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The Ugly Duckling
It was so beautiful out on the country, it was
summer- the wheat fields were golden, the oats were green, and down
among the green meadows the hay was stacked. There the stork minced
about on his red legs, clacking away in Egyptian, which was the
language his mother had taught him. Round about the field and meadow
lands rose vast forests, in which deep lakes lay hidden. Yes, it was
indeed lovely out there in the country.
In the midst of the sunshine there stood an
old manor house that had a deep moat around it. From the walls of
the manor right down to the water's edge great burdock leaves grew,
and there were some so tall that little children could stand upright
beneath the biggest of them. In this wilderness of leaves, which was
as dense as the forests itself, a duck sat on her nest, hatching her
ducklings. She was becoming somewhat weary, because sitting is such
a dull business and scarcely anyone came to see her. The other ducks
would much rather swim in the moat than waddle out and squat under
the burdock leaf to gossip with her.
But at last the eggshells began to crack, one
after another. "Peep, peep!" said the little things, as they came to
life and poked out their heads.
"Quack, quack!" said the duck, and quick as
quick can be they all waddled out to have a look at the green world
under the leaves. Their mother let them look as much as they
pleased, because green is good for the eyes.
"How wide the world is," said all the young
ducks, for they certainly had much more room now than they had when
they were in their eggshells.
"Do you think this is the whole world?" their
mother asked. "Why it extends on and on, clear across to the other
side of the garden and right on into the parson's field, though that
is further than I have ever been. I do hope you are all hatched,"
she said as she got up. "No, not quite all. The biggest egg still
lies here. How much longer is this going to take? I am really rather
tired of it all," she said, but she settled back on her nest.
"Well, how goes it?" asked an old duck who
came to pay her a call.
"It takes a long time with that one egg," said
the duck on the nest. "It won't crack, but look at the others. They
are the cutest little ducklings I've ever seen. They look exactly
like their father, the wretch! He hasn't come to see me at all."
"Let's have a look at the egg that won't
crack," the old duck said. "It's a turkey egg, and you can take my
word for it. I was fooled like that once myself. What trouble and
care I had with those turkey children, for I may as well tell you,
they are afraid of the water. I simply could not get them into it. I
quacked and snapped at them, but it wasn't a bit of use. Let me see
the egg. Certainly, it's a turkey egg. Let it lie, and go teach your
other children to swim."
"Oh, I'll sit a little longer. I've been at it
so long already that I may as well sit here half the summer."
"Suit yourself," said the old duck, and away
At last the big egg did crack. "Peep," said
the young one, and out he tumbled, but he was so big and ugly.
The duck took a look at him. "That's a
frightfully big duckling," she said. "He doesn't look the least like
the others. Can he really be a turkey baby? Well, well! I'll soon
find out. Into the water he shall go, even if I have to shove him in
Next day the weather was perfectly splendid,
and the sun shone down on all the green burdock leaves. The mother
duck led her whole family down to the moat. Splash! she took to the
water. "Quack, quack," said she, and one duckling after another
plunged in. The water went over their heads, but they came up in a
flash, and floated to perfection. Their legs worked automatically,
and they were all there in the water. Even the big, ugly gray one
was swimming along.
"Why, that's no turkey," she said. "See how
nicely he uses his legs, and how straight he holds himself. He's my
very own son after all, and quite good-looking if you look at him
properly. Quack, quack come with me. I'll lead you out into the
world and introduce you to the duck yard. But keep close to me so
that you won't get stepped on, and watch out for the cat!"
Thus they sallied into the duck yard, where
all was in an uproar because two families were fighting over the
head of an eel. But the cat got it, after all.
"You see, that's the way of the world." The
mother duck licked her bill because she wanted the eel's head for
herself. "Stir your legs. Bustle about, and mind that you bend your
necks to that old duck over there. She's the noblest of us all, and
has Spanish blood in her. That's why she's so fat. See that red rag
around her leg? That's a wonderful thing, and the highest
distinction a duck can get. It shows that they don't want to lose
her, and that she's to have special attention from man and beast.
