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, close by a deep river. Under some big burdock leaves on the bank sat a duck on her nest, waiting for her young brood to hatch; she was beginning to get tired of her task, for the little ones were a long time coming out of their shells.
At length one shell cracked, and then another, and from each egg came a living creature that lifted its head and cried, "Peep, peep." "Quack, quack," said the mother, and then they all quacked as well as they could, and looked about them on every side at the large green leaves. Their mother allowed them to look as much as they liked, because green is good for their eyes.
"How large the world is," said the young ducks, when they found out how much more room they had now than when they were inside the egg-shell.
"Do you imagine this is the whole world?" asked the mother; "wait till you have seen the garden; it stretches far beyond that to the parson's field, but I have never ventured so far. Are you all out?" she continued, rising; "no, I declare, the largest egg lies there still. I wonder how long this is to last, I am quite tired of it"; and she seated herself again on the nest.
"Well, how are you getting on?" asked an old duck who paid her a visit.
"One egg is not hatched yet," said the duck, it will not break. But just look at all the others, are they not the prettiest ducklings you ever saw?"
"Let me see the egg that will not hatch," said the old duck; "I have no doubt it is a turkey's egg. I was persuaded to hatch some once and after all my care and trouble with the young ones, they were afraid of the water. I quacked and clucked, but all to no purpose. I could not get them to venture in. Let me look at the egg. Yes, that is a turkey's egg; take my advice, leave it where it is, and teach the other children to swim."
"I think I will sit on it a little while longer," said the duck. "I have sat so long already, a few days will be nothing."
"Please yourself," said the old duck, and she went away.
At last the large egg hatched, and a young one crept forth crying, "Peep, peep." It was very large and ugly. The duck stared at it, and exclaimed, "It is very large and not like the others. I wonder if it really is a turkey. We shall soon find out when we go to the water. It must go in, if I have to push it in myself."
On the next day, the weather was delightful, and the sun shone brightly on the green burdock leaves, so the mother duck took her young brood down to the water, and jumped in with a little splash. "Quack, quack," cried she, and one after another the little ducklings jumped in. The water closed over their heads, but they came up again in an instant, and swam about quite prettily with their legs paddling under them as easily as possible, and the ugly duckling swam with them.
"Oh," said the mother, "that is not a turkey; how well he uses his legs and how upright he holds himself! He is my own child, and he is not so ugly after all if you look at him properly. Quack, quack! come with me now, I will take you to the farmyard, but you must keep close to me, or you may be trodden upon; and, above all, beware of the cat."
The ducklings did as they were bid, and, when they came to the yard, the other ducks stared and said: "Look, here comes another brood, as if there were not enough already! And what a queer looking object one of them is; we don't want him here," and then one flew in and bit him in the neck.
"Let him alone," said his mother; "he is not doing any harm."
"Yes, but he is too big and ugly," said the spiteful duck, "and therefore must be turned out."
They soon got to feel at home in the farmyard; but the poor duckling that had crept out of his shell last of all and looked so ugly, was bitten and pushed and made fun of, not only by the ducks, but by all the poultry.
"He is too big," they all said, and the turkey cock, who had been born into this world with spurs, and fancied himself an emperor, puffed himself out and flew at the duckling, and became quite red in the face with passion, so that the poor little thing did not know where to go, and was quite miserable because he was so ugly and laughed at by the whole farmyard. So it went from day to day, till it got worse and worse. The poor duckling was driven away by every one; even his brothers and sisters were unkind to him, and would say: "Ah, you ugly creature, I wish that cat would get you," and his mother said she wished he had never been born. The ducks pecked him, the chickens beat him, and the girl who fed the poultry kicked him. So at last he went away, frightening the little birds in the hedge as he flew over the palings.
"They are afraid of me because I am so ugly," he said. So he closed his eyes and flew still farther, until he came out on a large moor, inhabited by wild ducks. Here he remained the whole night, feeling very tired and sorrowful.
In the morning when the wild ducks rose in the air, they stared at their new comrade. "What sort of a duck are you?" they all said, coming round him.
