Hide & Seek

Allison Hay © A lady with parasol in garden Illustration: Shutterstock


She was surprisingly clever at finding my hiding places, but would Miss Hart outstay her short-lived predecessors?

Summer 1815

I crouched down and shrank against the shallow wall, the rough stones tickling my ear. Would she find me? I held my breath as a tiny woodlouse appeared from the crumbly channel between the rocks. Was he enjoying the summer sun?

I held my hand out to allow him to crawl into my palm. With any luck he’d stay there until I got inside; he could go in my dolls’ house, a companion for the spider I’d placed there this morning.

His little face looked so comical that I had to bite my lip hard to stop myself from laughing.

“There you are, Sophia,” my new governess said, peering over the edge of the ha-ha. “I was wondering where you had got to! Come on – time for lessons.”

“However did you find me, Miss Hart?” I demanded.

I was lying in the ditch of the ha-ha, concealed by the sudden drop in the land. The ideal hiding place – or so I’d thought.

Miss Hart’s predecessor had taken ages to find me when I’d hidden here before; she’d become rather vexed and anxious while looking for me, and when she’d finally discovered my hiding place, had scolded me and reported my misconduct to Papa.

Miss Hart looked more friendly and altogether a much nicer person. Hopefully I’d get on better with her than with the previous governess – actually, all the previous governesses. There had been rather a lot of them.

“I used to hide in the dip of a ha-ha, just like you, when I was a little girl,” Miss Hart said, her friendly eyes twinkling.

“You had a ha-ha in your garden too?”

I was stunned. My papa had had ours installed a couple of years ago and was so proud of it, I assumed we must be one of the only families in the land with such a fine feature.

“Not in our garden,” she replied, “but in the grounds of a grand old house we sometimes visited.”

She held out her hand for me to grasp as I scrambled onto the lawn and the woodlouse took the opportunity to escape. Bother!

“I used to love playing hide and seek with my mama and my sister,” Miss Hart said brightly.

I chewed the end of one of my ringlets.

Well, I haven’t got a sister. Haven’t got a mama, either.

Miss Hart knelt down in front of me and held me tightly. No one had done that for quite a while.

“You’ve got a beautiful baby brother,” she said gently, “and your dear papa. They love you so much.”

I noticed a twig was stuck on me and tried to remove it.

“Careful of your frock,” Miss Hart said. “Don’t want to put a hole in that fine sprigged muslin, do you now?”

Indeed, I didn’t – because I remembered all too well how much trouble I’d got into with Betsy, the last time I’d torn my gown.

Miss Hart held my hand and we went back into the house.

“There’s so much to look forward to,” she said. “We’re going to visit another country and learn to speak like a native, then we might try some sketching later this afternoon.”

“How long will it take to get to another country?” I asked. “Will we stay there overnight? And what will there be to eat?” I grinned at Miss Hart and danced merrily all the way up the wide staircase.

She threw her head back and laughed, a lovely tinkly sound, like the bell Mama used to ring to summon the servants.

“We’ll be there in a flash!” she said.
And she was right. Within a short time, we were seated at the table in the school room, staring at the spinning globe.

“Stop it with your fingers, Sophia,” Miss Hart said. “Go on! Don’t be afraid!”

I put my hand out and the world juddered to a standstill.

“Can you find Italy?” Miss Hart asked.

I pointed to a large piece of land.

“Oooh, quite close! But that’s Spain. Have another go.”

I squinted at the tiny names, not entirely sure. I should have paid more attention to my lessons with the other governesses in the past; these letters were hard to fathom.

“This, then?” I hazarded, indicating a longer shape.

“Yes!” Miss Hart said. “Italy – the boot. Well done!”

“Have you ever been there?” I asked.

“No, but I’d love to.” Miss Hart’s eyes shone with excitement.

Everything progressing as it should, Miss Hart?

Papa had come in and stood straight and tall beside us.

Miss Hart stood up quickly.

“Oh, yes sir, thank you sir; all is fine.”

“Sophia doing as she is told?” he asked.

I smiled at Papa; he didn’t seem to notice, but instead left the room abruptly.

“The boot?” I reminded Miss Hart.

“Oh yes,” she said. Her eyes looked less sparkling. “Italy. A few words to get us going? Buongiorno – that’s good morning in Italian. You try.”

“Bonjano,” I attempted, yawning.

