Written by Clara Dillingham Pierson
When the twenty little Mud Turtles broke their egg-shells one hot summer day, and poked their way up through the warm sand in which they had been buried, they looked almost as much alike as many raindrops do. The Mother Turtle who was sunning herself on the bank nearby, said to her friends, “Why! There are my children! Did you ever see a finer family? I believe I will go over and speak to them.”
Most of the young Mud Turtles crawled quickly out of the sand and broken shells, and began drying themselves in the sunshine. One slow little fellow stopped to look at the broken shells, stubbed one of his front toes on a large piece and then sat down until it should stop aching. “Wait for me!” he called out to his brothers and sisters. “I’m coming in a minute.”
The other little Turtles waited, but when his toe was comfortable again and he started toward them, he met a very interesting Snail and talked a while with him. “Come on,” said the Biggest Little Turtle. “Don’t let’s wait any longer. He can catch up.”
So they sprawled along until they came to a place where they could sit in a row on an old log, and they climbed onto it and sat just close enough together and not at all too close. Then the Slow Little Turtle came hurrying over the sand with a rather cross look in his eyes and putting his feet down a little harder than he needed to—quite as though he were out of patience about something. “Why didn’t you Turtles wait for me?” He grumbled. “I was coming right along.”
Just then the Mother Turtle came up. “Good morning,” she said. “I believe you are my children?”
The little Mud Turtles looked at each other and didn’t say a word. This was not because they were rude or bashful, but because they did not know what to say. And that, you know, was quite right, for unless one has something worth saying, it is far better to say nothing at all.
She drew a long Mud Turtle breath and answered her own question. “Yes,” she said, “you certainly are, for I saw you scrambling out of the sand a little while ago, and you came from the very place where I laid my eggs and covered them during the first really warm nights this year. I was telling your father only yesterday that it was about time for you to hatch. The sun has been so hot lately that I was sure you would do well.”
The Mother Turtle stretched her head this way and that until there was hardly a wrinkle left in her neck-skin, she was so eager to see them all. “Why are you not up here with your brothers and sisters?” she asked suddenly of the Slow Little Turtle, who was trying to make a place for himself on the log.
“They didn’t wait for me,” he said. “I was coming right along but they wouldn’t wait. I think they are just as mea——”
The Mother Turtle raised one of her forefeet until all five of its toes with their strong claws were pointing at him. She also raised her head as far as her upper shell would let her. “So you are the one,” she said. “I thought you were when I heard you trying to make the others wait. It is too bad.”
She looked so stern that the Slow Little Turtle didn’t dare finish what he had begun to say, yet down in his little Turtle heart he thought, “Now they are going to catch it!” He was sure his mother was going to scold the other Turtle children for leaving him behind. He wanted to see what they would do, so he looked out of his right eye at the ten brothers and sisters on that side, and out of his left eye at the nine brothers and sisters on that side. He could do this very easily, because his eyes were not on the front of his head like those of some people, but one on each side.
“I have raised families of young Turtles every year,” said the Mother Turtle. “The first year I had only a few children, the next year I had more, and so it has gone—every year a few more children than the year before—until now I never know quite how many I did have. But there is always one Slow Little Turtle who lags behind and wants the others to wait for him. That makes him miss his share of good things, and then he is quite certain to be cross and think it is somebody else’s fault.”
The Slow Little Turtle felt the ten brothers and sisters on his right side looking at him out of their left eyes, and the nine brothers and sisters on his left side looking at him out of their right eyes. He drew in his head and his tail and his legs, until all they could see was his rounded upper shell, his shell side-walls, and the yellow edge of his flat lower shell. He would have liked to draw them in too, but of course he couldn’t do that.
“I did hope,” said the Mother Turtle, “that I might have one family without such a child in it. I cannot help loving even a slow child who is cross, if he is hatched from one of my eggs, yet it makes me sad—very, very sad.”
“Try to get over this,” she said to the Slow Little Turtle, “before it is too late. And you,” she added, turning to his brothers and sisters, “must be patient with him. We shall not have him with us long.”
“What do you mean?” asked the Slow Little Turtle, peeping out from between his shells. “I’m not going away.”
“You do not want to,” said his mother, “but you will not be with us long unless you learn to keep up with the rest. Something always happens to pond people who are too slow. I cannot tell you what it will be, yet it is sure to be something. I remember so well my first slow child—and how he—” She began to cry, and since she could not easily get her forefeet to her eyes, she sprawled to the pond and swam off with only her head and a little of her upper shell showing above the water.