He bowed to them and was as polite to them as he could be, but he did not reply to their question. "You are exceedingly ugly," said the wild duck, "but that will not matter if you do not marry into our family."
Poor thing! All he wanted was to stay among the rushes, and find something to eat and drink.
After he had been on the moor two days, some men came to shoot the birds there. How they terrified the poor duckling! He hid himself among the reeds, and lay quite still, when suddenly a dog came running by him, and went to splash into the water without touching him.
"Oh," sighed the ducking, "how thankful I am for being so ugly; even a dog will not bite me."
It was late in the day before all became quiet, but even then the poor young thing did not dare to move. He waited for several hours, and then after looking carefully around him, hastened away from the moor as fast as he could. He ran over field and meadow until a storm arose and he could hardly struggle against it. Towards evening, he reached a poor little cottage. The duckling was so tired that he could go no farther; he sat down by the cottage, and then he noticed that there was a hole near the bottom of the door, large enough for him to slip through, which he did very quietly and got shelter for the night.
A woman, a tom-cat, and a hen lived in this cottage. The tom-cat whom his mistress called, "My little son," was a great favorite; he could raise his back and purr, and could even throw out sparks from his fur if it were stroked the wrong way. The hen had very short legs, so she was called "Chickie short-legs." She laid good eggs, and her mistress loved her as if she had been her own child. In the morning the strange visitor was discovered, and the tom-cat began to purr and the hen to cluck.
"What is that noise about?" said the old woman, looking around the room, but her sight was not very good; therefore, when she saw the duckling, she thought it must be a fat duck that had strayed away from home. "Oh, what a prize!" she exclaimed, "I hope it is not a drake, for then I will have some duck's eggs. I must wait and see." So the duckling was allowed to remain on trial for three weeks, but there were no eggs.
Now the tom-cat was the master of the house, and the hen was the mistress, and they always said: "We and the world," for they believed themselves to be half the world, and the better half, too. The duckling thought others might hold a different opinion on the subject, but the hen would not listen to such doubts. "Can you lay eggs?" she asked. "No." "Then have the goodness to hold your tongue." "Can you raise your back or purr, or throw out sparks?" said the tom-cat. "No." "Then you have no right to express an opinion when sensible people are speaking." So the duckling sat in a corner, feeling very low-spirited, till the sunshine and fresh air came into the room through the open door, and then he began to feel such a longing for a swim on the water, that he could not help telling the hen.
"What an absurd idea," said the hen, "you have nothing else to do, therefore you have foolish fancies. If you could purr or lay eggs, they would pass away."
"But it is delightful to swim about on the water," said the duckling, "and so refreshing to feel it close over your head, when you dive down to the bottom."
"Delightful, indeed!" said the hen; "why, you must be crazy! Ask the cat, he is the cleverest animal I know. Ask him how he would like to swim about on the water, or to dive under it, for I will not speak of my own opinion; ask our mistress the old woman, there is no one in the world more clever than she is. Do you think she would like to swim, or let the water close over her head?"
"You don't understand me," said the duckling.
"We don't understand you? Who can understand you, I wonder? Do you consider yourself more clever than the cat, or the woman? I will say nothing of myself. Don't imagine such nonsense, child, and thank your good fortune that you have been received here. Are you not in a warm room, and in society from which you may learn something? But you are a chatterer, and your company is not very agreeable. Believe me, I speak only for your good. I may tell you unpleasant truths, but that is a proof of my friendship. I advise you, therefore, to lay eggs, and learn to purr as quickly as possible."
"I believe I must go out into the world again," said the duckling.
"Yes, do," said the hen. So the duckling left the cottage, and soon found water on which he could swim and dive, but he was avoided by all the other animals because he was so ugly.
Autumn came, and the leaves in the forest turned to orange and gold; then, as winter approached, the wind caught them as they fell and whirled them in the cold air. The clouds, heavy with hail and snowflakes, hung low in the sky, and the raven stood on the ferns, crying, "Croak, croak." It made one shiver with cold to look at him. All this was very sad for the poor little duckling.
