The Ugly Duckling

THE country was lovely just then; it was summer! The wheat was golden and the oats still green; the hay was stacked in the rich, low-lying meadows, where the stork was marching about on his long red legs, chattering Egyptian, the language his mother had taught him.

Round about field and meadow lay great woods, in the midst of which were deep lakes. Yes, the country certainly was delicious. In the sunniest spot stood an old mansion surrounded by a deep moat, and great dock leaves grew from the walls of the house right down to the water’s edge, some of them were so tall that a small  child could stand upright under them. In among the leaves it was as secluded as in the depths of a forest, and there a duck was sitting on her nest. Her little ducklings were just about to be hatched, but she was nearly tired of sitting, for it had lasted such a long time. Moreover, she had very few visitors, as the other ducks liked swimming about in the moat better than waddling up to sit under the dock leaves and gossip with her.

At last one egg after another began to crack. “Cheep, cheep!” they said. All the chicks had come to life, and were poking their heads out.

“Quack! quack!” said the duck; and then they all quacked their hardest, and looked about them on all sides among the green leaves; their mother allowed them to look as much as they liked, for green is good for the eyes.

“How big the world is to be sure!” said all the young ones; for they  certainly had ever so much more room to move about than when they were inside the egg-shell.

“Do you imagine this is the whole world?” said the mother. “It stretches a long way on the other side of the garden, right into the parson’s field; but I have never been as far as that! I suppose you are all here now?” and she got up. “No! I declare I have not got you all yet! The biggest egg is still there; how long is it going to last?” and then she settled herself on the nest again.

“Well, how are you getting on?” said an old duck who had come to pay her a visit.

“This one egg is taking such a long time,” answered the sitting duck, “the shell will not crack; but now you must look at the others; they are the finest ducklings I have ever seen! they are all exactly like their father, the rascal! he never comes to see me.”

 “Let me look at the egg which won’t crack,” said the old duck. “You may be sure that it is a turkey’s egg! I have been cheated like that once, and I had no end of trouble and worry with the creatures, for I may tell you that they are afraid of the water. I could not get them into it; I quacked and snapped at them, but it was no good. Let me see the egg! Yes, it is a turkey’s egg! You just leave it alone and teach the other children to swim.”

“I will sit on it a little longer; I have sat so long already that I may as well go on till the Midsummer Fair comes round.”

“Please yourself,” said the old duck, and she went away.

At last the big egg cracked. “Cheep, cheep!” said the young one and tumbled out; how big and ugly he was! The duck looked at him.

“That is a monstrous big duckling,” she said; “none of the others looked like  that; can he be a turkey chick? well, we shall soon find that out; into the water he shall go, if I have to kick him in myself.”

Next day was gloriously fine, and the sun shone on all the green dock leaves. The mother duck with her whole family went down to the moat.

Splash, into the water she sprang. “Quack, quack!” she said, and one duckling plumped in after the other. The water dashed over their heads, but they came up again and floated beautifully; their legs went of themselves, and they were all there, even the big ugly gray one swam about with them.

“No, that is no turkey,” she said; “see how beautifully he uses his legs and how erect he holds himself; he is my own chick! after all, he is not so bad when you come to look at him properly. Quack, quack! Now come with me and I will take you into the world, and introduce you to the  duckyard; but keep close to me all the time, so that no one may tread upon you, and beware of the cat!”

Then they went into the duckyard. There was a fearful uproar going on, for two broods were fighting for the head of an eel, and in the end the cat captured it.

“That’s how things go in this world,” said the mother duck; and she licked her bill, for she wanted the eel’s head for herself.

“Use your legs,” said she; “mind you quack properly, and bend your necks to the old duck over there! She is the grandest of them all; she has Spanish blood in her veins and that accounts for her size, and, do you see? she has a red rag round her leg; that is a wonderfully fine thing, and the most extraordinary mark of distinction any duck can have. It shows clearly that she is not to be parted with, and that she is worthy of recognition both by beasts  and men! Quack now! don’t turn your toes in, a well brought up duckling keeps his legs wide apart just like father and mother; that’s it, now bend your necks, and say quack!”

