The Ugly Duckling
I T was lovely summer weather in the country, and the golden corn, the green oats, and the haystacks in the meadows looked beautiful. On a sunny slope stood a pleasant old farmhouse, and close by, under some burdock leaves on a river bank, sat a mother duck on her nest, waiting for her eggs to hatch.
At length, one shell cracked and then another, and from each egg came a little duck, crying: "Peep! Peep!"
"Quack, quack!" said the mother duck, and they all quacked as well as they could, and looked about at the large, green leaves.
"How big the world is!" said the young ducks.
"Do you imagine this is the whole world?" asked the mother. "Wait till you see the garden! Are you all out?" she continued, rising. "No; I declare the biggest egg is here still," and she seated herself again upon her nest.
"How are you getting on?" asked an old duck who paid her a visit. "Let me see the egg that will not hatch. I have no doubt it is a turkey's egg. I hatched some, once, and the young ones would not go into the water. Take my advice and leave the egg where it is."
"I think I will sit upon it a little longer," said the mother duck.
"Please yourself," said the old duck.
At last the large egg was hatched, and a young one crept out, crying: "Peep, peep!" It was very large and ugly—quite different from the rest. The duck stared at it. "I wonder if it is a turkey," she said. "It shall go in the water, if I have to push it in."
The next day the sun shone brightly on the burdock leaves, and the mother duck took her brood to the water and jumped in. The little ducks swam about her quite prettily, and the ugly duckling swam by himself.
"He is not a turkey," said the mother duck. "How well he uses his legs! Quack, quack! Come to the barnyard with me."
The little ducks did as they were bid, and they soon got to feel at home in the barnyard, but the poor ugly duckling grew, each day, more awkward. He was bitten and pushed and made fun of by the big ducks and all the poultry. "He is too big," they said. The turkey cock, who fancied himself an emperor, because of his spurs, flew at him, quite red in the head with rage. Even his brothers and sisters drove him about; the chickens beat him, and the girl who fed the poultry kicked him. His mother told him she wished he had never been hatched; so, one day, he ran away, frightening the little birds in the hedge as he flew over.
"They are afraid of me because I am so ugly," he said, as he flew farther and came out on a large moor where the wild ducks lived.
"What sort of a duck are you?" asked the wild ducks, coming round him.
The ugly duckling bowed as politely as he could, but he felt very sad, and he did not reply.
"You are exceedingly ugly," said the wild ducks; "but that will not matter if you do not marry into our family."
After a day or so, some men came to the moor to shoot the birds there. Oh, how terrified the poor duckling was! He hid himself and lay quite still; then, looking carefully about him, he ran over field and meadow away from the moor. A storm arose, but, toward night, he reached a poor little cottage. He was too tired to go any farther, and he slipped through a hole under the door, and found a shelter for the night.
A woman, a tom-cat, and a hen lived in the cottage. The tom-cat could raise his back, and purr, and throw out sparks when he was stroked the wrong way. The hen, who was called Chickie Shortlegs, could lay very good eggs. In the morning the duckling was discovered, and the tom-cat began to purr, and the hen to cluck.
"What a prize!" said the old woman. "Now we shall have some duck-eggs." So they allowed him to remain for three days on trial, but there were no eggs.
"Can you not lay eggs?" asked the hen. "Because if you can't, have the goodness to hold your tongue."
"Can you raise your back, and purr, and throw out sparks?" asked the tom-cat. "No? Then don't talk when sensible people are speaking."
So the duckling sat in the corner, feeling very low-spirited, till the sunshine and the fresh air came into the room through the open door, and he began to have such a great longing to swim that he had to tell the hen. "I believe I must go out into the world again," said the duckling.
"Do go!" said the hen. So the duckling left the cottage, and found a place where he could swim and dive; but no other creature came near him, because he was so ugly.
Autumn came, and the leaves turned red and gold. Winter approached, and the clouds hung low in the sky—full of snowflakes; the raven stood in the ferns, crying: "Croak, croak." All this was very sad for the poor little duckling. One evening, just as the sun set, a flock of beautiful birds flew out of the bushes. They were swans, and they gave a strange cry as they spread their glorious wings, and flew toward the warm countries across the sea.
The little ugly duckling uttered a strange cry, too, as he saw them. Could he ever be as lovely as they? When they were out of sight, he dived under the water in excitement; but the weather grew colder and colder, and at last he was not able to paddle with his legs. He froze fast in the ice.
A peasant found him one morning and broke the ice, and took the duckling home to his wife. The warmth revived him, but the children wished to play with him, which frightened him. He started up in terror, fluttered into the milkpan, and splashed the milk all over the floor. He flew into the butter cask and into the meal tub, and out again. What a condition he was in! The children tried to catch him, the woman chased him with the fire-tongs, but he slipped out through the open door and laid himself down in the newly fallen snow.
So, all winter, he was cold and hungry, and sad; but one morning he knew that it was spring, for the warm sun was shining upon him, and he lay in the moor among the rushes.
The lark was singing, and the duckling felt that his wings were strong; so he flapped them against his sides and flew high into the air. He flew to a large garden, where the elder trees bent their green branches down to a stream which wound about the lawn. From a thicket came three beautiful swans. The duckling remembered them.
"I will fly to those royal birds," he said. "They will kill me for being so ugly, but that will not matter."
Then he flew toward the beautiful swans. As soon as they saw him they rushed to meet him with outstretched wings.
"Kill me!" said the poor duckling; but what did he see reflected in the water, as he bent his head? His own image—not a dark, gray bird, ugly to see—but a graceful swan; and the great swans swam round him, and stroked his neck with their beaks for a welcome!
Some little children came into the garden. "See!" they cried, clapping their hands. "A new swan has come, and he is more beautiful than any of the others!" And the old swans bowed their heads before him.
Then he felt quite ashamed and hid his head under his wing, thinking how he had once been so ugly. But the elder tree bent its boughs into the water before him, and the sun shone warm and bright. So he rustled his feathers, and curved his slender neck, and thought how wonderful it all was—that a poor little ugly duckling could be changed into a beautiful swan.