There was much more in the same strain to which Magnolia listened, waiting for her turn to speak, as one would wait for an alarm clock to run down when it was striking. The moment he paused she began, eagerly, "I've got something right now that mammy will be proud to see."

Diving under the quilt for the carpet-bag, she opened it and took out a book which lay on top of her clothes.

"Now put on your spectacles, daddy," she ordered, gaily, "or maybe you won’t be able to tell who it is." She slipped a photograph from the book and held it up before him. Holding the reins between his knees, he pulled off one glove, felt in various pockets, and finally fished up a pair of steel-bowed spectacles. which he slowly adjusted.

"Miss Katherine Marks took it." she explained, "and she painted it afterward, so you can tell exactly how I looked at the masquerade-party."

"If it ain't my little magnolia blossoms" exclaimed the old man, proudly, holding the beautifully tinted photograph off at arm's length for a better view. "Wherever did you get all those fine gew-gaws? Why, Puss, you're prettier than a posy. Sort of fanciful and trimmed up, but that's your little face natural as life. I should say your mammy will be proud!"

It took all the time while they were driving the next six miles for Magnolia to tell of that memorable afternoon and night. How Lloyd Sherman had taken her over to Clovercroft, and all the Marks family had helped to make her costume. How beautiful it was, and how the girls had praised it, and even published a poem about her in the Seminary Star; and next day Miss Katherine had taken her picture, and the day after that had sent for her to come over to her studio, and had given her a copy of it to take home.

"Seems to me as if we ought to do something nice for those people who have been so kind to you," said her father, musingly, when she had told him the whole story. "You say if it hadn't been for Miss Katherine you'd have had to miss the party. If you'd have missed that you wouldn't have had that poetry about you in the paper. I'm proud of that, Puss. Seems as if my little girl is mighty popular --- a sort of celebrity, to get into the paper. I'd like to show that young lady that I appreciate what she's done to make you happy. I wonder how she'd like a crock of your mammy's apple butter. There ain't no better apple butter in all Oldham County, and I should think she'd be glad to get it. I'll speak about it when we get home, and if your mammy's willing, I'll carry a crock of it to the young lady when I take you back to school Monday morning."

Magnolia was not sure of the propriety of such a gift, and he turned the matter over in his slow mind all the rest of the way home. They jogged along in silence, for she also was busy with her thoughts. She was thinking of another picture in the library book which she had not showed her father, It was an unmounted photograph of Lloyd Sherman which Miss Katherine had taken the year before.

She had photographed all the children who took part in the play of the "Rescue of the Princess Winsome,  and they were arranged on a panel on her studio wall. There were several of Lloyd; one at the spinning-wheel, one with her arms around Hero's neck, and one with the knight kneeling to take her hand from the old king's. But the most beautiful one of all was the one of the Dove Song. That picture hung by itself. It was just a little medallion, showing the head of the Princess with the white dove nestled against her shoulder. The fair hair with its coronet of pearls made a halo around the sweet little face, and Magnolia stood gazing at it as if it had been the picture of an angel. She had no eyes for anything else in the studio, and Miss Flora, seeing her gaze of rapt admiration, looked across at her sister and smiled significantly.

"Haven't you a copy of that you could give her, Katherine?" she asked, in a low tone. "I never saw a child's face express such wistful longing. It makes me think of some of the little waifs I have seen at Christmas time, gazing hungrily into the shop windows at the toys and bon-bons they know can never be for them."

Miss Katherine opened a table drawer, and, after searching a few minutes among the unmounted photographs it contained, took out one, regarding it critically.

"This was a trifle too light to suit me," she said, "but too good to destroy." She crossed tile room and held it out to Magnolia, who still stood gazing at its duplicate on the wall.

Such a look of rapture came into the child's face when it was finally made clear to her that she was to have the picture to keep that no one noticed the omission of spoken thanks. She was too embarrassed to say anything, but she took it as if it were something sacred.