They did as they were bid, but the other ducks round about looked at them and said, quite loud: “Just look there! now we are to have that tribe! just as if there were not enough of us already, and, oh dear! how ugly that duckling is, we won’t stand him!” and a duck flew at him at once and bit him in the neck.

“Let him be,” said the mother; “he is doing no harm.”

“Very likely not, but he is so ungainly and queer,” said the biter, “he must be whacked.”

“They are handsome children mother has,” said the old duck with the rag round her leg; “all good looking except this one, and he is not a good specimen; it’s a pity you can’t make him over again.”

 “That can’t be done, your grace,” said the mother duck; “he is not handsome, but he is a thorough good creature, and he swims as beautifully as any of the others; nay, I think I might venture even to add that I think he will improve as he goes on, or perhaps in time he may grow smaller! he was too long in the egg, and so he has not come out with a very good figure.” And then she patted his neck and stroked him down. “Besides, he is a drake,” said she; “so it does not matter so much. I believe he will be very strong, and I don’t doubt but he will make his way in the world.”

“The other ducklings are very pretty,” said the old duck. “Now make yourselves quite at home, and if you find the head of an eel you may bring it to me!”

After that they felt quite at home. But the poor duckling which had been the last to come out of the shell, and who was so ugly, was bitten, pushed  about, and made fun of both by the ducks and the hens. “He is too big,” they all said; and the turkey-cock, who was born with his spurs on, and therefore thought himself quite an emperor, puffed himself up like a vessel in full sail, made for him, and gobbled and gobbled till he became quite red in the face. The poor duckling was at his wit’s end, and did not know which way to turn; he was in despair because he was so ugly and the butt of the whole duckyard.

So the first day passed, and afterwards matters grew worse and worse. The poor duckling was chased and hustled by all of them; even his brothers and sisters ill-used him, and they were always saying, “If only the cat would get hold of you, you hideous object!” Even his mother said, “I wish to goodness you were miles away.” The ducks bit him, the hens pecked him, and the girl who fed them kicked him aside.

 Then he ran off and flew right over the hedge, where the little birds flew up into the air in a fright.

“That is because I am so ugly,” thought the poor duckling, shutting his eyes, but he ran on all the same. Then he came to a great marsh where the wild ducks lived; he was so tired and miserable that he stayed there the whole night.

In the morning the wild ducks flew up to inspect their new comrade.

“What sort of a creature are you?” they inquired, as the duckling turned from side to side and greeted them as well as he could. “You are frightfully ugly,” said the wild ducks; “but that does not matter to us, so long as you do not marry into our family!” Poor fellow! he had no thought of marriage; all he wanted was permission to lie among the rushes, and to drink a little of the marsh water.

He stayed there two whole days;  then two wild geese came, or, rather, two wild ganders; they were not long out of the shell, and therefore rather pert.

“I say, comrade,” they said, “you are so ugly that we have taken quite a fancy to you; will you join us and be a bird of passage? There is another marsh close by, and there are some charming wild geese there; all sweet young ladies, who can say quack! You are ugly enough to make your fortune among them.” Just at that moment, bang! bang! was heard up above, and both the wild geese fell dead among the reeds, and the water turned blood red. Bang! bang! went the guns, and whole flocks of wild geese flew up from the rushes and the shot peppered among them again.

There was a grand shooting-party, and the sportsmen lay hidden round the marsh; some even sat on the branches of the trees which overhung the water;  the blue smoke rose like clouds among the dark trees and swept over the pool.

The water-dogs wandered about in the swamp—splash! splash! The rushes and reeds bent beneath their tread on all sides. It was terribly alarming to the poor duckling. He twisted his head round to get it under his wing, and just at that moment a frightful big dog appeared close beside him; his tongue hung right out of his mouth and his eyes glared wickedly. He opened his great chasm of a mouth close to the duckling, showed his sharp teeth, and—splash!—went on without touching him.

“Oh, thank Heaven!” sighed the duckling, “I am so ugly that even the dog won’t bite me!”

