Once upon a time there was a country where the rivers were larger, and the forests deeper, than anywhere else. Hardly any men came there, and the wild creatures had it all to themselves, and used to play all sorts of strange games with each other. The great trees, chained one to the other by thick flowering plants with bright scarlet or yellow blossoms, were famous hiding-places for the monkeys, who could wait unseen, till a puma or an elephant passed by, and then jump on their backs and go for a ride, swinging themselves up by the creepers when they had had enough. Near the rivers huge tortoises were to be found, and though to our eyes a tortoise seems a dull, slow thing, it is wonderful to think how clever they were, and how often they outwitted many of their livelier friends.
There was one tortoise in particular that always managed to get the better of everybody, and many were the tales told in the forest of his great deeds. They began when he was quite young, and tired of staying at home with his father and mother. He left them one day, and walked off in search of adventures. In a wide open space surrounded by trees he met with an elephant, who was having his supper before taking his evening bath in the river which ran close by. ‘Let us see which of us two is strongest,’ said the young tortoise, marching up to the elephant. ‘Very well,’ replied the elephant, much amused at the impertinence of the little creature; ‘when would you like the trial to be?’
‘In an hour’s time; I have some business to do first,’ answered the tortoise. And he hastened away as fast as his short legs would carry him.
In a pool of the river a whale was resting, blowing water into the air and making a lovely fountain. The tortoise, however, was too young and too busy to admire such things, and he called to the whale to stop, as he wanted to speak to him. ‘Would you like to try which of us is the stronger?’ said he. The whale looked at him, sent up another fountain, and answered: ‘Oh, yes; certainly. When do you wish to begin? I am quite ready.’
‘Then give me one of your longest bones, and I will fasten it to my leg. When I give the signal, you must pull, and we will see which can pull the hardest.’
‘Very good,’ replied the whale; and he took out one of his bones and passed it to the tortoise.
The tortoise picked up the end of the bone in his mouth and went back to the elephant. ‘I will fasten this to your leg,’ said he, ‘in the same way as it is fastened to mine, and we must both pull as hard as we can. We shall soon see which is the stronger.’ So he wound it carefully round the elephant’s leg, and tied it in a firm knot. ‘Now!’ cried he, plunging into a thick bush behind him.
The whale tugged at one end, and the elephant tugged at the other, and neither had any idea that he had not the tortoise for his foe. When the whale pulled hardest the elephant was dragged into the water; and when the elephant pulled the hardest the whale was hauled on to the land. They were very evenly matched, and the battle was a hard one.