It was summertime, and it was beautiful in the country. The sunshine fell warmly on an old house, surrounded by deep canals, and from the walls down to the water's edge there grew large burdock leaves, so high that children could stand upright among them without being seen.
This place was as wild and lonely as the''thickest part of the woods, and it was here that a duck had chosen to make her nest. She was sitting on her eggs; but the pleasure she had felt at first was now almost gone, because she had been there so long.
At last, however, the eggs began to crack, and one little head after another appeared. "Quack, quack!" said the mother duck, and all the little ones got up as well as they could and peeped about from under the green leaves. "How large the world is!" said one of the ducklings.
"Do you think this is the whole of the world?" asked the mother. "It stretches far away beyond the other side of the garden, down to the pastor's field, but I have never been there. Are you all here?" And then she got up. "No, I have not got you all. The largest egg is still here. How long, I wonder, will this last? I am so weary of it!" And she sat down again.
At last the great egg burst. "Peep, peep!" said the little one, and out it tumbled. But
oh! how large and gray and ugly it was! The mother duck looked at it. "That is a great, strong creature," said she. "None of the others is at all like it."
The next day the weather was delightful and the sun was shining warmly when the mother duck with her family went down to the canal. Splash! She went into the water. "Quack, quack!" she cried, and one duckling after another jumped in. The water closed over their heads, but all came up again and swam quite easily. All were there, even the ugly gray one was swimming about with the rest.
"Quack, quack!" said the mother duck. "Now come with me. I will take you into the world. But keep close to me, or someone may step on you. And beware of the cat."
When they came into the duckyard, two families were quarreling about the head of an eel, which in the end was carried off by the cat.
"See, my children, such is the way of the world," said the mother duck, sighing, for she, too, was fond of roasted eels. "Now use your legs," said she, "keep together, and bow to the old duck you see yonder. She is the noblest born of them all, and is of Spanish blood, which accounts for her dignified appearance and manners. And look, she has a red rag on her leg. That is considered a special mark of distinction and is the greatest honor a duck can have."
The other ducks who were in the yard looked at the little family and one of them said aloud, "Only see! Now we have another brood, as if there were not enough of us already. How ugly that one is. We will not endure it." And immediately one of the drakes flew at the poor gray youngster and bit him on the neck.
"Leave him alone," said the mother. "He is doing no one any harm." "Yes, but he is so large and ungainly."
"Those are fine children that our good mother has," said the old duck with the red rag on her leg. "All are pretty except that one, who certainly is not at all well-favored. I wish his mother could improve him a little."
"Certainly he is not handsome," said the mother, "but he is very good and swims as well as the others, indeed rather better. I think in time he will grow like the others and perhaps will look smaller." And she stroked the duckling's neck and smoothed his ruffled feathers.
"Besides," she added, "he is a drake. I think he will be very strong so he will fight his way through."
"The other ducks are very pretty," said the old duck. "Pray make yourselves at home, and if you find an eel's head you can bring it to me."
And accordingly they made themselves at home.
But the poor duckling who had come last out of his eggshell, and who was so ugly,was bitten, pecked, and teased by both ducks and hens. And the turkey cock, who had come into the world with spurs on, and therefore fancied he was an emperor, puffed himself up like a ship in full sail and quite red with passion marched up to the duckling. The poor thing scarcely knew what to do. He was quite distressed because he was so ugly.
So passed the first day, and afterward matters grew worse and worse. Even his brothers and sisters behaved unkindly, saying, "May the cat take you, you ugly thing!" The ducks bit him, the hens pecked him, and the girl who fed the poultry kicked him. He ran through the hedge and the little birds in the bushes were frightened and flew away. That is because I am so ugly, thought the duckling, and ran on.
At last he came to a wide moor where some wild ducks lived. There he lay the whole night, feeling very tired and sad. In the morning the wild ducks flew up and then they saw their new companion. "Pray who are you?" they asked. The duckling greeted them as politely as possible. "You are really very ugly," said one of the wild ducks, "but that does not matter to us if you do not wish to marry into our family."
