It was summer in the land of Denmark, and though for most of the year the country looks flat and ugly, it was beautiful now. The wheat was yellow, the oats were green, the hay was dry and delicious to roll in, and from the old ruined house which nobody lived in, down to the edge of the canal, was a forest of prickly plants called burdocks so tall that a whole family of children might have dwelt in them and never have been found out.
It was under these burdocks that a duck had built herself a warm nest, and was not sitting all day on six pretty eggs. Five of them were white, but the sixth, which was larger than the others, was of an ugly grey colour. The duck was always puzzled about that egg, and how it came to be so different from the rest. Other birds might have thought that when the duck went down in the morning and evening to the water to stretch her legs in a good swim, some lazy mother might have been on the lookout , and have popped her egg into the nest. But ducks are not clever at all, and are not quick at counting, so this duck did not worry herself about the matter, but just took care that the big egg should be as warm as the rest.
This was the first set of eggs that the duck had ever laid, and, to begin with, she was very pleased and proud, and laughed at the other mothers, who were always neglecting their duties to gossip with each other or to take little extra swims besides the two in the morning and evening that were necessary for health. But at length she grew tired of sitting there all day. ‘My eggs are taking too long to hatch,’ she said to herself; and she pined for a little amusement also.
Still, she knew that if she left her eggs and the ducklings in them to die, none of her friends would ever speak to her again; so there she stayed, only getting off the eggs several times a day to see if the shells were cracking–which may have been the very reason why they did not crack sooner.
She had looked at the eggs at least a hundred and fifty times, when, to her joy, she saw a tiny crack on two of them, and scrambling back to the nest she drew the eggs closer the one to the other, and never moved for the whole of that day. Next morning she was rewarded by noticing cracks in the whole five eggs, and by midday two little yellow heads were poking out from the shells. This encouraged her so much that, after breaking the shells with her bill, so that the little creatures could get free of them, she sat steadily for a whole night upon the nest, and before the sun arose the five white eggs were empty, and ten pairs of eyes were gazing out upon the green world.
Now the duck had been carefully brought up, and did not like dirt, and, besides, broken shells are not at all comfortable things to sit or walk upon; so she pushed the rest out over the side, and felt delighted to have some company to talk to till the big egg hatched. But day after day went on, and the big egg showed no signs of cracking, and the duck grew more and more impatient, and began to wish she could ask the advice of her husband, but he was never around when she needed him.
‘I can’t think what is the matter with it,’ the duck grumbled to her neighbour who had called in to pay her a visit. ‘Why I could have hatched two broods in the time that this one has taken!’
‘Let me look at it,’ said the old neighbour. ‘Ah, I thought so; it is a turkey’s egg. Once, when I was young, they tricked me to sitting on a brood of turkey’s eggs myself, and when they were hatched the creatures were so stupid that nothing would make them learn to swim. I have no patience when I think of it.’
‘Well, I will give it another chance,’ sighed the duck, ‘and if it does not come out of its shell in another twenty-four hours, I will just leave it alone and teach the rest of them to swim properly and to find their own food. I really can’t be expected to do two things at once.’
And with a fluff of her feathers she pushed the egg into the middle of the nest.
All through the next day she sat on, giving up even her morning bath for fear that a blast of cold might strike the big egg. In the evening, when she ventured to peep, she thought she saw a tiny crack in the upper part of the shell. Filled with hope, she went back to her duties, though she could hardly sleep all night for excitement. When she woke with the first steaks of light she felt something stirring under her. Yes, there it was at last; and as she moved, a big awkward bird tumbled head foremost on the ground.
There was no denying it was ugly, even the mother was forced to admit that to herself, though she only said it was ‘large’ and ‘strong.’
‘You won’t need any teaching when you are once in the water,’ she told him, with a glance of surprise at the dull brown which covered his back, and at his long naked neck. And indeed he did not, though he was not half so pretty to look at as the little yellow balls that followed her.