“Buongiorno,” she repeated. “Listen carefully to the sounds – and Sophia, have you been told before it is considered a little rude to yawn with your mouth open?”

I felt ashamed and pulled my focus back to the lesson.

“Sorry, Miss Hart.”

“Let’s continue,” she said. “Come stai? That means, how are you?”

“Come stai?” I parroted.

We went on in this manner for some time before Miss Hart said it was time to try some sketching.

“In the garden?” I asked, looking out at the cloudless heavenly blue.

“Why not?” she said. “Come, Sophia. We will make the most of this glorious day. Better take your bonnet.”

I briefly considered snapping that I did not intend to take my bonnet as I didn’t think there was anything wrong with freckles or being tanned from the sun, but thought better of it.

“We will have plenty of time to sit inside in the cold winter days to come,” Miss Hart pointed out.

I was pleased she thought she would still be here in the winter. The previous record for a governess in our house had been three weeks.

Once outside, we settled under a shady tree; I got out my pencils and opened my sketchbook. Such a hot day…

A few months ago, I had heard Betsy and the others in the kitchen discussing how wild I’d become. She said I’d refused to allow her to brush my hair or wash my face, and Cook said she was sick of me snatching food from the kitchen at all hours.

The injustice of these accusations cut me to the quick; admittedly, I was behaving differently from when Mama had been alive, but she had cherished me and loved me. Who cared for me now?

“And the master,” Betsy said, “he carries his grief like a cloud. Poor man – losing his wife on the same day his son came into the world.”

“Too much for any person to bear,” Cook had agreed.

I had felt very sad to realise how unhappy my papa was and resolved to try to cheer him up. I started collecting stones and rocks from the garden and used to leave them for him in unexpected places – inside his shoes and on his dining chair. I drew pictures of Mama and put them on Papa’s pillow. On occasions, I had even tried to show him my increasing family of insects that lived in the dolls’ house, but nothing had revived his good spirits. Or his interest in me…

“Sophia? Are you daydreaming?” Miss Hart frowned. “You said you wanted to come outside to sketch. If you can’t concentrate, we will have to go back.”

“Sorry, Miss Hart,” I said. “I was thinking about something else. Shall I draw some fighting? Papa says our brave soldiers are trying to defeat Napoleon.”

“Maybe the beautiful oak in the distance would be a more suitable subject to draw?” Miss Hart suggested.

I started sketching. The whole park stretched out before me, my gaze able to move seamlessly from the garden to the distant landscape. That was what the ha-ha was for. I remembered Papa telling me all about it when it was first installed.

“You’ll be able to see the entire unbroken vista,” he’d explained. “You won’t see the boundary between the garden and the estate beyond, but it will be there, to stop cattle coming into the garden. An invisible guard, if you like. An illusion. A fence to keep us safe, but out of sight.”

I took a quick peek at Miss Hart’s drawing on her sketchpad.

“Is that anyone I know?” I asked.

She coloured slightly. “No one in particular – merely a gentleman.”

The man in her picture was wearing a waistcoat similar to the one Papa often wore, but I decided not to mention this. One of my previous governesses had said I was too bold and outspoken. I had referred to her long nose one day and had asked if she had an exceptional sense of smell; she hadn’t been happy to hear my comment.

Bumble bees hovered and a light breeze made the leaves above flutter like fairy wings as we chatted and drew on this happy afternoon.

Soon, my darling baby brother appeared, carried in Betsy’s arms. I begged to have him on my lap.

Please, Betsy, may I? I promise to be so very careful…

Miss Hart offered to sit next to me on the grass, ready to offer assistance if it should be needed.

To my great joy, my brother was handed to me; I gazed into his sweet eyes as he waved his hands about and swatted at a passing fly.

“He’s smiling at you,” Miss Hart said.

My heart swelled with pride. I so wished that Papa could be here to see me holding my brother.

Later that evening, I could not sleep as it was far too hot. Creeping to my chamber window, I saw two shadowy figures below on the terrace. I put my head out. What were they saying?

I couldn’t quite hear, so climbed out of the window and clung to the ancient wisteria growing profusely in gnarled clumps. That was better. I could hear Papa talking to Miss Hart.

“I don’t know what to do with her,” Papa was saying. “She’s become quite wilful and strange, and collects myriad items from the garden – insects, feathers, rocks, pebbles and stones, bits of grass and moss sometimes – and leaves them all over the house. Have you any idea why Sophia might be behaving in this odd manner? Your predecessor said it was her professional opinion that Sophia was ungovernable.”

