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The Hen That Hatched Ducks

from Boys And Girls Bookshelf - STORIES BY FAVORITE AMERICAN WRITERS





BY HARRIET BEECHER STOWE


Once there was a nice young hen that we will call Mrs. Feathertop. She
was a hen of most excellent family, being a direct descendant of the
Bolton Grays, and as pretty a young fowl as you wish to see of a
summer's day. She was, moreover, as fortunately situated in life as it
was possible for a hen to be. She was bought by young Master Fred Little
John, with four or five family connections of hers, and a lively young
cock, who was held to be as brisk a scratcher and as capable a head of a
family as any half-dozen sensible hens could desire.

I can't say that at first Mrs. Feathertop was a very sensible hen. She
was very pretty and lively, to be sure, and a great favorite with Master
Bolton Gray Cock, on account of her bright eyes, her finely shaded
feathers, and certain saucy dashing ways that she had, which seemed
greatly to take his fancy. But old Mrs. Scratchard, living in the
neighboring yard, assured all the neighborhood that Gray Cock was a fool
for thinking so much of that flighty young thing--that she had not the
smallest notion how to get on in life, and thought of nothing in the
world but her own pretty feathers. "Wait till she comes to have
chickens," said Mrs. Scratchard. "Then you will see. I have brought up
ten broods myself--as likely and respectable chickens as ever were a
blessing to society--and I think I ought to know a good hatcher and
brooder when I see her; and I know that fine piece of trumpery, with
her white feathers tipped with gray, never will come down to family
life. She scratch for chickens! Bless me, she never did anything in
all her days but run round and eat the worms which somebody else
scratched up for her!"

When Master Bolton Gray heard this he crowed very loudly, like a cock of
spirit, and declared that old Mrs. Scratchard was envious because she
had lost all her own tail-feathers, and looked more like a worn-out old
feather duster than a respectable hen, and that therefore she was filled
with sheer envy of anybody that was young and pretty. So young Mrs.
Feathertop cackled gay defiance at her busy rubbishy neighbor, as she
sunned herself under the bushes on fine June afternoons.

Now Master Fred Little John had been allowed to have these hens by his
mamma on the condition that he would build their house himself, and take
all the care of it; and, to do Master Fred justice, he executed the job
in a small way quite creditably. He chose a sunny sloping bank covered
with a thick growth of bushes, and erected there a nice little
hen-house, with two glass windows, a little door, and a good pole for
his family to roost on. He made, moreover, a row of nice little boxes
with hay in them for nests, and he bought three or four little smooth
white china eggs to put in them, so that, when his hens did lay, he
might carry off their eggs without their being missed. The hen-house
stood in a little grove that sloped down to a wide river, just where
there was a little cove which reached almost to the hen-house.

The situation inspired one of Master Fred's boy advisers with a new
scheme in relation to his poultry enterprise. "Hullo! I say, Fred," said
Tom Seymour, "you ought to raise ducks--you've got a capital place for
ducks there."

"Yes, but I've bought hens, you see," said Freddy; "so it's no use
trying."

"No use! Of course there is! Just as if your hens couldn't hatch ducks'
eggs. Now, you just wait till one of your hens wants to set, and you put
ducks' eggs under her, and you'll have a family of ducks in a twinkling.
You can buy ducks' eggs, a plenty, of old Sam under the hill; he always
has hens hatch his ducks."

So Freddy thought it would be a good experiment, and informed his mother
the next morning that he intended to furnish the ducks for the next
Christmas dinner; and when she wondered how he was to come by them,
he said, mysteriously, "O, I will show you how!" but did not further
explain himself. The next day he went with Tom Seymour, and made a trade
with old Sam, and gave him a middle-aged jack-knife for eight of his
ducks' eggs. Sam, by the bye, was a woolly-headed old negro man, who
lived by the pond hard by, and who had long cast envying eyes on Fred's
jack-knife, because it was of extra-fine steel, having been a Christmas
present the year before. But Fred knew very well there were any number
more of jack-knives where that came from, and that, in order to get a
new one, he must dispose of the old; so he made the trade and came home
rejoicing.

Now, about this time Mrs. Feathertop, having laid her eggs daily with
great credit to herself, notwithstanding Mrs. Scratchard's predictions,
began to find herself suddenly attacked with nervous symptoms. She lost
her gay spirits, grew dumpish and morose, stuck up her feathers in a
bristling way, and pecked at her neighbors if they did so much as
look at her. Master Gray Cock was greatly concerned, and went to old
Doctor Peppercorn, who looked solemn and recommended an infusion of
angle-worms, and said he would look in on the patient twice a day till
she was better.

"Gracious me, Gray Cock!" said old Goody Kertarkut, who had been
lolling at the corner as he passed, "a'n't you a fool?--cocks always
are fools. Don't you know what's the matter with your wife? She wants
to set--that's all; and you just let her set! A fiddlestick for Doctor
Peppercorn! Why, any good old hen that has brought up a family knows
more than a doctor about such things. You just go home and tell her to
set, if she wants to, and behave herself."