When they returned they found the old neighbour on the bank waiting for them to take them into the duckyard. ‘No, it is not a young turkey, certainly,’ whispered she in confidence to the mother, ‘for though it is lean and skinny, and has no colour to speak of, yet there is something rather distinguished about it, and it holds its head up well.’
‘It is very kind of you to say so,’ answered the mother, who by this time had some secret doubts of its loveliness. ‘Of course, when you see it by itself it is all right, though it is different, somehow, from the others. But one cannot expect all one’s children to be beautiful!’
By this time they had reached the centre of the yard, where a very old duck was sitting, who was treated with great respect by all the birds who lived on the water.
‘You must go up and bow low before her,’ whispered the mother to her children, nodding her head in the direction of the old lady, ‘and keep your legs well apart, as you see me do. No well-bred duckling turns in its toes. It is a sign of common parents.’
The little ducks tried hard to make their small fat bodies copy the movements of their mother, and the old lady was quite pleased with them; but the rest of the ducks looked on feeling annoyed, and one duck in particular said:
‘Oh, dear me, here are ever so many more little ducks! The yard is full already; and did you ever see anything quite as ugly as that great tall creature? He is a disgrace to any brood. I shall go and chase him out!’ So saying she put up her feathers, and running to the big duckling bit his neck.
The duckling gave a loud quack; it was the first time he had felt any pain, and at the sound his mother turned quickly.
‘Leave him alone,’ she said fiercely, ‘or I will send for his father. He was not bother you.’
‘No; but he is so ugly and awkward no one can put up with him,’ answered the stranger. And though the duckling did not understand the meaning of the words, he felt he was being blamed, and became more uncomfortable still when the old Spanish duck who ruled the yard butted in:
‘It certainly is a great pity he is so different from these beautiful darlings. If he could only be hatched over again!’
The poor little fellow drooped his head, and did not know where to look, but was comforted when his mother answered:
‘He may not be quite as handsome as the others, but he swims better, and is very strong; I am sure he will make his way in the world as well as anybody.’
‘Well, you must feel quite at home here,’ said the old duck waddling off. And so they did, all except the duckling, who was snapped at by everyone when they thought his mother was not looking. Even the turkey-cockerel, who was so big, never passed him without mocking words, and his brothers and sisters, who would not have noticed any difference unless it had been put into their heads, soon became as rude and unkind as the rest.
At last he could bear it no longer, and one day he fancied he saw signs of his mother turning against him too; so that night, when the ducks and hens were still asleep, he stole away through an open door, and under cover of the burdock leaves scrambled on by the bank of the canal, till he reached a wide grassy moor, full of soft marshy places where the reeds grew. Here he lay down, but he was too tired and too frightened to fall asleep, and with the earliest peep of the sun the reeds began to rustle, and he saw that he had blundered into a colony of wild ducks. But as he could not run away again he stood up and bowed politely.
‘You are ugly,’ said the wild ducks, when they had looked him well over; ‘but, however, it is no business of ours, unless you wish to marry one of our daughters, and that we should not allow.’ And the duckling answered that he had no idea of marrying anybody, and wanted nothing but to be left alone after his long journey.
So for two whole days he lay quietly among the reeds, eating such food as he could find, and drinking the water of the moorland pool, till he felt himself quite strong again. He wished he might stay were he was for ever, he was so comfortable and happy, away from everyone, with nobody to bite him and tell him how ugly he was.
He was thinking these thoughts, when two young geese caught sight of him as they were having their evening splash among the reeds, looking for their supper.
‘We are getting tired of this moor,’ they said, ‘and to-morrow we think of trying another, where the lakes are larger and the feeding better. Will you come with us?’
‘Is it nicer than this?’ asked the duckling doubtfully. And the words were hardly out of his mouth, when ‘Pif! pah!’ and the two new- comers were stretched dead beside him.