“Could it be,” Miss Hart said, “that she might be trying to attract your attention?”

“Never thought of that,” my father said. “But why would she feel the need? Please, I urge you to speak freely and I promise to take no offence.”

Miss Hart’s voice lowered and I could only catch a few odd words, such as “her tender age”, “her great loss” and “completely natural grief”.

I climbed further out.

Miss Hart explained to Papa that I needed boundaries, but that, like the ha-ha, the boundaries would work better if they were not too visible.

“I see what you mean,” Papa said. “When I was a child, my brother and I used to behave much better when we knew what was expected of us, but I also remember that we did not appreciate being told what to do all the time. We wanted to work some of it out for ourselves – but within the boundaries, the guidelines.”

“Exactly, sir. And I assure you, your daughter loves you very much.”

Papa didn’t speak for a while – then he cleared his throat and thanked Miss Hart.

“I appreciate your candour,” he said. “I can see now how I have neglected my duty as a father, and my understanding of Sophia’s trauma has been grossly insufficient. I may have lost my wife but I have my fine children. And Sophia grows to look more like her mother every day.”

That must be both a joy and a constant reminder of your loss, sir.

“Indeed. Admirably well put, Miss Hart. God forgive me, I have found it so hard to cope with the whole situation, I have even on occasion contemplated sending Sophia away to school.”

I was shocked to hear his admission and a gasp of surprise escaped my lips.

“Did you hear something, Miss Hart?” Papa asked, looking about.

She glanced upwards into the wisteria.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “Excuse me; I think I should retire. I suddenly feel very fatigued. Goodnight.”

It turned out she had seen me in my hiding place in the wisteria; she was in my chamber within half a minute, leaning out of the window and urging me most strongly to return to bed.

“Sophia, this will not do,” she said sternly, holding out her hand to me and pulling me inside.

My emotions broke through the floodgates; the many tears I had not shed since Mama died began to flow freely, drenching my face and Miss Hart’s shoulder.

“Oh. my darling,” she murmured. “Your father loves you very much, that is certain. And I promise things will work out, given time.”

From that night on, I began to worship Miss Hart; she was the kindest, most understanding governess I could have wished for.

Over the course of that long hot summer, the British defeated the French at Waterloo and Miss Hart continued to work her magic; she became, as I had hoped, my guide, my mentor and my friend. It was clear too that my baby brother adored her; put simply, he regarded her as his mama.

And Papa? Miss Hart’s goodness began to help his heart to heal. It would be a long process, but one which I think began that evening under the wisteria.

At the end of August my brother took his first steps and had his first birthday. I held him by the hand and showed him the ha-ha.

“Look, dearest,” I said. “This is the ha-ha. It’s only a tiny wall, see? I’m going to help you down; careful! That’s it. Shall we play hide and seek? Papa and Miss Hart are going to search for us.”

Hiding was one of my brother’s favourite occupations; he went completely wild with excitement if I peeped at him from behind the back of a chair and then disappeared.

“Maw! Maw!” he would scream.

So naturally, when I suggested hiding in the ditch of the ha-ha, he acquiesced immediately, shrieking with glee.

Shh, we don’t want to be found too easily!

We lay quite still, my arm placed tenderly around him, a few early autumnal leaves studding the grassy slope.

“Coming, ready or not!” Papa shouted from one end of the lawn.

“We will find you, have no doubt!” Miss Hart called from the other.

I was sure Miss Hart knew exactly where we were hiding, but she did not betray our secret; nor did Papa seem to hear my brother’s giggles and shrieks of “Maw! Maw!” but carried on looking energetically and calling out in a bewildered way, “Where are you two? You have found such a good hiding place, I am sure we will never discover you.”

Eventually Papa and Miss Hart jumped down the raised edge of the ha-ha and feigned amazement, then showed their genuine joy at being reunited with us.

I thought I could not be happier.

The next spring, when Papa and Miss Hart were married in the village church close to our home, I found I had been wrong. I could be happier! For Miss Hart had healed, then joined, our family. All would be well.

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Pic: Shutterstock

Allison Hay

I joined the "My Weekly" team thirteen years ago and, more recently, "The People's Friend". I love the variety of topics we cover both online and in the magazines. I manage the digital content for the brands, sharing features and information on the website, social media and in our digital newsletters.