The Slow Little Turtle was really frightened by what his mother had said, and for a few days he tried to keep up with the others. Nothing happened to him, and so he grew careless and made people wait for him just because he was not quite ready to go with them, or because he wanted to do this or look at that or talk to some other person. He was a very trying little Turtle, yet his mother loved him and did not like it when the rest called him a Land Tortoise. It is all right, you know, to be a Land Tortoise when your father and mother are Land Tortoises, and these cousins of the Turtles look so much like them that some people cannot tell them apart. That is because they forget that the Tortoises live on land, have higher back shells, and move very, very slowly. Turtles live more in the water and can move quickly if they want. This is why other Turtles sometimes make fun of a slow brother by calling him a Land Tortoise.
One beautiful sunshiny afternoon, when most of the twenty little Turtles were sitting on a floating log by the edge of the pond, their mother was with some of her friends on another log nearby. She looked often at her children, and thought how handsome their rounded-up back shells were in the sunshine with the little red and yellow markings showing on the black. She could see their strong little pointed tails too, and their webbed feet with a stout claw on each toe. She was so proud that she could not help talking about them. “Is there any sight more beautiful,” she said, “than a row of good little Turtles?”
“Yes,” said a fine old fellow who was floating near her, “a row of their mothers!” He was a Turtle whom she had never liked very well, but now she began to think that he was rather agreeable after all. She was just noticing how beautifully the skin wrinkled on his neck, when she heard a splash and saw two terrible great two-legged animals wading into the pond from the shore.
“Boys!” she cried, “Boys!” And she sprawled off the end of her log and slid into the water, all her friends following her. The Biggest Little Turtle saw these great animals coming toward him. He sprawled off the end of his log and slid into the water, and all his brothers and sisters followed him except the Slow Little Turtle. “Wait for me,” he said. “I’m coming in just a——”
Then one of these great animals stooped over and picked him up, and held him bottom side uppermost and rapped on that side, which was flat; and on the other side, which was rounded; and stared at him with two great eyes. Next the other great animal took him and turned him over and rapped on his shells and stared at him. The poor Slow Little Turtle drew in his head and tail and legs and kept very, very still. He wished that he had side-pieces of shell all around him now, instead of just one on each side between his legs. He was thinking over and over, “Something has happened! Something has happened!” And he knew that back in the pond his mother would be trying to find him and could not.
The boys carried him to the edge of the meadow and put him down on the grass. He lay perfectly still for a long, long time, and when he thought they had forgotten about him he tried to run away. Then they laughed and picked him up again.
It was not until the sun went down that the boys let the Slow Little Turtle go. Then he was very, very tired, but he wanted so much to get back to his home in the pond that he started at once by moonlight. This was the first time he had ever seen the moon, for, except when they are laying eggs, Turtles usually sleep at night. He was not quite sure which way he should go, and if it had not been for the kindness of the Tree Frog he might never have seen his brothers and sisters again. You know the Tree Frog had been carried away when he was young, before he came to live with the meadow people, so he knew how to be sorry for the Slow Little Turtle.
The Tree Frog hopped along ahead to show the way, and the Turtle followed until they reached a place from which they could see the pond. “Good night!” said the Tree Frog. “You can find your way now.”
“Good night!” said the Turtle. “I wish I might help you some time.”
“Never mind me,” said the Tree Frog. “Help somebody else and it will be all right.” He hopped back toward his home, and for a long time afterward the Turtle heard his cheerful “Pukr-r-rup! Pukr-r-rup!” sounding over the dewy grass and through the still air. At the edge of the pond the Slow Little Turtle found his nineteen brothers and sisters sound asleep. “I’m here!” he cried joyfully, poking first one and then another of them with his head.
The Biggest Little Turtle moved without awakening. “I tell you I’m not hungry,” he murmured. “I don’t want to get up.” And again he fell fast asleep.
So the Slow Little Turtle did not disturb him, but cuddled inside his two shells and went to sleep also. He was so tired that he did not awaken until the sun was high in the sky. When he did open his eyes, his relatives were sitting around looking at him, and he remembered all that had happened before he slept. “Does my shell look very bad?” he cried. “I wish I could see it. Oh, I am so glad to get back! I’ll never be slow again, Never! Never!”
His mother came and leaned her shell lovingly against his. “If you will only learn to keep up with your brothers and sisters,” she said “I shall not be sorry that the boys carried you off.”
“You just wait and see,” said the Slow Little Turtle. And he was as good as his word. After that he was always the first to slip from the log to the water if anything scared them; and when, one day, a strange Turtle from another pond came to visit, he said to the Turtles who had always lived there, “Why do you call that young fellow with the marked shell ‘The Slow Little Turtle?’ He is the quickest one in his family.”
The pond people looked at each other and laughed. “That is strange!” they said. “After this we will call him ‘The Quick Little Turtle.'”
This made him very happy, and when, once in a while, somebody forgot and by mistake called him “The Quick Slow Little Turtle,” he said he rather liked it because it showed that a Turtle needn’t keep his faults if he did have them.