When Gray Cock came home, he found that Master Freddy had been before
him, and established Mrs. Feathertop upon eight nice eggs, where
she was sitting in gloomy grandeur. He tried to make a little affable
conversation with her, and to relate his interview with the Doctor and
Goody Kertarkut, but she was morose and sullen, and only pecked at him
now and then in a very sharp, unpleasant way; so, after a few more
efforts to make himself agreeable, he left her, and went out promenading
with the captivating Mrs. Red Comb, a charming young Spanish widow, who
had just been imported into the neighboring yard.

"Bless my soul!" said he, "you've no idea how cross my wife is."

"O you horrid creature!" said Mrs. Red Comb; "how little you feel for
the weaknesses of us poor hens!"

"On my word, ma'am," said Gray Cock, "you do me injustice. But when a
hen gives way to temper, ma'am and no longer meets her husband with a
smile--when she even pecks at him whom she is bound to honor and
obey----"

"Horrid monster! talking of obedience! I should say, sir, you came
straight from Turkey!" And Mrs. Red Comb tossed her head with a most
bewitching air, and pretended to run away, and old Mrs. Scratchard
looked out of her coop and called to Goody Kertarkut:

"Look how Mr. Gray Cock is flirting with that widow. I always knew she
was a baggage."

"And his poor wife left at home alone," said Goody Kertarkut. "It's the
way with 'em all!"

"Yes, yes," said Dame Scratchard, "she'll know what real life is now,
and she won't go about holding her head so high, and looking down on her
practical neighbors that have raised families."

"Poor thing, what'll she do with a family?" said Goody Kertarkut.

"Well, what business have such young flirts to get married," said Dame
Scratchard. "I don't expect she'll raise a single chick; and there's
Gray Cock flirting about fine as ever. Folks didn't do so when I was
young. I'm sure my husband knew what treatment a setting hen ought to
have--poor old Long Spur--he never minded a peck or so now and then. I
must say these modern fowls a'n't what fowls used to be."

Meanwhile the sun rose and set, and Master Fred was almost the only
friend and associate of poor little Mrs. Feathertop, whom he fed daily
with meal and water, and only interrupted her sad reflections by pulling
her up occasionally to see how the eggs were coming on.

At last "Peep, peep, peep!" began to be heard in the nest, and one
little downy head after another poked forth from under the feathers,
surveying the world with round, bright, winking eyes; and gradually the
brood was hatched, and Mrs. Feathertop arose, a proud and happy mother,
with all the bustling, scratching, caretaking instincts of family
life warm within her breast. She clucked and scratched, and cuddled
the little downy bits of things as handily and discreetly as a
seven-year-old hen could have done, exciting thereby the wonder of the
community.

Master Gray Cock came home in high spirits and complimented her; told
her she was looking charmingly once more, and said, "Very well, very
nice!" as he surveyed the young brood. So that Mrs. Feathertop began
to feel the world going well with her, when suddenly in came Dame
Scratchard and Goody Kertarkut to make a morning call.

"Let's see the chicks," said Dame Scratchard.

"Goodness me," said Goody Kertarkut, "what a likeness to their dear
papa!"

"Well, but bless me, what's the matter with their bills?" said Dame
Scratchard. "Why, my dear, these chicks are deformed! I'm sorry for you,
my dear, but it's all the result of your inexperience; you ought to have
eaten pebble-stones with your meal when you were setting. Don't you see,
Dame Kertarkut, what bills they have? That'll increase, and they'll be
frightful!"

"What shall I do?" said Mrs. Feathertop, now greatly alarmed.

"Nothing as I know of," said Dame Scratchard, "since you didn't come to
me before you set. I could have told you all about it. Maybe it won't
kill 'em, but they'll always be deformed."

And so the gossips departed, leaving a sting under the pin-feathers of
the poor little hen mamma, who began to see that her darlings had
curious little spoon-bills different from her own, and to worry and fret
about it.

"My dear," she said to her spouse, "do get Doctor Peppercorn to come in
and look at their bills, and see if anything can be done."

Doctor Peppercorn came in, and put on a monstrous pair of spectacles and
said: "Hum! Ha! Extraordinary case--very singular!"

"Did you ever see anything like it, Doctor?" said both parents, in a
breath.

"I've read of such cases. It's a calcareous enlargement of the vascular
bony tissue, threatening ossification," said the Doctor.

"Oh, dreadful!--can it be possible?" shrieked both parents. "Can
anything be done?"

"Well, I should recommend a daily lotion made of mosquitoes' horns and
bicarbonate of frogs' toes together with a powder, to be taken morning
and night, of muriate of fleas. One thing you must be careful about:
they must never wet their feet, nor drink any water."

"Dear me, Doctor, I don't know what I shall do, for they seem to have
a particular fancy for getting into water."

"Yes, a morbid tendency often found in these cases of bony tumification
of the vascular tissue of the mouth; but you must resist it, ma'am,
as their life depends upon it." And with that Doctor Peppercorn
glared gloomily on the young ducks, who were stealthily poking the
objectionable little spoon-bills out from under their mothers' feathers.

