When All You Can Do Is Crawl

This folktale about how a piece of land came to be called Crawls has stayed with me since I first read it three years ago. I have always enjoyed stories of how places are named, but this one left an impression thanks to its purposeful and determined heroine crawling, against all the odds, to get what she wanted. I have copied out the original tale, which can be read here.

By Photos By Ginny from Pexels
Part One

Her servant paused at the sound of shuffling. Elizabeth didn’t hear the noise and carried on, glancing back only when she realised she had lost her light. Behind her, it bobbed along until it was back by her side and she could make out the outline of her servant. Sally’s face was partly visible behind the orange glow, her small brown eyes darting side to side while her mouth stayed frozen in a frown. Elizabeth smiled at this look of nervous resignation.

‘I ‘eard sommat,’ Sally said peering into the darkness. Leaves crunched and a twig snapped nearby. ‘There,’ she hissed. Elizabeth didn’t stop to consider the noise but carried on crawling. Steadily, she covered the ground, one hand and opposite knee, then the other hand and knee. Repeat. 

‘It’s just a badger or fox,’ Elizabeth said, repositioning her hand as it made contact with a pebble. 

‘I wunna be so sure, like,’ Sally said. ‘Thems more frittenin to be seen out at night than brocks and the fox.’ The wind picked up and Sally forgot the ghosts as she struggled to keep the torch lit. They had reached the corner of the field forcing Elizabeth to stop as she went through her mental map of her father’s land. 

‘Why dunna yo just do this field?’ Sally said. ‘I’m sure yore father will think it mighty grand to ‘ave scrawled round all this.’ 

‘No,’ Elizabeth said, staring straight ahead. ‘I only get what I crawl around so I am not just going to do this field.’ She tugged at a strand of loose hair that swished across her face.

‘Yo canna do this all night.’

As if spurred on by this declaration, Elizabeth continued crawling until she got to the gate. She pushed it open and crawled into the next field. 

‘There are sheep in here, Sally,’ she said, ‘so please make sure the gate is securely shut. It will not do to lose the sheep.’

The light bobbed behind her as light rain glazed everything it found and Elizabeth tuned out her servant’s well-meant grumbling. Instead her mind took her back to the person whose introduction only a month ago changed her destiny.

————–

It was the evening of the feast that her father always held for his tenants and the hall was crowded with polished faces and scrubbed clothes. Peasants and lower nobility muddled together over large cuts of roast meat and jugs of mead. It was one of Elizabeth’s favourite days of the Christmas festivities and she was immersed in her role as lady of the house when an unfamiliar face caught her attention.

She turned to her cousin. ‘Gwen, who is that?’ 

Gwen glanced across the room at the tall man who stood talking to two of the Hall’s farmhands. For a moment her forehead creased in concentration as she tried to place this apparition. Elizabeth suppressed a smile. She knew that Gwen prided herself on knowing everyone in the area and was amused she had found someone whose name and background were flummoxing her.

Gwen’s forehead cleared and she smiled. ‘I believe he is one of the sons of Sir Robert of Turley Manor… A younger son,’ she added as Elizabeth continued to watch him, ‘not the one that is going to inherit the estate; small as it is.’

‘Let’s go speak to him,’ Elizabeth said.

‘We can’t just go and speak to him,’ Gwen spluttered. 

‘Why not? He is in my house.’

‘We don’t know him.’

‘That is why we should go and speak to him. Get to know this curious man who chooses to speak to the labourers over his peers.’

‘That is probably why we shouldn’t.’ Gwen looked around as if for support but Elizabeth dragged her across the room, around tables being cleared to make space for dancing, over the reeds that were still filling the air with a hint of herbs. They stood near the small huddle which included this younger son of Sir Robert’s and suddenly Elizabeth’s confidence left her. She hovered nearby brushing imaginary creases out of the soft red velvet on her bodice and adjusting the pearls that clung to her neck. Gwen glanced up at her puzzled by the abrupt change in countenance. One of the labourers saw them, nodded obsequiously, and the conversation stopped as the other men turned in their direction. Elizabeth’s confidence surged back. Her hand dropped to her side and she stepped into the circle, Gwen her nervous shadow.

For the rest of the evening Elizabeth and George, the younger son with no inheritance, didn’t leave each other’s side; dancing and talking the evening away. She had never met someone as interesting as him before. He had stories of travelling through France and clashes of war. He was thoughtful and honest, not sharing daring wartime wonders that the heralds sing of but of a cold reality that sang of loneliness, boredom and sudden fear-filled excitement. Most importantly, he listened to her. No one listened to her. Even her father, who many thought odd for how much emphasis he put on her education, would not listen to her ideas for the estate. But here was someone who not only listened to her ideas but encouraged them. Elizabeth drank up his presence like one who had found water in a desert. 

