The Hen That Hatched Ducks

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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 f
ve 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


"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


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


"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


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


"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


"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


"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.


"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


"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


"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!"