"I suppose because Lloyd happens to be the goddess just now to whom she burns incense," said Miss Katherine when she had gone. "These little school-girl affairs are very amusing sometimes. They're so intense while they last."

Maggie could not have told why she did not show the picture of the Princess to her father. In an undefined sort of way she felt that he would look at it as be would look at the picture of any little girl, and that he would not understand that she was so much finer and better and more beautiful and different in every way from all the other girls in the world. But Corono would understand. For two days Magnolia had looked forward to the pleasure of showing it to her.

"Can't you get old Dixie out of a walk, daddy?" she exclaimed at last. "I'm mighty anxious to get home before sundown. I want to stop at Roney's with this library book, and show her the picture, too."

Aroused from his reverie the old farmer clucked to his horse, and they went bumping down the stony pike at a gait which satisfied even Maggie's impatient desire for speed.

"I reckon Roney will be mighty glad to see you," be remarked, as he stopped the horse in front of an old cabin a short distance from his own home. "She's been worse this week. You'll have half an hour yet before sundown," he added, as he turned the wheel for her to climb out of the carryall.

"I'll stay till supper-time," she called back over her shoulder, "for I have so much to tell her this week."

With the library book tucked away under the old gray shawl, she ran down the straggling path to the little whitewashed cabin.

Roney would understand. Roney had always understood things from the time they had first been neighbours on a lonely farm near Loretta. That was when Magnolia was a baby, and Corona, six years older, without a playmate and without a toy, had daily borrowed her and played with her as if she had been a great doll. It was Corono who had discovered her first tooth, and who had coaxed her to take her first step, and had taught her nearly everything she knew, from threading a needle and tying a knot, to spelling out the words on the tombstones in the nuns' graveyard. Corono could often tell what she was thinking about, even before she said a word. She was the only one at home to whom Magnolia ever mentioned the Princess.

Several years before the two families had moved away together from the old place. In that time Corono's mother had died, and her father had become so crippled with rheumatism that he could no longer manage to do the heavy work on the farm he had rented. They were glad to accept their old neighbour's offer of an empty cabin on his place. After that, when Corono was not at the farmhouse helping Mrs. Budine with her cleaning or sewing or pickle-making, Magnolia was at the cabin, following at the little housekeeper's very heels, as she went about her daily tasks. But now for several months Corona had been barely able to drag from one room to another. Whether it was a fall she had had in the early summer which injured her back, or whether it was some disease of the spine past his skill to discover, the doctor from the crossroads could not decide.

Her father had to be housekeeper now, and they would have had meagre fare oftentimes, had not a generous share of every pie and pudding baked in the Budine kitchen found its way to their table.

The weeks would have been almost unbearably monotonous to Corono after Magnolia started to school had she not looked forward to the Friday, when her return meant the bringing of a new library book, and another delightfully interesting chapter of her life at the seminary.

These glimpses into a world so different from her own gave her something to think about all week, as she dragged wearily about, trying to help her father in his awkward struggles with the cooking and cleaning. She thought about them at night, too, when the pain in her back kept her awake. Betty and Lloyd and Allison, Kitty and Elise  and Katie Mallard, were as real to her as they were to Maggie. They would have stared in astonishment could they have known that every week a sixteen-year-old girl, whom they had never seen, and of whom they had barely heard, was waiting to ask a dozen eager questions about them.

Maggie ran in without knocking, bringing such a breath of fresh air and fresh interest with her that Corona's face brightened instantly. She was lying on the bed with a shawl thrown over her.

"I've been listening for you for more than an hour," said Corono, propping herself up on her elbow. "I thought the time never would pass.  I counted the ticking of the clock, and then I tried to see how much of Betty's play I could repeat. I've read it so many times this week that I know it nearly all by heart."

She picked up the book which lay beside her on the bed. It was the library copy of "The Rescue of the Princess Winsome;" which Maggie had brought to her the previous Friday. It had been in such constant demand since the opening of school that she had been unable to obtain it earlier.