One evening, just as the sun set, amid bright clouds, there came a large flock of beautiful birds out of the bushes. The duckling had never seen any like them before. They were swans, and they curved their graceful necks, while their soft plumage shone with dazzling whiteness. They uttered a singular cry as they spread their glorious wings and flew away from those cold regions to warmer countries across the sea. As they mounted higher and higher in the air, the ugly duckling felt a strange sensation as he watched them. He whirled himself in the water like a wheel, stretched out his neck towards them, and uttered a cry so strange that it frightened himself. Could he ever forget those beautiful happy birds; and when at last they were out of sight, he dived under the water, and rose again almost beside himself with excitement. He knew not the name of these birds, nor where they had flown, but he felt towards them as he had never felt for any other bird in the world. He was not envious of these beautiful creatures, but he wished to be as lovely as they. Poor ugly creature, how gladly he would have lived even with the ducks, had they only given him encouragement. The winter grew colder and colder, he was obliged to swim about on the water to keep it from freezing, but every night the space on which he swam became smaller and smaller. At length it froze so hard that the ice in the water cracked as he moved, and the duckling had to paddle with his legs as well as he could, to keep the space from closing up. He became exhausted at last, and lay still and helpless, frozen fast in the ice.
Early in the morning, a peasant, who was passing by, saw what had happened. He broke the ice in pieces with his wooden shoe, and carried the duckling home to his wife. The warmth revived the poor little creature; but when the children wanted to play with him, the duckling thought they would do him some harm; so he started up in terror, fluttered into the milk-pan, and splashed the milk about the room. The woman clapped her hands, which frightened him still more. He flew first into the butter-cask, then into the meal-tub, and out again. What a condition he was in! The woman screamed, and struck at him with the tongs; the children laughed and screamed, and tumbled over each other, in their efforts to catch him; but luckily he escaped. The door stood open; the poor creature could just manage to slip out among the bushes, and lie down quite exhausted in the newly fallen snow.
It would be very sad, were I to relate all the misery and privations which the poor little duckling endured during the hard winter; but when it had passed, he found himself lying once more in a moor, amongst the rushes. He felt the warm sun shining, and heard the lark singing, and saw that all around was beautiful spring. Then the young bird felt that his wings were strong, as he flapped them against his sides, and rose high into the air. They bore him onwards, until he found himself in a large garden, before he well knew how it had happened. The apple trees were in full blossom, and the fragrant elders bent their long green branches down to the stream which wound round a smooth lawn. Everything looked beautiful, in the freshness of early spring. From a thicket close by, came three beautiful white swans, rustling their feathers, and swimming lightly over the smooth water. The duckling remembered the lovely birds, and felt more strangely unhappy than ever.
"I will fly to these royal birds," he exclaimed, "and they will kill me, because I am so ugly, and dare to approach them; but it does not matter: better be killed by them than pecked by the ducks, beaten by the hens, pushed about by the girl who feeds the poultry, or starved with hunger in the winter."
Then he flew to the water, and swam towards the beautiful swans. The moment they espied the stranger, they rushed to meet him with outstretched wings.
"Kill me," said the poor bird; and he bent his head down to the surface of the water, and awaited death.
But what did he see in the clear stream below? His own image; no longer a dark, gray, bird, ugly and disagreeable to look at, but a graceful and beautiful swan; and the great swans swam around the new-comer, and stroked his neck with their beaks, as a welcome.
Into the garden, presently came some little children, and they threw bread and cake into the water.
"See," cried the youngest, "there is a new one"; and the rest were delighted, and ran to their father and mother, dancing and clapping their hands, and shouting joyously. "There is another swan come, a new one!"
Then they threw more bread and cake into the water, and said: "The new one is the most beautiful of all; he is so young and pretty." And the old swans bowed their heads before him.
Then he felt quite ashamed, and hid his head under his wing; for he did not know what to do, he was so happy, and yet not at all proud. He had been persecuted and despised for his ugliness, and now he heard them say he was the most beautiful of all the birds. Even the elder tree bent down its boughs into the water before him, and the sun shone warm and bright. Then he rustled his feathers, curved his slender neck, and cried joyfully, from the depths of his heart: "I never dreamed of such happiness as this, while I was an ugly duckling."