Poor thing! He had never thought of marrying. He only wished to lie among the reeds and drink the water of the moor. There he stayed for two whole days. On the third day along came two wild geese, or rather goslings, for they had not been long out of their eggshells, which accounts for their' impertinence.
"Hark ye," they said, "you are so ugly that we like you very well. Will you go with us and become a bird of passage? On another moor, not far from this, are some dear, sweet wild geese, as lovely creatures as have ever said THE UGLY DUCKLING `hiss, hiss.' It is a chance for you to get a wife. You may be lucky, ugly as you are.''
Just then a gun went off and both goslings lay dead among the reeds. Bang! Another gun went off and whole flocks of wild geese flew up from the rushes. Again and again the same alarming noise was heard.
There was a great shooting party. The sportsmen lay in ambush all around.
The dogs splashed about in the mud, bending the reeds and rushes in all directions. How frightened the poor little duck was! He turned away his head, thinking to hide it under his wing, and at the same moment a fierce-looking dog passed close to him, his tongue hanging out of his mouth, his eyes sparkling fearfully. His jaws were wide open. He thrust his nose close to the duckling, showing his sharp white teeth, and then he was gone—gone without hurting him.
"Well! Let me be thankful," sighed the duckling. "I am so ugly that even a dog will not bite me."
And he lay still, though the shooting continued among the reeds. The noise did not cease until late in the day, and even then the poor little thing dared not stir. He waited several hours before he looked around him, and then, although it had gotten very windy and was starting to rain, he hastened away from the moor as fast as he could.
Toward evening he reached a little hut, so wretched that he knew not on which side to fall and therefore remained standing. He noticed that the door had lost one of its hinges and hung so much awry that there was a space between it and the wall wide enough to let him through. Since the storm was becoming worse and worse, he crept into the room and hid in a corner.
In this room lived an old woman with her tomcat and her hen. The cat, whom she called her little son, knew how to set up his back and purr. He could even throw out sparks when his fur was stroked the wrong way. The hen had very short legs, and was therefore called Chickie Shortlegs. She laid very good eggs and the old woman loved her as her own child.
The next morning the cat began to mew and the hen to cackle when they saw the new guest.
"What is the matter?" asked the old woman, looking around. Her eyes were not good, so she took the duckling to be a fat duck who had lost her way. "This is a wonderful catch," she said. "I shall now have duck's eggs, if it be not a drake. We must wait and see." So the duckling was kept on trial for three weeks. But no eggs made their appearance.
Day after day the duckling sat in a corner feeling very sad, until finally the fresh air and bright sunshine that came into the room through the open door gave him such a strong desire to swim that he could not help telling the hen.
"What ails you?" said the hen. "You have nothing to do, and therefore you brood over these fancies. Either lay eggs or purr, then you will forget them."
"But it is so delicious to swim," said the duckling, "so delicious when the waters close over your head and you plunge to the bottom."
"Well, that is a queer sort of pleasure," said the hen. "I think you must be crazy. Not to speak of myself, ask the cat—he is the wisest creature I know whether he would like to swim, or to plunge to the bottom of the water. Ask your mistress. No one is cleverer than she. Do you think she would take pleasure in swimming, and in the waters closing over her head?"
"You do not understand me," said the duckling.
"What! We do not understand you! So you think yourself wiser than the cat and the old woman, not to speak of myself! Do not fancy any such thing, child, but be thankful for all the kindness that has been shown you. Are you not lodged in a warm room, and have you not the advantage of society from which you can learn something? Come, for once take the trouble either to learn to purr or to lay eggs."
"I think I will take my chance and go out into the wide world again," said the duckling.
"Well, go then," said the hen.
