(Written By Hans Christian Andersen & Translated by Paul Lessach)
It was so lovely in the country—it was summer! The wheat was yellow, the oats were green, the hay was stacked in the green meadows, and down there the stork went tiptoeing on his red legs, jabbering Egyptian, a language his mother had taught him. Round about the fields and meadows were great forests, and in the midst of those forests lay deep lakes. Yes, it was indeed lovely in the country! Bathed in sunshine there stood an old manor house, surrounded by a deep moat, and from the walls down to the water’s edge the bank was covered with great wild rhubarb leaves so high that little children could stand upright under the biggest of them. The place was as much of a wilderness as the densest wood, and there sat a duck on her nest; she was busy hatching her ducklings, but she was almost tired of it, because sitting is such a tedious business, and she had very few callers. The other ducks thought it more fun to swim about in the moat than to come and have a gossip with her under a wild rhubarb leaf.
At last one eggshell after another began to crack open. “Cheep, cheep!” All the yolks had come to life and were sticking out their heads.
“Quack, quack,” said the duck, and all her ducklings came scurrying out as fast as they could, looking about under the green leaves, and their mother let them look as much as they liked, because green is good for the eyes.
“How big the world is!” said all the ducklings, for they felt much more comfortable now than when they were lying in the egg.
“Do you imagine this is the whole of the world?” asked their mother. “It goes far beyond the other side of the garden, right into the Rector’s field, but I’ve never been there yet. I hope you’re all there,” she went on, and hoisted herself up. “No, I haven’t got all of you even now; the biggest egg is still there. I wonder how much longer it will take! I’m getting rather bored with the whole thing.” And she squatted down again on the nest.
“Well, how are you getting on?” asked an old duck who came to call on her.
“That last egg is taking an awfully long time,” said the brooding duck. “It won’t break; but let me show you the others, they’re the sweetest ducklings I’ve ever seen. They are all exactly like their father; the scamp—-he never comes to see me!”
“Let me look at the egg that won’t break,” said the old duck. “You may be sure it’s a turkey’s egg. I was fooled like that once, and the trouble and bother I had with those youngsters, because they were actually afraid of the water! I simply couldn’t get them to go in! I quacked at them and I snapped at them, but it was no use. Let me see the egg—of course it’s a turkey’s egg. Leave it alone, and teach the other children to swim.”
“Oh, well, if I’ve taken so much trouble I may just as well sit a little longer,” said the duck.
“Please yourself,” said the old duck, and she waddled off.
At last the big egg cracked. “Cheep, cheep!” said the youngster, scrambling out; he was so big and ugly! The duck looked at him: “What a frightfully big duckling that one is,” she said. “None of the others looked like that! Could he possibly be a turkey chick? We’ll soon find out; he’ll have to go into water, even if I have to kick him in myself!”
The next day the weather was simply glorious; the sun shone on all the wild rhubarb plants. Mother Duck appeared with her family down by the moat. Splash! There she was in the water! “Quack, quack,” she said, and one duckling after another plumped in. The water closed over their heads, but they were up again in a second and floated beautifully. Their legs worked of their own accord; they were all out in the water now, and even the UGLY GRAY CREATURE was swimming along with them.
“That’s no turkey!” she said. “Look how nicely he uses his legs, and how straight he holds himself! He’s my own flesh and blood, I tell you. He isn’t really so bad when you take a good look at him. Quack, quack—come along with me, I’ll bring you out into the world and introduce you to the dockyard, but keep close to me or you may get stepped on, and look out for the cat!”
So they made their entrance into the dockyard. What a pandemonium there was! Two families were quarreling over an eel’s head; but in the end the cat got it.
“There you are, that’s the way of the world!” said Mother Duck, licking her lips, for she did so want the eel’s head herself. “Now use your legs,” she said. “Move about briskly and curtsey with your necks to the old duck over there; she is the most aristocratic person here, and of Spanish blood, that’s why she is so stout; and be sure to observe that red rag round her leg. It’s a great distinction, and the highest honor that can be bestowed upon a duck: it means that her owner wishes to keep her, and that she is to be specially noticed by man and beast. Now hurry! Don’t turn your toes in; a well-brought-up duckling turns his toes out just as father and mother do—like that. That’s right! Now make a deep curtsey with your necks and say, ‘Quack, quack!’”
