The Hen that hatched Ducks
Once there was a nice young hen that we will call Mrs. Feathertop.
She was a hen of most excellent family, being a
direct descendant of the Bolton Grays, and as pretty a young fowl
as you should wish to see of a summer's day. She was, moreover,
as fortunately situated in life as it was possible for a hen to be.
She was bought by young Master Fred Little John, with four or
five family connections of hers, and a lively young cock, who was
held to be as brisk a scratcher and as capable a head of a family as
any half-dozen sensible hens could desire.
I can't say that at first Mrs. Feathertop was a very sensible hen.
She was very pretty and lively, to be sure, and a great favorite with
Master Bolton Gray Cock, on account of her bright eyes, her finely
shaded feathers, and certain saucy dashing ways that she had,
which seemed greatly to take his fancy. But old Mrs. Scratchard,
living in the neighboring yard, assured all the neighborhood that
Gray Cock was a fool for thinking so much of that flighty young
thing,—that she had not the smallest notion how to get on in life,
and thought of nothing in the world but her own pretty feathers.
"Wait till she comes to have chickens," said Mrs. Scratchard.
"Then you will see. I have brought up ten broods myself,—as
likely and respectable chickens as ever were a blessing to society,
—and I think I ought to know a good hatcher and brooder when
I see her; and I know that fine piece of trumpery, with her white
feathers tipped with gray, never will come down to family life.
She scratch for chickens! Bless me, she never did anything in all
her days but run round and eat the worms which somebody else
scratched up for her!"
When Master Bolton Gray heard this he crowed very loudly,
like a cock of spirit, and declared that old Mrs. Scratchard was envious
because she had lost all her own tail-feathers, and looked more
like a worn-out old feather-duster than a respectable hen, and that
therefore she was filled with sheer envy of anybody that was young
and pretty. So young Mrs. Feathertop cackled gay defiance at
her busy rubbishy neighbor, as she sunned herself under the
bushes on fine June afternoons.
Now Master Fred Little John had been allowed to have these
hens by his mamma on the condition that he would build their
house himself, and take all the care of it; and, to do Master Fred
justice, he executed the job in a small way quite creditably. He
chose a sunny sloping bank covered with a thick growth of bushes,
and erected there a nice little hen-house, with two glass windows,
a little door, and a good pole for his family to roost on. He made,
moreover, a row of nice little boxes with hay in them for nests,
and he bought three or four little smooth white china eggs to put
in them, so that, when his hens did lay, he might carry off their
eggs without their being missed. The hen-house stood in a little
grove that sloped down to a wide river, just where there was a
little cove which reached almost to the hen-house.
This situation inspired one of Master Fred's boy advisers with a
new scheme in relation to his poultry enterprise. "Hullo! I say,
Fred," said Tom Seymour, "you ought to raise ducks,—you've
got a capital place for ducks there."
"Yes,—but I've bought hens, you see," said Freddy; "so it's
no use trying."
"No use! Of course there is! Just as if your hens couldn't
hatch ducks' eggs. Now you just wait till one of your hens
wants to set, and you put ducks' eggs under her, and you'll have a
family of ducks in a twinkling. You can buy ducks' eggs, a plenty,
of old Sam under the hill; he always has hens hatch his ducks."
So Freddy thought it would be a good experiment, and informed
his mother the next morning that he intended to furnish the ducks
for the next Christmas dinner; and when she wondered how he
was to come by them, he said, mysteriously, "O, I will show you
how!" but did not further explain himself. The next day he
went with Tom Seymour, and made a trade with old Sam, and gave
him a middle-aged jack-knife for eight of his ducks' eggs. Sam, by
the by, was a woolly-headed old negro man, who lived by the pond
hard by, and who had long cast envying eyes on Fred's jack-knife,
because it was of extra-fine steel, having been a Christmas present
the year before. But Fred knew very well there were any number
more of jack-knives where that came from, and that, in order to
get a new one, he must dispose of the old; so he made the trade
and came home rejoicing.
Now about this time Mrs. Feathertop, having laid her eggs daily
with great credit to herself, notwithstanding Mrs. Scratchard's
predictions, began to find herself suddenly attacked with nervous
symptoms. She lost her gay spirits, grew dumpish and morose,
stuck up her feathers in a bristling way, and pecked at her neighbors
if they did so much as look at her. Master Gray Cock was
greatly concerned, and went to old Doctor Peppercorn, who looked
solemn, and recommended an infusion of angle-worms, and said he
would look in on the patient twice a day till she was better.
"Gracious me, Gray Cock!" said old Goody Kertarkut, who
had been lolling at the corner as he passed, "a'n't you a fool?—cocks
always are fools. Don't you know what's the matter with
your wife? She wants to set,—that's all; and you just let her
set! A fiddlestick for Doctor Peppercorn! Why, any good old
hen that has brought up a family knows more than a doctor about
such things. You just go home and tell her to set, if she wants
to, and behave herself."