Shake yourselves! Don't turn your toes in. A well-bred duckling
turns his toes way out, just as his father and mother do-this way.
So then! Now duck your necks and say quack!"
They did as she told them, but the other ducks
around them looked on and said right out loud, "See here! Must we
have this brood too, just as if there weren't enough of us already?
And-fie! what an ugly-looking fellow that duckling is! We won't
stand for him." One duck charged up and bit his neck.
"Let him alone," his mother said. "He isn't
doing any harm."
"Possibly not," said the duck who bit him,
"but he's too big and strange, and therefore he needs a good
"What nice-looking children you have, Mother,"
said the old duck with the rag around her leg. "They are all pretty
except that one. He didn't come out so well. It's a pity you can't
hatch him again."
"That can't be managed, your ladyship," said
the mother. "He isn't so handsome, but he's as good as can be, and
he swims just as well as the rest, or, I should say, even a little
better than they do. I hope his looks will improve with age, and
after a while he won't seem so big. He took too long in the egg, and
that's why his figure isn't all that it should be." She pinched his
neck and preened his feathers. "Moreover, he's a drake, so it won't
matter so much. I think he will be quite strong, and I'm sure he
will amount to something."
"The other ducklings are pretty enough," said
the old duck. "Now make yourselves right at home, and if you find an
eel's head you may bring it to me."
So they felt quite at home. But the poor
duckling who had been the last one out of his egg, and who looked so
ugly, was pecked and pushed about and made fun of by the ducks, and
the chickens as well. "He's too big," said they all. The turkey
gobbler, who thought himself an emperor because he was born wearing
spurs, puffed up like a ship under full sail and bore down upon him,
gobbling and gobbling until he was red in the face. The poor
duckling did not know where he dared stand or where he dared walk.
He was so sad because he was so desperately ugly, and because he was
the laughing stock of the whole barnyard.
So it went on the first day, and after that
things went from bad to worse. The poor duckling was chased and
buffeted about by everyone. Even his own brothers and sisters abused
him. "Oh," they would always say, "how we wish the cat would catch
you, you ugly thing." And his mother said, "How I do wish you were
miles away." The ducks nipped him, and the hens pecked him, and the
girl who fed them kicked him with her foot.
So he ran away; and he flew over the fence.
The little birds in the bushes darted up in a fright. "That's
because I'm so ugly," he thought, and closed his eyes, but he ran on
just the same until he reached the great marsh where the wild ducks
lived. There he lay all night long, weary and disheartened.
When morning came, the wild ducks flew up to
have a look at their new companion. "What sort of creature are you?"
they asked, as the duckling turned in all directions, bowing his
best to them all. "You are terribly ugly," they told him, "but
that's nothing to us so long as you don't marry into our family."
Poor duckling! Marriage certainly had never
entered his mind. All he wanted was for them to let him lie among
the reeds and drink a little water from the marsh.
There he stayed for two whole days. Then he
met two wild geese, or rather wild ganders-for they were males. They
had not been out of the shell very long, and that's what made them
so sure of themselves.
"Say there, comrade," they said, "you're so
ugly that we have taken a fancy to you. Come with us and be a bird
of passage. In another marsh near-by, there are some fetching wild
geese, all nice young ladies who know how to quack. You are so ugly
that you'll completely turn their heads."
Bing! Bang! Shots rang in the air,
and these two ganders fell dead among the reeds. The water was red
with their blood. Bing! Bang! the shots rang, and as whole
flocks of wild geese flew up from the reeds another volley crashed.
A great hunt was in progress. The hunters lay under cover all around
the marsh, and some even perched on branches of trees that overhung
the reeds. Blue smoke rose like clouds from the shade of the trees,
and drifted far out over the water.
The bird dogs came splash, splash!
through the swamp, bending down the reeds and the rushes on every
side. This gave the poor duckling such a fright that he twisted his
head about to hide it under his wing. But at that very moment a
fearfully big dog appeared right beside him. His tongue lolled out
of his mouth and his wicked eyes glared horribly. He opened his wide
jaws, flashed his sharp teeth, and - splash, splash - on he
went without touching the duckling.