And they did as they were told; but the other ducks all round about looked at them and said out loud, “There now! Have we got to have that crowd too? As if there weren’t enough of us already; and ugh! What a dreadful-looking creature that duckling is! We won’t put up with him.” And immediately a duck rushed at him and bit him in the neck.
“Leave him alone,” said the mother. “He’s not bothering any of you.”
“I know,” said the duck who had bitten him, “but he’s too big and odd. What he wants is a good smacking.”
“Those are pretty children you’ve got, Mother,” said the old duck with the rag round her leg. “They are all nice-looking except that one—he didn’t turn out so well. I wish he could be made all over again!”
“That can’t be done, Your Grace,” said Mother Duck. “He’s not handsome, but he’s as good as gold, and he swims as well as any of the others, I daresay even a little better. I expect his looks will improve, or perhaps in time his size won’t be so noticeable. He was in the egg too long, that’s why he isn’t properly shaped.” And she pecked his neck and brushed up the little man. “As it happens he’s a drake, “ she added, “so it doesn’t matter quite so much. I think he’ll be a strong fellow, and I’m sure he’ll make his mark in the world.”
“The other ducklings are lovely, “ said the old duck. “Make yourselves at home, and if you find an eel’s head—you may bring to me.”
So at once they felt at home.
But the poor duckling who was the last to be hatched, and who looked so ugly, was bitten and buffeted about and made fun of both by the ducks and the hens. “He’s too big!” they all said. And the turkey-cock, who was born with spurs and consequently thought he was an Emperor, blew himself up like a ship in full sail and made for him gobbling and gobbling till his wattles were quite purple. The poor duckling did not know where to turn; he was so miserable because of his ugliness, and because he was the butt of the whole barnyard.
And so it went on all the first day, and after that matters grew worse and worse. The poor duckling was chased about by everyone; his own brothers and sisters were downright nasty to him and always said, “I hope the cat gets you, you skinny bag of bones!” And even his mother said, “I wish you were miles away!” And the ducks bit him and the hens pecked him, and the girl who fed them kicked him with her foot.
So, half running and half flying, he got over the fence.
The little birds in the bushes rose up in alarm. “That’s because I’m so ugly,” thought the duckling, and closed his eyes, but he kept on running, and finally came out into the great marsh where the wild ducks lived. There he lay the whole night long, tired and downhearted.
In the morning the wild ducks flew up and looked at their new companion. “What sort of a fellow are you?” they asked, and the duckling turned in all directions, bowing to everybody as nicely as he could.
“You’re appallingly ugly!” said the wild ducks, “but why should we care so long as you don’t marry into our family?” Poor thing! As if he had any thought of marrying! All he wanted to do was to lie among the reeds, and to drink a little marsh water.
So he lay there for two whole days, and then came two wild geese, or rather ganders, for they were two young men; they had not been out of the egg very long, and that was why they were so cocky.
“Listen, young fellow,” they said. “You’re so ugly that we quite like you. Will you join us and be a bird of passage? Close by, in another marsh there are some lovely wild geese, all nice young girls, and they can all say ‘Quack.’ You’re so ugly that you might appeal to them.”
Two shots rang out—bang! bang!—both ganders fell dead among the reeds, and the water was reddened with their blood. Bang! bang! was heard again, and the whole flocks of wild geese flew up from the reeds, and—bang! bang! again and again. A great shoot was going on. The men were lying under cover all round the marsh, and some of them were even up in the trees whose branches stretched out above the reeds. Blue smoke drifted in among the dark trees and was carried far out over the water. Through the mud came the gun-dogs—splash! splash!—bending down the reeds and rushes on every side. The poor duckling was scared out of his wits, and tried to hide his head under his wing, when suddenly a fierce-looking dog came close to him, with his tongue hanging far out of his mouth, and his wild eyes gleaming horribly. He opened his jaws wide, showed his sharp teeth, and—splash! splash!—off he went without touching the duckling.
“Thank heaven!” he sighed. “I’m so ugly that even the dog won’t bother to bite me!”