When Gray Cock came home, he found that Master Freddy had
been before him, and established Mrs. Feathertop upon eight nice
eggs, where she was sitting in gloomy grandeur. He tried to make
a little affable conversation with her, and to relate his interview
with the Doctor and Goody Kertarkut, but she was morose and
sullen, and only pecked at him now and then in a very sharp, unpleasant
way; so, after a few more efforts to make himself agreeable,
he left her, and went out promenading with the captivating
Mrs. Red Comb, a charming young Spanish widow, who had just
been imported into the neighboring yard.
"Bless my soul!" said he, "you've no idea how cross my
"O you horrid creature!" said Mrs. Red Comb; "how little you
feel for the weaknesses of us poor hens!"
"On my word, ma'am," said Gray Cock, "you do me injustice.
But when a hen gives way to temper, ma'am, and no longer meets
her husband with a smile,—when she even pecks at him whom
she is bound to honor and obey—"
"Horrid monster! talking of obedience! I should say, sir, you
came straight from Turkey!" And Mrs. Red Comb tossed her head
with a most bewitching air, and pretended to run away, and old
Mrs. Scratchard looked out of her coop and called to Goody Kertarkut,—
"Look how Mr. Gray Cock is flirting with that widow. I always
knew she was a baggage."
"And his poor wife left at home alone," said Goody Kertarkut.
"It's the way with 'em all!"
"Yes, yes," said Dame Scratchard, "she'll know what real life
is now, and she won't go about holding her head so high, and
looking down on her practical neighbors that have raised families."
"Poor thing, what'll she do with a family?" said Goody Kertarkut.
"Well, what business have such young flirts to get married,"
said Dame Scratchard. "I don't expect she'll raise a single chick;
and there's Gray Cock flirting about fine as ever. Folks didn't
do so when I was young. I'm sure my husband knew what treatment
a setting hen ought to have,—poor old Long Spur,—he
never minded a peck or so now and then. I must say these modern
fowls a'n't what fowls used to be."
Meanwhile the sun rose and set, and Master Fred was almost
the only friend and associate of poor little Mrs. Feathertop, whom
he fed daily with meal and water, and only interrupted her sad reflections
by pulling her up occasionally to see how the eggs were
At last "Peep, peep, peep!" began to be heard in the nest, and
one little downy head after another poked forth from under the
feathers, surveying the world with round, bright, winking eyes;
and gradually the brood was hatched, and Mrs. Feathertop arose, a
proud and happy mother, with all the bustling, scratching, care-taking
instincts of family life warm within her breast. She
clucked and scratched, and cuddled the little downy bits of things
as handily and discreetly as a seven-year-old hen could have done,
exciting thereby the wonder of the community.
Master Gray Cock came home in high spirits and complimented
her; told her she was looking charmingly once more, and said,
"Very well, very nice!" as he surveyed the young brood. So
that Mrs. Feathertop began to feel the world going well with her,—when
suddenly in came Dame Scratchard and Goody Kertarkut
to make a morning call.
"Let's see the chicks," said Dame Scratchard.
"Goodness me," said Goody Kertarkut, "what a likeness to
their dear papa!"
"Well, but bless me, what's the matter with their bills?" said
Dame Scratchard. "Why, my dear, these chicks are deformed!
I'm sorry for you, my dear, but it's all the result of your inexperience;
you ought to have eaten pebble-stones with your meal
when you were setting. Don't you see, Dame Kertarkut, what
bills they have? That'll increase, and they'll be frightful!"
"What shall I do?" said Mrs. Feathertop, now greatly alarmed.
"Nothing as I know of," said Dame Scratchard, "since you
didn't come to me before you set. I could have told you all
about it. Maybe it won't kill 'em, but they'll always be deformed."
And so the gossips departed, leaving a sting under the pinfeathers
of the poor little hen mamma, who began to see that her
darlings had curious little spoon-bills different from her own, and
to worry and fret about it.
"My dear," she said to her spouse, "do get Doctor Peppercorn to
to come in and look at their bills, and see if anything can be done."
Doctor Peppercorn came in, and put on a monstrous pair of
spectacles, and said, "Hum! Ha! Extraordinary case,—very
"Did you ever see anything like it, Doctor?" said both parents,
in a breath.
"I've read of such cases. It's a calcareous enlargement of the
vascular bony tissue, threatening ossification," said the Doctor.
"O, dreadful!—can it be possible?" shrieked both parents.
"Can anything be done?"
"Well, I should recommend a daily lotion made of mosquitoes'
horns and bicarbonate of frogs' toes, together with a powder, to be
taken morning and night, of muriate of fleas. One thing you
must be careful about: they must never wet their feet, nor drink
"Dear me, Doctor, I don't know what I shall do, for they seem
to have a particular fancy for getting into water."