Maggie, about to plunge into an account of her Hallowe'en experiences, checked herself as Corono winced with pain and her face grew suddenly white. "What's the matter?" she asked, sympathetically. "Do you feel very bad?"

To her astonishment Corona buried her face in her pillow to hide the tears that were trickling down her cheeks, and began to sob.

"I'll run get mammy," said the frightened child, who had never seen Corono give way to her feelings in such fashion before.

"No, don't I" she sobbed. "I'll be all right --- in a minute. I'm just nervous --- from the pain --- I haven't slept much --- lately!"

Maggie sat motionless, afraid to make any attempt at consolation, even so much as patting her cheek with her plump little hand. Roney was the one who had always comforted her. She did not know what to do, now that their positions were suddenly reversed. She was relieved when Roney presently wiped her eyes and said, with an attempt at cheerfulness, "There! You never saw me make a baby of myself before! Did you! But I couldn't help it. Sometimes when it gets this way I wish I could die. But I've just got to keep on living for daddy's sake. I don't suppose any one ever told you, and you couldn't understand unless you knew.

"It's this way. My mother's family never wanted her to marry daddy, and they disowned her when she did, because he wasn't educated and rich and all that, as they were. They never spoke to her afterward, but when my grandfather came to die, I reckon he was sorry for the way he'd done, for he wanted to send for her. It was too late, though. She had died that spring. Then he tried to make it up in a way, by being good to me, and he left me an annuity. I can't explain to you just what that is, but every year as long as I live his lawyer is to pay me some money. It isn't much, but it is all that daddy and I have had to live on since he hasn't been able to work. When I die the money will stop coming, so I feel that I must keep on living even when every breath is agony, as it is sometimes. I don't think I can stand it much longer. There are days when I just have to grit my teeth and say I won't give up! I will hang on for poor daddy's sake. Sometimes I believe that is all that keeps me alive."

She stopped abruptly, seeing the tears of distress in Maggie's eyes, and made an attempt to laugh.

"There!" she exclaimed. "Now that I've poured out all my troubles and eased my mind, I feel better. Tell me about the girls. What have they been doing this week?"

Much relieved, Maggie produced the photograph of herself, and began an enthusiastic account of her Hallowe'en experiences. She began with the visit to Clovercroft, and as she described the handsomely furnished music-room, with its luxurious rugs and grand piano. and the priceless pictures that had been brought from over the sea, its lace curtains and white tiled hearth and andirons that shone like gold, it seemed to her that the little cabin had never looked so bare. Its chinked walls and puncheon floor stood out in pitiful contrast. The only picture in the room was an unframed chrome tacked above the mantel.

As she described the masquerade frolic, she contrasted Roney's lonely shut-in life with her own and the other girls' at the seminary. A realization of its meagreness and emptiness stole over her till she could hardly keep the tears back. A great longing sprang up in her warm little heart to do something that would compensate as far as possible for all that she had missed. Acting on that impulse, as she reached the climax of her story and drew out the cherished photograph of the Princess, she thrust it into Roney's hand, saying, hurriedly, "Here, you can have it, Roney. I'd rather you would have it than me."

Corona held the picture eagerly, studying every detail of the beautiful little medallion. The fair hair with its coronet of pearls, the white dove nestled against her shoulder, as she had held it when she sang "Flutter and fly, flutter and fly, bear him my heart of gold." --- all seemed doubly attractive now with the play fresh in her mind. Besides, it was the most beautiful picture she had ever seen in all the sixteen years of her lonely, unsatisfied life.

The intuition that always helped her to understand her little friend made her understand now in a way that the gift meant a sacrifice, and she exclaimed, impulsively, " Oh, Maggie! I don't feel as if I ought to take it from you. You keep it, and just lend it to me once in awhile."

"No, I want you to have it," said Maggie, drawing the old shawl up around her. "Goodness me! It's getting dark. I'll have to run," and before Corono could make another protest she rushed away.