At the sound of the gun the wild ducks in the rushes flew into the air, and for a few minutes the firing continued as the huntsmen aimed at the flying birds.
Luckily for himself the duckling could not fly, and he floundered along through the water till he could hide himself amidst some tall ferns which grew in a hollow. But before he got there he met a huge creature on four legs, which soon realized was dog, who stood and gazed at him with a long red tongue hanging out of his mouth. The duckling grew cold with terror, and tried to hide his head beneath his little wings; but the dog snuffed at him and passed on, and he was able to reach into his hiding place.
‘I am too ugly even for a dog to eat,’ said he to himself. ‘Well, that is a great mercy.’ And he curled himself up in the soft grass till the shots died away in the distance.
When all had been quiet for a long time, and there were only stars to see him, he crept out and looked about him.
He would never go near a pool again, never, thought he; and seeing that the moor stretched far away in the opposite direction from which he had come, he marched bravely on till he got to a small cottage, which seemed too tumbledown for the stones to hold together many hours longer. Even the door only hung upon one hinge, and as the only light in the room sprang from a tiny fire, the duckling edged himself cautiously in, and lay down under a chair close to the broken door, from which he could get out if necessary. But no one seemed to see him or smell him; so he spend the rest of the night in peace.
Now in the cottage there lived an old woman, her cat, and a hen; and it was really they, and not she, who were masters of the house. The old woman, who passed all her days in spinning yarn, which she sold at the nearest town, loved both the cat and the hen as her own children, and never did anything they didn’t want in any way; so it was them, not her, that the duckling had to ask for a favour.
It was only next morning, when it grew light, that they noticed their visitor, who stood trembling before them, with his eye on the door ready to escape at any moment. They did not, however, appear very fierce, and the duckling became less afraid as they approached him.
‘Can you lay eggs?’ asked the hen. And the duckling answered meekly:
‘No; I don’t know how.’ Upon which the hen turned her back, and the cat came forward.
‘Can you ruffle your fur when you are angry, or purr when you are pleased?’ said she. And again the duckling had to admit that he could do nothing but swim, which did not seem of much use to anybody.
So the cat and the hen went straight off to the old woman, who was still in bed.
‘Such a useless creature has taken refuge here,’ they said. ‘It calls itself a duckling; but it can neither lay eggs nor purr! What had we better do with it?’
‘Keep it, to be sure!’ replied the old woman briskly. ‘It is all nonsense about it not laying eggs. Anyway, we will let it stay here for a bit, and see what happens.’
So the duckling remained for three weeks, and shared the food of the cat and the hen; but nothing in the way of eggs happened at all. Then the sun came out, and the air grew soft, and the duckling grew tired of being in a hut, and wanted with all his might to have a swim. And one morning he got so restless that even his friends noticed it.
‘What is the matter?’ asked the hen; and the duckling told her.
‘I am so longing for the water again. You can’t think how delicious it is to put your head under the water and dive straight to the bottom.’
‘I don’t think I should enjoy it,’ replied the hen doubtfully. ‘And I don’t think the cat would like it either.’ And the cat, when asked, agreed there was nothing she would hate so much.
‘I can’t stay here any longer, I Must get to the water,’ repeated the duck. And the cat and the hen, who felt hurt and offended, answered shortly:
‘Very well then, go.’
The duckling would have liked to say good- bye, and thank them for their kindness, as he was polite by nature; but they had both turned their backs on him, so he went out of the rickety door feeling rather sad. But, in spite of himself, he could not help a thrill of joy when he was out in the air and water once more, and cared little for the rude glances of the creatures he met. For a while he was quite happy and content; but soon the winter came on, and snow began to fall, and everything to grow very wet and uncomfortable. And the duckling soon found that it is one thing to enjoy being in the water, and quite another to like being damp on land.