"Yes, a morbid tendency often found in these cases of bony
tumification of the vascular tissue of the mouth; but you must
resist it, ma'am, as their life depends upon it." And with that
Doctor Peppercorn glared gloomily on the young ducks, who were
stealthily poking the objectionable little spoon-bills out from under
their mother's feathers.
After this poor Mrs. Feathertop led a weary life of it; for the
young fry were as healthy and enterprising a brood of young ducks
as ever carried saucepans on the end of their noses, and they most
utterly set themselves against the doctor's prescriptions, murmured
at the muriate of fleas and the bicarbonate of frogs' toes, and took
every opportunity to waddle their little ways down to the mud and
water which was in their near vicinity. So their bills grew larger
and larger, as did the rest of their bodies, and family government
grew weaker and weaker.
"You'll wear me out, children, you certainly will," said poor
"You'll go to destruction,—do ye hear?" said Master Gray
"Did you ever see such frights as poor Mrs. Feathertop has
got?" said Dame Scratchard. "I knew what would come of her
family,—all deformed, and with a dreadful sort of madness, which
makes them love to shovel mud with those shocking spoon-bills of
"It's a kind of idiocy," said Goody Kertarkut. "Poor things!
they can't be kept from the water, nor made to take powders, and
so they get worse and worse."
"I understand it's affecting their feet so that they can't walk,
and a dreadful sort of net is growing between their toes; what a
"She brought it on herself," said Dame Scratchard. "Why
didn't she come to me before she set? She was always an upstart,
self-conceited thing, but I'm sure I pity her."
Meanwhile the young ducks throve apace. Their necks grew
glossy like changeable green and gold satin, and though they
would not take the doctor's medicine, and would waddle in the
mud and water,—for which they always felt themselves to be very
naughty ducks,—yet they grew quite vigorous and hearty. At
last one day the whole little tribe waddled off down to the bank
of the river. It was a beautiful day, and the river was dancing
and dimpling and winking as the little breezes shook the trees that
hung over it.
"Well," said the biggest of the little ducks, "in spite of Doctor
Peppercorn, I can't help longing for the water. I don't believe it
is going to hurt me,—at any rate, here goes." And in he
plumped, and in went every duck after him, and they threw out
their great brown feet as cleverly as if they had taken rowing lessons
all their lives, and sailed off on the river, away, away, among
the ferns, under the pink azalias, through reeds and rushes, and
arrow-heads and pickerel-weed, the happiest ducks that ever were
born; and soon they were quite out of sight.
"Well, Mrs. Feathertop, this is a dispensation," said Mrs.
Scratchard. "Your children are all drowned at last, just as I
knew they'd be. The old music-teacher, Master Bullfrog, that
lives down in Water-Dock Lane, saw 'em all plump madly into the
water together this morning; that's what comes of not knowing
how to bring up a family."
Mrs. Feathertop gave only one shriek and fainted dead away,
and was carried home on a cabbage-leaf, and Mr. Gray Cock was
sent for, where he was waiting on Mrs. Red Comb through the
"It's a serious time in your family, sir," said Goody Kertarkut,
"and you ought to be at home supporting your wife. Send for
Doctor Peppercorn without delay."
Now as the case was a very dreadful one, Doctor Peppercorn
called a council from the barn-yard of the Squire, two miles off,
and a brisk young Doctor Partlett appeared, in a fine suit of brown
and gold, with tail-feathers like meteors. A fine young fellow he
was, lately from Paris, with all the modern scientific improvements
fresh in his head.
When he had listened to the whole story, he clapped his spur
into the ground, and, leaning back, laughed so loud that all the
cocks in the neighborhood crowed.
Mrs. Feathertop rose up out of her swoon, and Mr. Gray Cock
was greatly enraged.
"What do you mean, sir, by such behavior in the house of
"My dear sir, pardon me,—but there is no occasion for mourning.
My dear madam, let me congratulate you. There is no harm
done. The simple matter is, dear madam, you have been under a
hallucination all along. The neighborhood and my learned friend
the doctor have all made a mistake in thinking that these children
of yours were hens at all. They are ducks, ma'am, evidently
ducks, and very finely formed ducks, I dare say."
At this moment a quack was heard, and at a distance the whole
tribe were seen coming waddling home, their feathers gleaming in
green and gold, and they themselves in high good spirits.
"Such a splendid day as we have had!" they all cried in a
breath. "And we know now how to get our own living; we can
take care of ourselves in future, so you need have no further
trouble with us."
"Madam," said the Doctor, making a bow with an air which
displayed his tail-feathers to advantage, "let me congratulate you
on the charming family you have raised. A finer brood of young
healthy ducks I never saw. Give claw, my dear friend," he said,
addressing the elder son. "In our barn-yard no family is more
respected than that of the ducks."
And so Madam Feathertop came off glorious at last; and when
after this the ducks used to go swimming up and down the river like
so many nabobs among the admiring hens, Doctor Peppercorn used
to look after them and say, "Ah! I had the care of their infancy!"
and Mr. Gray Cock and his wife used to say, "It was our system
of education did that!"