The Ugly Duckling
: Favorite Fairy Tales
The country was lovely just then; it was summer! The wheat was golden
and the oats still green; the hay was stacked in the rich, low-lying
meadows, where the stork was marching about on his long red legs,
chattering Egyptian, the language his mother had taught him.
Round about field and meadow lay great woods, in the midst of which
were deep lakes. Yes, the country certainly was delicious. In the
spot stood an old mansion surrounded by a deep moat, and
great dock leaves grew from the walls of the house right down to the
water's edge, some of them were so tall that a small child could
stand upright under them. In among the leaves it was as secluded as in
the depths of a forest, and there a duck was sitting on her nest. Her
little ducklings were just about to be hatched, but she was nearly
tired of sitting, for it had lasted such a long time. Moreover, she
had very few visitors, as the other ducks liked swimming about in the
moat better than waddling up to sit under the dock leaves and gossip
At last one egg after another began to crack. "Cheep, cheep!" they
said. All the chicks had come to life, and were poking their heads
"Quack! quack!" said the duck; and then they all quacked their
hardest, and looked about them on all sides among the green leaves;
their mother allowed them to look as much as they liked, for green is
good for the eyes.
"How big the world is to be sure!" said all the young ones; for they
certainly had ever so much more room to move about than when they were
inside the egg-shell.
"Do you imagine this is the whole world?" said the mother. "It
stretches a long way on the other side of the garden, right into the
parson's field; but I have never been as far as that! I suppose you
are all here now?" and she got up. "No! I declare I have not got you
all yet! The biggest egg is still there; how long is it going to
last?" and then she settled herself on the nest again.
"Well, how are you getting on?" said an old duck who had come to pay
her a visit.
"This one egg is taking such a long time," answered the sitting duck,
"the shell will not crack; but now you must look at the others; they
are the finest ducklings I have ever seen! they are all exactly like
their father, the rascal! he never comes to see me."
"Let me look at the egg which won't crack," said the old duck. "You
may be sure that it is a turkey's egg! I have been cheated like that
once, and I had no end of trouble and worry with the creatures, for I
may tell you that they are afraid of the water. I could not get them
into it; I quacked and snapped at them, but it was no good. Let me see
the egg! Yes, it is a turkey's egg! You just leave it alone and teach
the other children to swim."
"I will sit on it a little longer; I have sat so long already that I
may as well go on till the Midsummer Fair comes round."
"Please yourself," said the old duck, and she went away.
At last the big egg cracked. "Cheep, cheep!" said the young one and
tumbled out; how big and ugly he was! The duck looked at him.
"That is a monstrous big duckling," she said; "none of the others
looked like that; can he be a turkey chick? well, we shall soon find
that out; into the water he shall go, if I have to kick him in
Next day was gloriously fine, and the sun shone on all the green dock
leaves. The mother duck with her whole family went down to the moat.
Splash, into the water she sprang. "Quack, quack!" she said, and one
duckling plumped in after the other. The water dashed over their
heads, but they came up again and floated beautifully; their legs went
of themselves, and they were all there, even the big ugly gray one
swam about with them.
"No, that is no turkey," she said; "see how beautifully he uses his
legs and how erect he holds himself; he is my own chick! after all, he
is not so bad when you come to look at him properly. Quack, quack! Now
come with me and I will take you into the world, and introduce you to
the duckyard; but keep close to me all the time, so that no one may
tread upon you, and beware of the cat!"
Then they went into the duckyard. There was a fearful uproar going on,
for two broods were fighting for the head of an eel, and in the end
the cat captured it.
"That's how things go in this world," said the mother duck; and she
licked her bill, for she wanted the eel's head for herself.
"Use your legs," said she; "mind you quack properly, and bend your
necks to the old duck over there! She is the grandest of them all; she
has Spanish blood in her veins and that accounts for her size, and, do
you see? she has a red rag round her leg; that is a wonderfully fine
thing, and the most extraordinary mark of distinction any duck can
have. It shows clearly that she is not to be parted with, and that she
is worthy of recognition both by beasts and men! Quack now! don't
turn your toes in, a well brought up duckling keeps his legs wide
apart just like father and mother; that's it, now bend your necks, and
They did as they were bid, but the other ducks round about looked at
them and said, quite loud: "Just look there! now we are to have that
tribe! just as if there were not enough of us already, and, oh dear!
how ugly that duckling is, we won't stand him!" and a duck flew at him
at once and bit him in the neck.
"Let him be," said the mother; "he is doing no harm."
"Very likely not, but he is so ungainly and queer," said the biter,
"he must be whacked."
"They are handsome children mother has," said the old duck with the
rag round her leg; "all good looking except this one, and he is not a
good specimen; it's a pity you can't make him over again."
"That can't be done, your grace," said the mother duck; "he is not
handsome, but he is a thorough good creature, and he swims as
beautifully as any of the others; nay, I think I might venture even to
add that I think he will improve as he goes on, or perhaps in time he
may grow smaller! he was too long in the egg, and so he has not come
out with a very good figure." And then she patted his neck and stroked
him down. "Besides, he is a drake," said she; "so it does not matter
so much. I believe he will be very strong, and I don't doubt but he
will make his way in the world."