"Thank heavens," he sighed, "I'm so ugly that
the dog won't even bother to bite me."
He lay perfectly still, while the bullets
splattered through the reeds as shot after shot was fired. It was
late in the day before things became quiet again, and even then the
poor duckling didn't dare move. He waited several hours before he
ventured to look about him, and then he scurried away from that
marsh as fast as he could go. He ran across field and meadows. The
wind was so strong that he had to struggle to keep his feet.
Late in the evening he came to a miserable
little hovel, so ramshackle that it did not know which way to
tumble, and that was the only reason it still stood. The wind struck
the duckling so hard that the poor little fellow had to sit down on
his tail to withstand it. The storm blew stronger and stronger, but
the duckling noticed that one hinge had come loose and the door hung
so crooked that he could squeeze through the crack into the room,
and that's just what he did.
Here lived an old woman with her cat and her
hen. The cat, whom she called "Sonny," could arch his back, purr,
and even make sparks, though for that you had to stroke his fur the
wrong way. The hen had short little legs, so she was called "Chickey
Shortleg." She laid good eggs, and the old woman loved her as if she
had been her own child.
In the morning they were quick to notice the
strange duckling. The cat began to purr, and the hen began to cluck.
"What on earth!" The old woman looked around,
but she was short-sighted, and she mistook the duckling for a fat
duck that had lost its way. "That was a good catch," she said. "Now
I shall have duck eggs-unless it's a drake. We must try it out." So
the duckling was tried out for three weeks, but not one egg did he
In this house the cat was master and the hen
was mistress. They always said, "We and the world," for they thought
themselves half of the world, and much the better half at that. The
duckling thought that there might be more than one way of thinking,
but the hen would not hear of it.
"Can you lay eggs?" she asked
"Then be so good as to hold your tongue."
The cat asked, "Can you arch your back, purr,
or make sparks?"
"Then keep your opinion to yourself when
sensible people are talking."
The duckling sat in a corner, feeling most
despondent. Then he remembered the fresh air and the sunlight. Such
a desire to go swimming on the water possessed him that he could not
help telling the hen about it.
"What on earth has come over you?" the hen
cried. "You haven't a thing to do, and that's why you get such silly
notions. Lay us an egg, or learn to purr, and you'll get over it."
"But it's so refreshing to float on the
water," said the duckling, "so refreshing to feel it rise over your
head as you dive to the bottom."
"Yes, it must be a great pleasure!" said the
hen. "I think you must have gone crazy. Ask the cat, who's the
wisest fellow I know, whether he likes to swim or dive down in the
water. Of myself I say nothing. But ask the old woman, our mistress.
There's no one on earth wiser than she is. Do you imagine she wants
to go swimming and feel the water rise over her head?"
"You don't understand me," said the duckling.
"Well, if we don't, who would? Surely you
don't think you are cleverer than the cat and the old woman-to say
nothing of myself. Don't be so conceited, child. Just thank your
Maker for all the kindness we have shown you. Didn't you get into
this snug room, and fall in with people who can tell you what's
what? But you are such a numbskull that it's no pleasure to have you
around. Believe me, I tell you this for your own good. I say
unpleasant truths, but that's the only way you can know who are your
friends. Be sure now that you lay some eggs. See to it that you
learn to purr or to make sparks."
"I think I'd better go out into the wide
world," said the duckling.
"Suit yourself," said the hen.
So off went the duckling. He swam on the
water, and dived down in it, but still he was slighted by every
living creature because of his ugliness.
Autumn came on. The leaves in the forest
turned yellow and brown. The wind took them and whirled them about.
The heavens looked cold as the low clouds hung heavy with snow and
hail. Perched on the fence, the raven screamed, "Caw, caw!" and
trembled with cold. It made one shiver to think of it. Pity the poor
One evening, just as the sun was setting in
splendor, a great flock of large, handsome birds appeared out of the
reeds. The duckling had never seen birds so beautiful. They were
dazzling white, with long graceful necks. They were swans. They
uttered a very strange cry as they unfurled their magnificent wings
to fly from this cold land, away to warmer countries and to open
waters. They went up so high, so very high, that the ugly little
duckling felt a strange uneasiness come over him as he watched them.