Letter after letter accompanied the final days of Advent and beyond into January still they wrote to each other until one day he wrote a note that took her breath away. She didn’t hesitate and wrote back immediately. Then followed the first argument she had ever had with her father.

‘I absolutely forbid it!’ Sir William had said.

Elizabeth’s ears rang with the thud he had made on the table and she tried to ignore the servant scurrying near him to pick up the fallen goblet.

‘But Papa, if you only knew him I know you would change your mind,’ she said.

‘Know him! Of course I know him – the son of a poor knight. Barely an inheritance to pass around and what there is is going to his older brother.’

‘That is what he is but not who he is. Papa, I really do believe you would be impressed with what he has achieved for himself. He has been promoted to knight bachelor and plans —‘

‘Knight bachelor,’ Sir William sniffed, ‘serving under another’s banner. Hardly an impressive feat.’

‘But Papa, he has ideas and is clever and I know would bring so much to the estate —‘

‘Your innocence is a blessing, Elizabeth, yet, you’re so green.’ He stopped and took a breath before continuing.

‘Men like Sir George, with no income or anything to offer, are only interested in what you can provide. As the heiress to all that I have achieved, I have a duty to make sure you do not fall prey to a fortune hunter.’

‘Sir George is not a fortune hunter,’ Elizabeth said. ‘He gave all his spare money to the poor during Advent because he does not value excessive wealth. He…he helped one of the tenants on his father’s land re-roof their cottage. These are not the acts of a selfish person.’

‘Elizabeth, did you see him do this for yourself?’

‘Well, no. Of course not but —‘

‘He said those things to fool you.’

Elizabeth slumped in her chair, her head low and her shoulders hunched. 

‘You do not know anything of this world, child,’ Sir William said. ‘If only your mother was still here.’

She looked up at him and felt fury at the tears that burned her eyes. ‘If my mother was still here, she would agree with me.’

His fist hit the table, the goblet wobbled frantically, and the roar that he let out pinned Elizabeth to her chair. ‘That is enough! I have given you my answer and it is no. You will not marry him.’

Part Two

Three days later, Elizabeth set out on her daily walk. She was halfway around the gardens when a shout, coming from the direction of the Hall, caught her attention. Sally was rushing along the path, waving her hand frantically at Elizabeth. 

Hall, Tudor, Medieval
From Nicole Stout’s private collection

‘Well? Did you find out anything?’ Elizabeth said as she ran up to Sally. Sally was breathing heavily from running and at last managed, ‘Yes, that I did.’

‘And?’

Three more deep breaths and finally Sally could talk unimpeded. 

‘I bin to Ludlow as yo ast but all I could find was that they had bin late payin’ the butcher.’

‘That’s it? A late payment?’

Sally nodded and Elizabeth sighed, trying to control her disappointment.

‘But then I wuz going through Bromfield and I saw Anne Evans, who ‘elps ‘ere on washin’ day. She had jus’ bin to market and had such a bundle of potatoes. Quite a surprise gi’en it’s January.’

‘Sally, did she say anything about Sir George?’

‘Yes, tha’s what I’m tryin’ to tell you.’

Elizabeth bit her lip.

‘As I wuz sayin’, she’s one for spinnin’ street yarn and said she’d ‘eard of a deed that Sir George had done.’

Sally paused and adjusted her cap, carefully tucking a strand of dark hair back into place. Elizabeth stared at her, resisting the urge to tap her foot. 

‘Which was…?’

‘Which were what?’

‘What had Sir George done?’

‘He had mixed the hoof of old Mr Chuff’s in Bromfield.’

‘Do you mean fixed the roof?’

‘Oh…that there does make more sense. ‘tis often hard to know what Anne says…she does so snoffle.’

‘But Mr Chuff isn’t on their land.’

‘Yes, that’s why them’s spoken on it. Turned up with all the rushes and thetchin’-pegs and all. Just because he had ‘eard him vexin’ about it leakin’.’

Elizabeth glanced at the Hall. Sunlight shone on the windows hiding any spying eyes so she turned and beckoned her servant to join her on her walk. 

‘Anne said ‘er hadna bin surprised because Sir George were known fur such acts of kindness,’ Sally said.

Elizabeth beamed at Sally, ‘Thank you Sally. You have eased my mind. I knew I hadn’t misjudged him. I will marry him as I promised. I gave him my word and I will not go back on it, no matter what my Papa says.’

‘Oh Miss, yo shanna go against yore father, like. He said he wunna leave yo anything if yo did.’

Elizabeth waved her hand, ‘So what if he does. Sir George is capable and well-regarded and I can make do with less.’ 

Sally wrung her hands. ‘M’dear Miss, please dunna go at it holus-bolus. Bein’ poor is nought sommat to look for. Dunna be ticed with romantic ideas of living in a craitchety cottage.’

Elizabeth laughed, ‘It won’t come to that, Sally. Once we are married, Papa will come around. He will find it easier to forgive than to give permission.’

