That Dear Duck by Anonymous

Yes,' said Farmer Jones, looking down at them over the top bar of the gate, 'you may come and play in the field for a bit; only mind, there is to be no chasing the sheep or hens, or throwing stones at the ducks, or it will be the last time you children get leave to come into my fields.'

'We won't do any mischief, sir,' said Peggy earnestly, as she tried to make the bundle she carried sit upright, and look something like a baby, instead of cuddling up like a shapeless lump on her shoulder.

'Very well, then, in you go.'

The farmer held the gate open till the five children and two babies had filed sedately through; then he dropped the bar into the socket, and tramped away down the dusty lane.

The sheep were away at the far side, and did not take the trouble to glance up at the intruders. The hens were clucking busily on a piece of bare ground beyond the barn. Down in the lowest corner of the field was a shallow pond, where a plump mother duck and half a dozen downy ducklings were sailing placidly about. They were new-comers comparatively, and the children greeted them with shouts of approval.

'Why can't babies swim about and do things, instead of always crying and going to sleep?' asked Tommy, eyeing his small twin brothers with great dissatisfaction, as they sat in a row on a fallen tree-trunk. 'I'd rather have young ducks any day; they've twice as much sense.'

'See that one eating up my bread and butter!' cried Jack; 'he's something like a duck. I wish Farmer Jones would give him to me.'

'I'm quite sure he wouldn't,' said Peggy sharply; 'ducks are dreadfully dear things: mother's said so lots of times.'

Jack didn't answer; he was leaning over the tree trunk, throwing tiny bits of crusts to the duckling, who was doing his best to choke himself with them. Soon after, the duckling came round in front of the trunk where they were sitting; and it was the funniest little object, with its stumpy wings, and a big yellow bill that opened and shut like a pair of scissors.

There were five more swimming about beside their mother; there might be dozens more in the farmyard, while they had nothing of their own. A sharp little duck like that would be as good as a dog to play with. Jack had watched it with longing eyes; he was certain the farmer would never miss it, if he were to take it home for a little while—only a little while; he could easily bring it back again, and it wouldn't be one bit the worse.

The others played on with the daisies and the butterflies; the babies sucked their thumbs and fell asleep in their small nurses' arms; the little duck forgot his mother and his brothers and sisters, and strayed farther and farther away after the crumbs, till presently two small brown hands pounced down, and he found himself a prisoner.

'Quack! quack!' called the mother duck, missing the wanderer.

'Quack! quack!' cried the little duck.

Peggy and Bessy looked round.

'Why, what are you doing, Jack? Didn't Farmer Jones say you weren't to tease the ducks?'

'Who is teasing the ducks?' demanded Jack, in a tone of injured innocence. 'I'm going to take it home for a bit, and teach it a lot of tricks.'

'You'd better leave it alone!' cried Peggy, in alarm; 'it would be stealing.'

'It would be nothing of the kind. I'm not going to keep the duck. Girls haven't a bit of sense; they're just made to go telling tales.'

'I don't ever tell tales,' returned Peggy, with dignity. 'Did I ever tell who it was left the gate open when the pigs got in that day?'

'Well, don't tell tales this time either,' was Jack's only acknowledgment. 'We'd better be going now, before anybody comes.'

Jack was the biggest boy, and liked his own way. Moreover, he generally made the rest like it too. Peggy and Bessy uneasily got up from their seat, and back the procession went across the green grass and daisies, Jack carrying the duck inside his jacket, where it quacked loudly, and made the company look round anxiously, for fear of stray listeners.

'What will mother say when she sees it?' suggested Tommy, as they slunk along the lane.

'Mother is not going to see it,' returned Jack; 'it's going into the wood-shed. I'll make it a nice house there, all to itself—better than it had at the farm by a long way.'

So instead of going straight into the house, the party repaired to the wood-shed at the end of the garden, where the duck was carefully fenced in behind some boards, and supplied with the remainder of the crusts for supper.

'He'll go off to sleep in a bit,' said Jack, with a sigh of relief. 'Now we'll go in; and mind, you're not to say anything about it.'

It was easy for Jack to say that, but it wasn't by any means so easy to do it. Every minute or two somebody would begin to say something bearing upon the subject, and break off short in sudden alarm. Every time there was a moment's silence, they would be listening for faint quacks from the wood-shed, and somehow it befell that there came no further opportunity of visiting the prisoner that evening; for it was Saturday,—the great festival of the bath-tub,—and by the time the whole seven had gone through the performance, it was too late for anything but bed.

Never mind; to-morrow would be Sunday, and Jack promised himself a lovely time with his dear cluck. He would slip a piece of bread into his pocket at breakfast; there was a noble ditch not very far off, where nobody ever went, and he would take it there for a swim. Jack took a last look through the curtainless window at the shed roof, and went to bed brimful of plans for to-morrow and the duck.

Ah, if that duck had but known or understood the joys that lay before him! But he didn't; he was only a poor solitary baby duck, taken away from his mother and his home, and left all alone in a cold, strange place, and the night was very long and very bleak, and his little body ached with cold and hunger, and he quacked and quacked till his throat grew sore, and the quacks wouldn't come any longer, and at last, just as it was beginning to grow grey morning, he feebly curled up his yellow toes, and rolled over on his back—and died!

'Tommy, come down the garden, and mind nobody sees you,' whispered Jack, after breakfast. 'We'll take that duck to the ditch, and have some fun. Hurry up!'

The two raced down to the wood-shed; all was quiet enough inside. Jack looked round in some astonishment. 'He must be fast asleep yet; I thought he'd have been quacking like anything for some food.'

Tommy was peering into the corner. He got up suddenly with a startled face.

'Jack,' he said solemnly, 'I do believe he's gone and died! See how he's lying.'

Jack had him up in his arms in an instant. He did not know much about dead ducks, but the first touch of the little body, that had been so soft and warm the night before, sent a cold chill right through him. He looked down at it for a minute in speechless dismay, and then he burst out into a perfect storm of sobs.

'Let's go and tell mother,' said Tommy, beginning to cry too; and off they went.

But even mother could not bring the little duck back to life. She quietly put it into a basket, and told Jack to take it up to Farmer Jones, and tell him all about his wrong-doing.

Tommy went with him for company, and the pair felt exactly as if they were going to a funeral; and certainly no funeral they had ever seen went half so slowly, and with so many halts and pauses. Sooner or later, however, they had to get there, and Jack had to falter out his confession as best he might.

'It was because it was such a dear little duck that Jack wanted it,' explained Tommy valiantly, when Jack got to the end. 'We didn't mean to hurt it.'

The farmer listened in grim silence. 'Perhaps not,' he said; 'but I can't have you in my fields again: you'll have to be content with the lane for the rest of the summer, so I'm thinking you'll find it's been a dear duck for you more ways than one.'

'Mother was quite right,' said Jack, as they trudged back down that dusty lane; 'ducks are dreadfully dear things!'