As she ran along the path that crossed the pasture between the cabin and the farmhouse, there was a tremulous smile on her face, but the faint twilight also showed tears in her eyes. The smile was for the joy she knew she had given Roney, but the tears were for herself. Nobody knew how much of a sacrifice she had made in giving up the picture of the Princess. Even Roney had not guessed how great it was. But she had no regret next morning when she came back to the cabin. Roney greeted her eagerly.

"Look!" she cried, pointing to the old wooden clock which stood on the mantel. "I didn't have a frame to put the picture in, and I was afraid it would get spoiled without glass over it. While I was looking around the room wondering what to do, I happened to notice that it was the same size as the pendulum. Daddy lifted it down for me, and I fastened the picture on that. So there it is all safe and sound behind the glass door, and I can see it from any part of the room.

"And, oh, Maggie, you don't know how it helped me last night. It made the play seem so real to me. As I lay here watching the pendulum, it stopped saying 'Tick tock, tick tock.' It seemed to me that the Princess was looking straight at me, saying, instead, 'For love --- will find --- a way!'  Then I knew that she meant me. That love would help me bear the pain for daddy's sake; that my living along as bravely as I could was like spinning the golden thread, and that I mustn't think about the great skein that the weeks and months were piling up ahead for me to do; I must just spin a minute at a time. I can stand the pain when I count it with the pendulum. Even when the fire died down and I couldn't see her any longer, I could hear her saying it over and over, 'For love --- will find --- a way.' And I lay there in the dark and pretended that I was a Princess, too, spinning love's golden thread, and that my dove was a little white prayer that I could send fluttering up to God, asking him to help me find the way to be brave and patient, and to hang on to life as long as I possibly can for daddy's sake."

Little did the Shadow Club dream that day how far their shadow-selves were reaching. But Betty's song brought comfort and courage for many an hour into Roney's lonely life, and the greatest solace in her keenest suffering was the smiling face of the Princess, swaying back and forth upon the pendulum.

 As for the role of the cemetery in teaching Magnolia her letters, it is a motif that appears earlier in the “Little Colonel” series inChapter V of the “The Little Colonel’s House Party” when Betty bids farewell to her hometown as she sets off for Lloydsboro Valley:

Good-bye, dear old church," she said softly to herself.

They drove around the corner of the little neglected graveyard, where the headstones gleamed white in the morning sunshine, above the dark, glossy green of the myrtle vines. How peaceful and quiet it seemed. The dew still shone in tiny beads on the cobwebs, spun across the grass, a spicy smell of cedar boughs floated across the road to them, and a dove called somewhere in the distant woodlands. As they passed, a wild rose hung over the gray pickets of the straggling old fence, and waved a spray-of pale pink blossoms to them.

"Good-bye," she whispered, turning for one more look at the familiar headstones. They were like old friends; she had wandered among them so often. One held her gaze an instant, with its well-known marble hand, pointing the place in a marble book in which was carved one text. How often she had spelled the words, pointing out the deeply carven letters to Davy: "Be ye also ready."

She had a vague feeling that the headstones knew she was going away and would miss her. "Goodbye," she said to them, too, nodding the white sunbonnet gravely. It seemed a solemn thing to start on such a journey. After leaving the church there was only one more place to bid good-bye, and that was the schoolhouse sitting through its lonely vacation time in a deserted playground, gone to weeds.

We believe the inspiration for both graveyard scenes was Annie Fellows Johnston’s own childhood, based on this passage from Chapter III of her autobiography, “The Land of the Little Colonel:”

Outside in the churchyard the tombstones were like old friends, we wandered among them so often, reading the epitaphs. There was one on which was sculptured a marble hand pointing to a text in a marble book: "Be ye also ready." On moonlight nights I could see the shaft from my bedroom window, but it never seemed gruesome or strange to live within sight of the churchyard. I always felt that Gray's-elegy must have been written there.

For a glimpse of Annie Fellows Johnston’s hometown and the church that she attended, visit The Cuckoo’s Nest

More older views of Loretto:

The Convent of Loretto, Kentucky

Loretto Academy

Via Matris and Father Nerincx' Log Cabin


Research by Donna Russell