It was so beautiful out in 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. Roundabout the field and meadowlands 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 forest 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.
“It extends on and on, across to the other side of the garden and 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 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 is taking 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 she waddled.
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. “It doesn’t look the least like the others. Can it 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 myself.”
The 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 grey 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!”
So they sallied into the duck yard. There 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 whacking.”
“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 that 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,” they all said.
The turkey gobbler, who thought himself as an emperor, because he was born wearing spurs, puffed up like a ship under full sail. He 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 indeed 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 nearby, 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 undercover all around the marsh. 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,” the duckling 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, but even then the poor duckling didn’t dare move. He waited several hours before he ventured to look about him, and then 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 lay. In this house the cat was master, and the hen was the 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 in 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. I tell you this for your own good. I say unpleasant truths, but that’s the only way you can know who your friends are. 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 in 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 makes one shiver to think of it. Pity the poor little duckling!
One evening, just as the sun was setting in splendour, an enormous flock of large, handsome birds appeared out of the reeds. The duckling had never seen birds so beautiful. They were dazzlingly 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 round and round in the water, like a wheel. He craned his neck to follow their course and cried 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 whether 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 marvellous beauty for himself? He would have been grateful if only the ducks had tolerated him – the poor ugly creature.
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 got 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 a 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 a 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 beautiful white swans. They ruffled their feathers and swam lightly in the stream. The duckling recognised 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 image, and it was no longer the reflection of a clumsy, dirty, grey bird, ugly and offensive. He was a swan! Being born in a duck yard does not matter if only you have been 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 good fortune, and 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 honour. Then he felt very bashful and tucked his head under his wing. He did not know what this was all about. He felt so pleased, 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 duckling.”