Then he lay quite still while the shot whistled among the bushes, and bang after bang rent the air. It only became quiet late in the day, but even then the poor duckling did not dare to  get up; he waited several hours more before he looked about, and then he hurried away from the marsh as fast as he could. He ran across fields and meadows, and there was such a wind that he had hard work to make his way.

Towards night he reached a poor little cottage; it was such a miserable hovel that it could not make up its mind which way to fall even, and so it remained standing. The wind whistled so fiercely round the duckling that he had to sit on his tail to resist it, and it blew harder and harder; then he saw that the door had fallen off one hinge and hung so crookedly that he could creep into the house through the crack, and by this means he made his way into the room. An old woman lived there with her cat and her hen. The cat, which she called “Sonnie,” could arch his back, purr, and give off electric sparks—that is to say, if you stroked his fur the wrong way. The  hen had quite tiny short legs, and so she was called “Chuckie-low-legs.” She laid good eggs, and the old woman was as fond of her as if she had been her own child.

In the morning the strange duckling was discovered immediately, and the cat began to purr and the hen to cluck.

“What on earth is that!” said the old woman, looking round; but her sight was not good, and she thought the duckling was a fat duck which had escaped. “This is a capital find,” said she; “now I shall have duck’s eggs if only it is not a drake. We must find out about that!”

So she took the duckling on trial for three weeks, but no eggs made their appearance. The cat was the master of the house and the hen the mistress, and they always spoke of “we and the world,” for they thought that they represented the half of the world, and that quite the better half.

 The duckling thought there might be two opinions on the subject, but the cat would not hear of it.

“Can you lay eggs?” she asked.

“No!”

“Will you have the goodness to hold your tongue, then!”

And the cat said, “Can you arch your back, purr, or give off sparks?”

“No.”

“Then you had better keep your opinions to yourself when people of sense are speaking!”

The duckling sat in the corner nursing his ill-humor; then he began to think of the fresh air and the sunshine, an uncontrollable longing seized him to float on the water, and at last he could not help telling the hen about it.

“What on earth possesses you?” she asked. “You have nothing to do; that is why you get these freaks into your head. Lay some eggs or take to purring, and you will get over it.”

 “But it is so delicious to float, on the water,” said the duckling; “so delicious to feel it rushing over your head when you dive to the bottom.”

“That would be a fine amusement,” said the hen. “I think you have gone mad. Ask the cat about it, he is the wisest creature I know; ask him if he is fond of floating on the water or diving under it. I say nothing about myself. Ask our mistress yourself, the old woman; there is no one in the world cleverer than she is. Do you suppose she has any desire to float on the water or to duck underneath it?”

“You do not understand me,” said the duckling.

“Well, if we don’t understand you, who should? I suppose you don’t consider yourself cleverer than the cat or the old woman, not to mention me. Don’t make a fool of yourself, child, and thank your stars for all the good we have done you! Have you not  lived in this warm room, and in such society that you might have learned something? But you are an idiot, and there is no pleasure in associating with you. You may believe me I mean you well, I tell you home truths, and there is no surer way than that of knowing who are one’s friends. You just see about laying some eggs, or learn to purr, or to emit sparks.”

“I think I will go out into the wide world,” said the duckling.

“Oh, do so by all means!” said the hen.

So away went the duckling; he floated on the water and ducked underneath it, but he was looked askance at by every living creature for his ugliness. Now the autumn came on, the leaves in the woods turned yellow and brown; the wind took hold of them, and they danced about. The sky looked very cold, and the clouds hung heavy with snow and hail. A raven stood on the  fence and croaked Caw! Caw! from sheer cold; it made one shiver only to think of it. The poor duckling certainly was in a bad case.