And so he lay perfectly still, while the shots rattled through the reeds as gun after gun was fired.
It was towards evening when everything quieted down, but the poor duckling dared not stir yet. He waited several hours before he looked about him, and then hurried away from the marsh as fast as he could. He ran over field and meadow, hardly able to fight against the strong wind.
Late that night he reached a wretched little hut, so wretched, in fact, that it did not know which way to fall, and that is why it remained standing upright. The wind whistled so fiercely round the duckling that the poor thing simply had to sit down on his little tail to resist it.
The storm grew worse and worse. Then he noticed that the door had come off one of its hinges and hung so crooked that he could slip into the room through the opening, and that is what he did.
An old woman lived here with her tom-cat and her hen. The cat, whom she called “Sonny,” knew how to arch his back and purr; in fact he could even give out sparks, but for that you had to rub his fur the wrong way. The hen had little short legs and was called “Stumpy.” She was an excellent layer and the old woman loved her as her own child.
Next morning they at once noticed the strange duckling; the cat began to purr and the hen cluck.
“What’s the matter?” asked the old woman, looking about her; but her eyes were not very good, and so she mistook the duckling for a fat duck that had lost her way. “What a windfall!” she said. “Now I shall have duck’s eggs—if it doesn’t happen to be a drake. We must make sure of that.” So the duckling was taken on trial for three weeks, but not a single egg came along.
Now the cat was master of the house, and the hen was mistress, and they always said, “We, and the world”; for they imagined themselves to be not only half the world, but by far the better half. The duckling thought that other people might be allowed to have an opinion too, but the hen could not see that at all.
“Can you lay eggs?” she asked.
“Well, then, you’d better keep your mouth shut!”
And the cat said, “Can you arch your back, purr, and give out sparks?”
“Well, then, you can’t have any opinion worth offering when sensible people are speaking.”
The duckling sat in a corner, feeling very gloomy and depressed; then he suddenly thought of the fresh air and the bright sunshine, and such a longing came over him to swim in the water that he could not help telling the hen about it.
“What’s the matter with you?” asked the hen. “You haven’t got anything to do, that’s why you get these silly ideas. Either lay eggs or purr and you’ll soon be all right.”
“But it’s so delightful to swim in the water,” said the duckling, “so delightful to get it over your head and dive down to the bottom!”
“Yes, it must be delightful!” said the hen. “You’ve gone crazy, I think. Ask the cat, the cleverest creature I know, if he likes swimming or diving. I say nothing of myself. Ask our mistress, the old woman, as well; no one in the world is wiser than she. Do you think she would like to swim, or to get the water over her head?”
“You don’t understand me,” said the duckling.
“Well, if we don’t understand you, then who would? You surely don’t imagine you’re wiser than the cat or the old woman?—not to mention myself, of course. Don’t give yourself such airs, child, but be grateful to your Maker for all the kindness you have received. Didn’t you get into a warm room, and haven’t you fallen in with people who can teach you a thing or two? But you talk such nonsense, its no fun at all to have you about. Believe me, I wish you well. I tell you unpleasant things, but that’s the way to know one’s real friends. Come on, hurry up, see that you lay eggs, and do not learn how to purr or to give out sparks!”
“I think I had better go out into the wide world,” said the duckling.
“Please yourself,” said the hen.
So the duckling went away: he swam in the water and dived down into it, but he was still snubbed by every creature because of his ugliness.
Autumn set in. The leaves in the woods turned yellow and brown: the wind caught them and whirled them about; up in the air it looked very cold. The clouds hung low, heavy with hail and snowflakes, and on the fence perched the raven, trembling with the cold and croaking, “Caw! Caw!” The mere thought of it was enough to make anybody shiver. The poor duckling was certainly to be pitied!
One evening, when the sun was setting in all its splendor, a large flock of big handsome birds came out of the bushes. The duckling had never before seen anything quite so beautiful as these birds. They were dazzlingly white, with long supple necks—they were swans! They uttered a most uncanny cry, and spread their splendid great wings to fly away from the cold regions, away to warmer countries, to open lakes. They rose so high, so very high in the air, that a strange feeling came over the ugly little duckling as he watched them. He turned round and round in the water like a wheel, craned his neck to follow their flight, and uttered a cry so loud and strange that it frightened him.