The sun was setting one day, like a great scarlet globe, and the river, to the duckling’s vast bewilderment, was getting hard and slippery, when he heard a sound of whirring wings, and high up in the air a flock of swans were flying. They were as white as snow which had fallen during the night, and their long necks with yellow bills were stretched to a land where the sun shone all day. Oh, if he only could have gone with them! But that was not possible, of course; and besides, what sort of companion could an ugly thing like him be to those beautiful beings? So he walked sadly down to a sheltered pool and dived to the very bottom, and tried to think it was the greatest happiness he could dream of. But, all the same, he knew it wasn’t!
And every morning it grew colder and colder, and the duckling had hard work to keep himself warm. Indeed, it would be truer to say that he never was warm at all; and at last, after one bitter night, his legs moved so slowly that the ice crept closer and closer, and when the morning light broke he was caught fast, as in a trap; and soon his senses went from him.
A few hours more and the poor duckling’s life had been ended. But, by good fortune, a man was crossing the river on his way to his work, and saw in a moment what had happened. He had on thick wooden shoes, and he went and stamped so hard on the ice that it broke, and then he picked up the duckling and tucked him under his sheepskin coat, where his frozen bones began to thaw a little.Instead of going on his work, the man turned back and took the bird to his children, who gave him a warm mess to eat and put him in a box by the fire, and when they came back from school he was much more comfortable than he had been since he had left the old woman’s cottage.
They were kind little children, and wanted to play with him; but, alas! the poor fellow had never played in his life, and thought they wanted to tease him, and flew straight into the milk-pan, and then into the butter-dish, and from that into the meal- barrel, and at last, terrified at the noise and confusion, right out of the door, and hid himself in the snow amongst the bushes at the back of the house.
He never could tell afterwards exactly how he had spent the rest of the winter. He only knew that he was very miserable and that he never had enough to eat. But by-and-by things grew better. The earth became softer, the sun hotter, the birds sang, and the flowers once more appeared in the grass. When he stood up, he felt different, somehow, from what he had done before he fell asleep among the reeds to which he had wandered after he had escaped from the peasant’s hut. His body seemed larger, and his wings stronger. Something pink looked at him from the side of a hill. He thought he would fly towards it and see what it was.
Oh, how glorious it felt to be rushing through the air, wheeling first one way and then the other! He had never thought that flying could be like that! The duckling was almost sorry when he drew near the pink cloud and found it was made up of apple blossoms growing beside a cottage whose garden ran down to the banks of the canal. He fluttered slowly to the ground and paused for a few minutes under a thicket of syringas, and while he was gazing about him, there walked slowly past a flock of the same beautiful birds he had seen so many months ago.
Fascinated, he watched them one by one step into the canal, and float quietly upon the waters as if they were part of them.
‘I will follow them,’ said the duckling to himself; ‘ugly though I am, I would rather be killed by them than suffer all I have suffered from cold and hunger, and from the ducks and fowls who should have treated me kindly.’ And flying quickly down to the water, he swam after them as fast as he could.
It did not take him long to reach them, for they had stopped to rest in a green pool shaded by a tree whose branches swept the water. And directly they saw him coming some of the younger ones swam out to meet him with cries of welcome, which again the duckling hardly understood.
He approached them glad, yet trembling, and turning to one of the older birds, who by this time had left the shade of the tree, he said:
‘If I am to die, I would rather you should kill me. I don’t know why I was ever hatched, for I am too ugly to live.’ And as he spoke, he bowed his head and looked down into the water.
Reflected in the still pool he saw many white shapes, with long necks and golden bills, and, without thinking, he looked for the dull grey body and the awkward skinny neck. But no such thing was there.
Instead, he beheld beneath him a beautiful white swan!
‘The new one is the best of all,’ said the children when they came down to feed the swans with biscuit and cake before going to bed. ‘His feathers are whiter and his beak more golden than the rest.’ And when he heard that, the duckling thought that it was worth while having undergone all the persecution and loneliness that he had passed through, as otherwise he would never have known what it was to be really happy.