One evening the sun was just setting in wintry splendor when a flock of beautiful large birds appeared out of the bushes. The duckling had never seen anything so beautiful. They were dazzlingly white with long waving necks; they were swans; and, uttering a peculiar cry, they spread out their magnificent broad wings, and flew away from the cold regions to warmer lands and open seas. They mounted so high, so very high, and the ugly little duckling became strangely uneasy; he circled round and round in the water like a wheel, craning his neck up into the air after them. Then he uttered a shriek so piercing and so strange that he was quite frightened by it himself. Oh, he could not forget those beautiful birds, those happy birds! And as soon as they  were out of sight he ducked right down to the bottom, and when he came up again he was quite beside himself. He did not know what the birds were or whither they flew, but all the same he was more drawn towards them than he had ever been by any creatures before. He did not even envy them in the least. How could it occur to him even to wish to be such a marvel of beauty; he would have been thankful if only the ducks would have tolerated him among them—the poor ugly creature!

The winter was so bitterly cold that the duckling was obliged to swim about in the water to keep it from freezing, but every night the hole in which he swam got smaller and smaller. Then it froze so hard that the surface ice cracked, and the duckling had to use his legs all the time, so that the ice should not close in round him; at last he was so weary that he could move no more, and he was frozen fast into the ice.

 Early in the morning a peasant came along and saw him; he went out onto the ice and hammered a hole in it with his heavy wooden shoe, and carried the duckling home to his wife. There it soon revived. The children wanted to play with it, but the duckling thought they were going to ill-use him, and rushed in his fright into the milk pan, and the milk spurted out all over the room. The woman shrieked and threw up her hands; then it flew into the butter cask, and down into the meal tub and out again. Just imagine what it looked like by this time! The woman screamed and tried to hit it with the tongs, and the children tumbled over one another in trying to catch it, and they screamed with laughter. By good luck the door stood open, and the duckling flew out among the bushes and the new fallen snow, and it lay there thoroughly exhausted.

But it would be too sad to mention  all the privation and misery it had to go through during that hard winter. When the sun began to shine warmly again the duckling was in the marsh, lying among the rushes; the larks were singing, and the beautiful spring had come.

Then all at once it raised its wings, and they flapped with much greater strength than before and bore him off vigorously. Before he knew where he was he found himself in a large garden where the apple-trees were in a full blossom, and the air was scented with lilacs, the long branches of which overhung the indented shores of the lake. Oh! the spring freshness was so delicious!

Just in front of him he saw three beautiful white swans advancing towards him from a thicket; with rustling feathers they swam lightly over the water. The duckling recognized the majestic birds, and he was overcome by a strange melancholy.

 “I will fly to them, the royal birds, and they will hack me to pieces, because I, who am so ugly, venture to approach them! But it won’t matter; better be killed by them than be snapped at by the ducks, pecked by the hens, or spurned by the henwife, or suffer so much misery in the winter.”

So he flew into the water, and swam towards the stately swans; they saw him, and darted towards him with ruffled feathers.

“Kill me, oh, kill me!” said the poor creature, and bowing his head towards the water he awaited his death. But what did he see reflected in the transparent water?

He saw below him his own image; but he was no longer a clumsy, dark, gray bird, ugly and ungainly. He was himself a swan! It does not matter in the least having been born in a duckyard if only you come out of a swan’s egg!

 He felt quite glad of all the misery and tribulation he had gone through; he was the better able to appreciate his good-fortune now, and all the beauty which greeted him. The big swans swam round and round him, and stroked him with their bills.

Some little children came into the garden with corn and pieces of bread, which they threw into the water; and the smallest one cried out: “There is a new one!” The other children shouted with joy: “Yes, a new one has come!” And they clapped their hands and danced about, running after their father and mother. They threw the bread into the water, and one and all said that “the new one was the prettiest; he was so young and handsome.” And the old swans bent their heads and did homage before him.

The ugly duckling grown up

Some little children threw pieces of bread into the water

He felt quite shy, and hid his head under his wing; he did not know what to think; he was so very happy, but  not at all proud; a good heart never becomes proud. He thought of how he had been pursued and scorned, and now he heard them all say that he was the most beautiful of all beautiful birds. The lilacs bent their boughs right down into the water before him, and the bright sun was warm and cheering, and he rustled his feathers and raised his slender neck aloft, saying, with exultation in his heart: “I never dreamed of so much happiness when I was the Ugly Duckling!”