He could not forget those noble birds, those happy birds, and when they were lost to sight he dived down to the bottom of the water; then when he came up again he was quite beside himself. He did not know what the birds were called, nor where they were flying to, and yet he loved them more than he had ever loved anything. He did not envy them in the least; it would never have occurred to him to want such beauty for himself. He would have been quite content if only the ducks would have put up with him—the poor ugly creature!
And the winter grew so cold, so bitterly cold. The duckling was forced to swim about in the water to keep it from freezing altogether, but every night the opening became smaller and smaller; at last it froze so hard that the ice made cracking noises, and the duckling had to keep on paddling to prevent the opening from closing up. In the end he was exhausted and lay quite still, caught in the ice.
Early next morning a farmer came by, and when he saw him he went on to the ice, broke it with his wooden, and carried him home to his wife. There the duckling revived.
The children wanted to play with him, but he thought they meant to do him harm, so he fluttered, terrified, into the milk-pail, splashing the milk all over the room. The woman screamed and threw up her hands in fright. Then he flew into the butter-tub, and from that into the flour-barrel and out again. What a sight he was! The woman shrieked and struck at him with the tongs. Laughing and shouting, the children fell over each other trying to catch him. Fortunately the door was open, so the duckling dashed out into the bushes and lay there in the newly fallen snow, as if in a daze.
It would be too sad, however, to tell all the TROUBLE AND MISERY HE HAD TO SUFFER during that cruel winter. . . . When the sun began to shine warmly he found himself once more in the marsh among the reeds. The larks were singing—it was spring, beautiful spring!
Then suddenly he spread his wings; the sound of their whirring made him realize how much stronger they had grown, and they carried him powerfully along. Before he knew it, HE FOUND HIMSELF IN A GREAT GARDEN where the apple trees stood in bloom, and the lilac filled the air with its fragrance, bending down the long green branches over the meandering streams.
It was so lovely here, so full of the freshness of spring. And look! from out of the thicket in front of him came three beautiful white swans. They ruffled their feathers proudly, and floated so lightly on the water. The duckling recognized the glorious creatures, and felt a strange sadness come over him.
“I will fly near those royal birds, and they will peck me to death for daring to bring my ugly self near them. But that doesn’t matter in the least! Better to be killed by them than to be bitten by the ducks, pecked by the hens, kicked by the girl in charge of the hen-run, and suffer untold agony in winter.”
Then he flew into the water and swam towards the beautiful swans. They saw him and dashed at him with outspread rustling feathers. “Kill me,” said the poor creature, and he bowed his head down upon the surface of the stream, expecting death. But what was this he saw mirrored in the clear water? He saw beneath him his own image, but it was no longer the image of an awkward dirty gray bird, ugly and repulsive—he himself was a swan!
It does not matter being born in a dockyard, if only one has lain in a swan’s egg.
He felt quite glad to have been through so much TROUBLE and ADVERSITY, for now he could fully appreciate not only his own good fortune, but also all the beauty that greeted him. The great swans swam round him and stroke him with their beaks.
Some little children came into the garden to throw bread and corn into the water, and the youngest exclaimed, “There’s a new one!” And the other children chimed in, “Yes, there’s a new one!” They clapped their hands, danced about, and ran to fetch their father and mother.
Bread and cake were thrown into the water, and everyone said, “The NEW ONE is the most beautiful of all! He’s so young and handsome!” And the old swans bowed to him.
That made him feel quite embarrassed, and he put his head under his wing, not knowing what it was all about. An overwhelming happiness filled him, and yet he was not at all proud, FOR A GOOD HEART NEVER BECOMES PROUD.
He remembered how once he had been despised and persecuted; and now he heard everyone saying that he was the most beautiful of all beautiful birds.
And the lilac bushes dipped their branches into the water before him; and the sun shone warm and mild. He rustled his feathers and held his graceful neck high, and from the depths of his heart he joyfully exclaimed, “I never dreamt that so much happiness was possible when I was the ugly duckling.”