So the duckling went away. He soon found water, and swam on the surface and plunged beneath it, but all the other creatures passed him by because of his ugliness. The autumn came. The leaves turned yellow and brown. The wind caught them and danced them about. The air was cold. The clouds were heavy with hail or snow, and the raven sat on the hedge and croaked. The poor duckling was certainly not very comfortable! One evening, just as the sun was setting, a flock of large birds rose from the brushwood. The duckling had never seen anything so beautiful before. Their plumage was of a dazzling white, and they had long, slender necks. They were swans. They uttered a singular cry, spread out their long, splendid wings, and flew away from these cold regions to warmer countries across the sea. They flew so high, so very high! The ugly duckling's feelings were very strange. He turned round and round in the water like a wheel, strained his neck to look after them, and sent forth such a loud and strange cry that he almost frightened himself.
He could not forget them, those noble birds! Those happy birds! The duckling did not know what the birds were called, or where they were flying, yet he loved them as he had never before loved anything. He did not envy them. It would never have occurred to him to wish such beauty for himself.
He would have been quite content if the ducks in the duckyard had just endured his company.
And the winter was so cold! The duckling had to swim round and round in the water to keep it from freezing. But every night the opening in which he swam became smaller and the duckling had to make good use of his legs to prevent the water from freezing entirely. At last, exhausted, he lay stiff and cold in the ice.
Early in the morning a peasant passed by and saw him. He broke the ice in pieces with his wooden shoe and carried the duckling home to his wife.
The duckling soon revived. The children would have played with him, but he thought they wished to tease him and in his terror jumped into the milk pail, so that the milk was splashed about the room. The good woman screamed and clapped her hands. He flew next into the tub where the butter was kept and then into the meal barrel and out again.
The woman screamed. The children tried to catch him and laughed and screamed, too. It was well for him that the door stood open. He jumped out among the bushes, into the newfallen snow, and lay there as in a dream.
But it would be too sad to relate all the trouble and misery he had to suffer during that winter. He was lying on a moor among the reeds when the sun began to shine warmly again. The larks were singing and beautiful spring had returned.
Once more he shook his wings. They were stronger and carried him forward quickly. And, before he was well aware of it, he was in a large garden where the apple trees stood in full bloom, where the syringas sent forth their fragrance, and hung their long green branches down into the winding canal. Oh! Everything was so lovely, so full of the freshness of spring!
Out of the thicket came three beautiful white swans. They displayed their feathers so proudly, and swam so lightly! The duckling knew the glorious creatures and was seized with a strange sadness.
"I will fly to them, those kingly birds!" he said. "They will kill me, because I, ugly as I am, have presumed to approach them. But it does not matter.
Better be killed by them than be bitten by the ducks, pecked by the hens, kicked by the girl who feeds the poultry, and have so much to suffer during the winter!" He flew into the water and swam toward the beautiful creatures. They saw him and shot forward to meet him. "Only kill me," said the poor duckling and he bowed his head low, expecting death. But what did he see in the water? He saw beneath him his own form, no longer that of a plump, ugly, gray bird. It was the reflection of a swan!
It does not matter to have been born in a duckyard if one has been hatched from a swan's egg.
The larger swans swam around him and stroked him with their beaks. He was very happy.
Some little children were running about in the garden. They threw grain and bread into the water, and the youngest exclaimed, "There is a new one!" The others also cried out, "Yes, a new swan has come!" and they clapped their hands, and ran and told their father and mother. Bread and cake were thrown into the water, and everyone said, "The new one is the best, so young and so beautiful!" and the old swans bowed before him. The young swan felt quite ashamed and hid his head under his wing.
He remembered how he had been laughed at and cruelly treated, and he now heard everyone say he was the most beautiful of all beautiful birds. The syringas bent down their branches toward him, and the sun shone warmly and brightly. He shook his feathers, stretched his slender neck, and in the joy of his heart said, "How little did I dream of so much happiness when I was the ugly, despised duckling!"