He went around and round in the water, like a wheel. He craned his
neck to follow their course, and gave a cry so shrill and strange
that he frightened himself. Oh! He could not forget them-those
splendid, happy birds. When he could no longer see them he dived to
the very bottom. and when he came up again he was quite beside
himself. He did not know what birds they were or whither they were
bound, yet he loved them more than anything he had ever loved
before. It was not that he envied them, for how could he ever dare
dream of wanting their marvelous beauty for himself? He would have
been grateful if only the ducks would have tolerated him-the poor
The winter grew cold - so bitterly cold that
the duckling had to swim to and fro in the water to keep it from
freezing over. But every night the hole in which he swam kept
getting smaller and smaller. Then it froze so hard that the duckling
had to paddle continuously to keep the crackling ice from closing in
upon him. At last, too tired to move, he was frozen fast in the ice.
Early that morning a farmer came by, and when
he saw how things were he went out on the pond, broke away the ice
with his wooden shoe, and carried the duckling home to his wife.
There the duckling revived, but when the children wished to play
with him he thought they meant to hurt him. Terrified, he fluttered
into the milk pail, splashing the whole room with milk. The woman
shrieked and threw up her hands as he flew into the butter tub, and
then in and out of the meal barrel. Imagine what he looked like now!
The woman screamed and lashed out at him with the fire tongs. The
children tumbled over each other as they tried to catch him, and
they laughed and they shouted. Luckily the door was open, and the
duckling escaped through it into the bushes, where he lay down, in
the newly fallen snow, as if in a daze.
But it would be too sad to tell of all the
hardships and wretchedness he had to endure during this cruel
winter. When the warm sun shone once more, the duckling was still
alive among the reeds of the marsh. The larks began to sing again.
It was beautiful springtime.
Then, quite suddenly, he lifted his wings.
They swept through the air much more strongly than before, and their
powerful strokes carried him far. Before he quite knew what was
happening, he found himself in a great garden where apple trees
bloomed. The lilacs filled the air with sweet scent and hung in
clusters from long, green branches that bent over a winding stream.
Oh, but it was lovely here in the freshness of spring!
From the thicket before him came three lovely
white swans. They ruffled their feathers and swam lightly in the
stream. The duckling recognized these noble creatures, and a strange
feeling of sadness came upon him.
"I shall fly near these royal birds, and they
will peck me to bits because I, who am so very ugly, dare to go near
them. But I don't care. Better be killed by them than to be nipped
by the ducks, pecked by the hens, kicked about by the hen-yard girl,
or suffer such misery in winter."
So he flew into the water and swam toward the
splendid swans. They saw him, and swept down upon him with their
rustling feathers raised. "Kill me!" said the poor creature, and he
bowed his head down over the water to wait for death. But what did
he see there, mirrored in the clear stream? He beheld his own image,
and it was no longer the reflection of a clumsy, dirty, gray bird,
ugly and offensive. He himself was a swan! Being born in a duck yard
does not matter, if only you are hatched from a swan's egg.
He felt quite glad that he had come through so
much trouble and misfortune, for now he had a fuller understanding
of his own good fortune, and of beauty when he met with it. The
great swans swam all around him and stroked him with their bills.
Several little children came into the garden
to throw grain and bits of bread upon the water. The smallest child
cried, "Here's a new one," and the others rejoiced, "yes, a new one
has come." They clapped their hands, danced around, and ran to bring
their father and mother.
And they threw bread and cake upon the water,
while they all agreed, "The new one is the most handsome of all.
He's so young and so good-looking." The old swans bowed in his
Then he felt very bashful, and tucked his head
under his wing. He did not know what this was all about. He felt so
very happy, but he wasn't at all proud, for a good heart never grows
proud. He thought about how he had been persecuted and scorned, and
now he heard them all call him the most beautiful of all beautiful
birds. The lilacs dipped their clusters into the stream before him,
and the sun shone so warm and so heartening. He rustled his feathers
and held his slender neck high, as he cried out with full heart: "I
never dreamed there could be so much happiness, when I was the ugly