After this poor Mrs. Feathertop led a weary life of it; for the young
fry were as healthy and enterprising a brood of young ducks as ever
carried saucepans on the end of their noses, and they most utterly set
themselves against the doctor's prescriptions, murmured at the muriate
of fleas and the bicarbonate of frogs' toes and took every opportunity
to waddle their little ways down to the mud and water which was in their
near vicinity. So their bills grew larger and larger, as did the rest of
their bodies, and family government grew weaker and weaker.

"You'll wear me out children, you certainly will," said poor Mrs.
Feathertop.

"You'll go to destruction, do ye hear?" said Master Gray Cock.

"Did you ever see such frights as poor Mrs. Feathertop has got?" said
Dame Scratchard. "I knew what would come of her family--all deformed,
and with a dreadful sort of madness, which makes them love to shovel mud
with those shocking spoon-bills of theirs."


"It's a kind of idiocy," said Goody Kertarkut. "Poor things! they
can't be kept from the water, nor made to take powders, and so they got
worse and worse."

"I understand it's affecting their feet so that they can't walk, and a
dreadful sort of net is growing between their toes; what a shocking
visitation!"

"She brought it on herself," said Dame Scratchard. "Why didn't she come
to me before she set? She was always an upstart, self-conceited thing,
but I'm sure I pity her."

Meanwhile the young ducks throve apace. Their necks grew glossy like
changeable green and gold satin, and though they would not take the
doctor's medicine, and would waddle in the mud and water--for which they
always felt themselves to be very naughty ducks--yet they grew quite
vigorous and hearty. At last one day the whole little tribe waddled off
down to the bank of the river. It was a beautiful day, and the river was
dancing and dimpling and winking as the little breezes shook the trees
that hung over it.

"Well," said the biggest of the little ducks, "in spite of Doctor
Peppercorn I can't help longing for the water. I don't believe it is
going to hurt me; at any rate, here goes." And in he plumped, and in
went every duck after him, and they threw out their great brown feet as
cleverly as if they had taken rowing-lessons all their lives, and sailed
off on the river, away, away, among the ferns, under the pink azalias,
through reeds and rushes and arrow-heads and pickerel-weed, the happiest
ducks that ever were born; and soon they were quite out of sight.

"Well, Mrs. Feathertop, this is a dispensation," said Mrs. Scratchard.
"Your children are all drowned at last, just as I knew they'd be. The
old music-teacher Master Bullfrog, that lives down in Water-Dock Lane,
saw 'em all plump madly into the water together this morning; that's
what comes of not knowing how to bring up a family."

Mrs. Feathertop gave only one shriek and fainted dead away, and was
carried home on a cabbage leaf, and Mr. Gray Cock was sent for, where he
was waiting on Mrs. Red Comb through the squash vines.

"It's a serious time in your family, sir," said Goody Kertarkut, "and
you ought to be at home supporting your wife. Send for Doctor Peppercorn
without delay."

Now as the case was a very dreadful one, Doctor Peppercorn called a
council from the barnyard of the Squire two miles off, and a brisk
young Doctor Partlett appeared in a fine suit of brown and gold, with
tail-feathers like meteors. A fine young fellow he was, lately from
Paris, with all the modern scientific improvements fresh in his head.

When he had listened to the whole story, he clapped his spur into the
ground, and, leaning back laughed so loud that all the cocks in the
neighborhood crowed.

Mrs. Feathertop rose up out of her swoon, and Mr. Gray Cock was greatly
enraged.

"What do you mean, sir, by such behavior in the house of mourning?"

"My dear sir, pardon me, but there is no occasion for mourning. My dear
madam, let me congratulate you. There is no harm done. The simple matter
is, dear madam, you have been under a hallucination all along. The
neighborhood and my learned friend the doctor have all made a mistake in
thinking that these children of yours were hens at all. They are ducks,
ma'am, evidently ducks, and very finely formed ducks, I dare say."

At this moment a quack was heard, and at a distance the whole tribe were
seen coming waddling home, their feathers gleaming in green and gold,
and they themselves in high good spirits.

"Such a splendid day as we have had!" they all cried in a breath. "And
we know now how to get our own living; we can take care of ourselves in
future, so you need have no further trouble with us."

"Madam," said the Doctor, making a bow with an air which displayed his
tail-feathers to advantage, "let me congratulate you on the charming
family you have raised. A finer brood of young healthy ducks I never
saw. Give claw, my dear friend," he said, addressing the elder son. "In
our barnyard no family is more respected than that of the ducks."

And so Madam Feathertop came off glorious at last; and when after this
the ducks used to go swimming up and down the river, like so many
nabobs, among the admiring hens, Doctor Peppercorn used to look after
them and say: "Ah! I had the care of their infancy!"

And Mr. Gray Cock and his wife used to say to each other: "It was our
system of education did that!"





Next: By Anna Hempstead Branch

Previous: The Castle Of Gems



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