She tapped her finger to her lip as she thought. ‘We must wait until we are married so it will have to be a quiet affair. Sir George has spoken to a priest who is happy to do the vows so all we need is a witness each.’ She looked intently at Sally who took an involuntary step back. 

‘I canna do such a dog’s leave! I plead pardon but without yore father knowin’, it would be more than my life’s worth,’ Sally exclaimed, looking around as if worried the trees might be listening.

‘But there is no one else I can ask,’ Elizabeth said, the despair edging through her voice.  Sally looked at the ground, her hands bunched together and shook her head again.  Elizabeth sighed. ‘I’m sorry, Sally. You’re right; it is too much to ask.’ She bit her lip, her mind whirling through her options. Finally, she agreed that she would speak to her father the night before her wedding. Elizabeth’s chest tightened at the relief on Sally’s face. 

That is how she found herself, on the night before her wedding, crawling around muddy fields. Her hands burned with cold, her knees bruised despite the leather breeches she wore. Sally passed her a chunk of bread and Elizabeth took it with muddy hands, tearing at it with her teeth as she crawled. Soil crunched against her teeth as it mingled with the bread she chewed but she didn’t care.

She also didn’t stop crawling. The sun had not yet risen but she could see that the darkness had dissolved from the horizon and a soft glow emanated now like an advance party marching to warn of the sun’s approach.

Determination and cold fury had spurred her on throughout the night, her father’s face, red and bloated with rage, never far from her mind.

‘I am sure yore father never meant for yo to take his words t’heart,’ Sally said (not for the first time).

‘You mean you don’t think I am headstrong who must take her own way?’ Elizabeth said, her tone betraying the sardonic smile on her lips. The rain had stopped hours earlier and now the frosted grass crunched under her weight.

‘Well, that be as it may, I dunna think he meant for yo to go scrawling all around the fields all night.’

‘He said…of all his broad lands…’ Elizabeth struggled for breath as she crawled up a small but steep hill. ‘I should have none but what I could crawl round by morning light.’ She gasped the final sentence out as she reached the top and the far end of the field spread out before her. Through the low mist, she could just make out Oakley Park Hall beyond.

‘Yes, but just because he says it, it dunna mean he meant it.’

‘He used the word “vow”. “I vow you should have none but what you can crawl round”. I am determined that he will keep his vow just as I am determined to keep mine.’

She heard Sally sigh. She crawled on and reached the gate just as the sun sneaked over the horizon. With that she stopped and leaned against the fence, tired but elated with her achievement. Sally passed her the flask of mead and she drank heavily before pulling herself up.

‘Come on,’ Elizabeth said. ‘He is always up early and we don’t have much time before I need to be at church.’

The fire in the hall was already lit and the sudden warmth sent tingles through Elizabeth’s fingers and toes. She wiped her cheek but only managed to smear more mud across her face. Her father was sat at the table and he didn’t look up when she came in. She walked towards him, her shoes spraying mud as she went, her steps snapping at the flagstones. 

‘I did as you said, Papa, and I crawled round as much fair meadow as I could, reaching as far as Downton.’

Her father’s head jerked up and he stared at her taking in her dirty face, tangled hair, and the simple woollen dress, torn and caked with mud. His mouth fell open and he sat staring at her in stunned silence. Then he let out a fierce roar. Sally skittered towards the door. His body began to shake and he slammed his hand on the table, before letting out another roar. Elizabeth stood calmly in front of him, a small smile flickering at the edges of her mouth. 

‘You mean to tell me you crawled all night around as much meadow as you could because I said if you did you could keep it?’

‘Yes, Papa.’

He sat back and his eyes sparkled with cunning mischief, ‘How am I to believe this? You might have simply arisen early and rolled in some mud.’

‘Sally was with me the whole time.’

A stammer and stutter came from behind her and Elizabeth saw her father absorb Sally’s crumpled appearance. Sir William threw back his head and let out another roar of laughter. Elizabeth allowed her smile to grow.

‘You have my brave spirit, I’ll grant you that!’ he said, his face beaming in delight. ‘You can keep the land you crawled around. In fact, I will go further,’ he said pointing a finger at her, ‘and won’t disinherit you. And if you insist on it, you can marry this impoverished knight of yours.’

Elizabeth smiled, ‘Thank you, Papa.’ 

He waved her smiles away, ‘Yes, yes. You earned it my clever daughter.’ He stood up and took her arm. ‘Come, we don’t have much time if you are to be cleaned up. And I must find my best doublet and cap in order to escort you to the church.’

As they waited for the horses to be brought to the front door, Sir William gazed across his lands. ‘You crawled across all that.’ 

‘All that to Downton.’ Sir William shook his head and laughed again. ‘They’ll say I’ve gone mad.’ ‘Maybe,’ Elizabeth grinned, ‘but it will make a great story.’

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