"The other ducklings are very pretty," said the old duck. "Now make
yourselves quite at home, and if you find the head of an eel you may
bring it to me!"
After that they felt quite at home. But the poor duckling which had
been the last to come out of the shell, and who was so ugly, was
bitten, pushed about, and made fun of both by the ducks and the hens.
"He is too big," they all said; and the turkey-cock, who was born with
his spurs on, and therefore thought himself quite an emperor, puffed
himself up like a vessel in full sail, made for him, and gobbled and
gobbled till he became quite red in the face. The poor duckling was at
his wit's end, and did not know which way to turn; he was in despair
because he was so ugly and the butt of the whole duckyard.
So the first day passed, and afterwards matters grew worse and worse.
The poor duckling was chased and hustled by all of them; even his
brothers and sisters ill-used him, and they were always saying, "If
only the cat would get hold of you, you hideous object!" Even his
mother said, "I wish to goodness you were miles away." The ducks bit
him, the hens pecked him, and the girl who fed them kicked him aside.
Then he ran off and flew right over the hedge, where the little birds
flew up into the air in a fright.
"That is because I am so ugly," thought the poor duckling, shutting
his eyes, but he ran on all the same. Then he came to a great marsh
where the wild ducks lived; he was so tired and miserable that he
stayed there the whole night.
In the morning the wild ducks flew up to inspect their new comrade.
"What sort of a creature are you?" they inquired, as the duckling
turned from side to side and greeted them as well as he could. "You
are frightfully ugly," said the wild ducks; "but that does not matter
to us, so long as you do not marry into our family!" Poor fellow! he
had no thought of marriage; all he wanted was permission to lie among
the rushes, and to drink a little of the marsh water.
He stayed there two whole days; then two wild geese came, or, rather,
two wild ganders; they were not long out of the shell, and therefore
"I say, comrade," they said, "you are so ugly that we have taken quite
a fancy to you; will you join us and be a bird of passage? There is
another marsh close by, and there are some charming wild geese there;
all sweet young ladies, who can say quack! You are ugly enough to make
your fortune among them." Just at that moment, bang! bang! was heard
up above, and both the wild geese fell dead among the reeds, and the
water turned blood red. Bang! bang! went the guns, and whole flocks of
wild geese flew up from the rushes and the shot peppered among them
There was a grand shooting-party, and the sportsmen lay hidden round
the marsh; some even sat on the branches of the trees which overhung
the water; the blue smoke rose like clouds among the dark trees and
swept over the pool.
The water-dogs wandered about in the swamp--splash! splash! The rushes
and reeds bent beneath their tread on all sides. It was terribly
alarming to the poor duckling. He twisted his head round to get it
under his wing, and just at that moment a frightful big dog appeared
close beside him; his tongue hung right out of his mouth and his eyes
glared wickedly. He opened his great chasm of a mouth close to the
duckling, showed his sharp teeth, and--splash!--went on without
"Oh, thank Heaven!" sighed the duckling, "I am so ugly that even the
dog won't bite me!"
Then he lay quite still while the shot whistled among the bushes, and
bang after bang rent the air. It only became quiet late in the day,
but even then the poor duckling did not dare to get up; he waited
several hours more before he looked about, and then he hurried away
from the marsh as fast as he could. He ran across fields and meadows,
and there was such a wind that he had hard work to make his way.
Towards night he reached a poor little cottage; it was such a
miserable hovel that it could not make up its mind which way to fall
even, and so it remained standing. The wind whistled so fiercely round
the duckling that he had to sit on his tail to resist it, and it blew
harder and harder; then he saw that the door had fallen off one hinge
and hung so crookedly that he could creep into the house through the
crack, and by this means he made his way into the room. An old woman
lived there with her cat and her hen. The cat, which she called
"Sonnie," could arch his back, purr, and give off electric
sparks--that is to say, if you stroked his fur the wrong way. The hen
had quite tiny short legs, and so she was called "Chuckie-low-legs."
She laid good eggs, and the old woman was as fond of her as if she had
been her own child.
In the morning the strange duckling was discovered immediately, and
the cat began to purr and the hen to cluck.
"What on earth is that!" said the old woman, looking round; but her
sight was not good, and she thought the duckling was a fat duck which
had escaped. "This is a capital find," said she; "now I shall have
duck's eggs if only it is not a drake. We must find out about that!"
So she took the duckling on trial for three weeks, but no eggs made
their appearance. The cat was the master of the house and the hen the
mistress, and they always spoke of "we and the world," for they
thought that they represented the half of the world, and that quite
the better half.
The duckling thought there might be two opinions on the subject, but
the cat would not hear of it.
"Can you lay eggs?" she asked.
"Will you have the goodness to hold your tongue, then!"
And the cat said, "Can you arch your back, purr, or give off sparks?"
"Then you had better keep your opinions to yourself when people of
sense are speaking!"
The duckling sat in the corner nursing his ill-humor; then he began to
think of the fresh air and the sunshine, an uncontrollable longing
seized him to float on the water, and at last he could not help
telling the hen about it.
"What on earth possesses you?" she asked. "You have nothing to do;
that is why you get these freaks into your head. Lay some eggs or take
to purring, and you will get over it."
"But it is so delicious to float, on the water," said the duckling;
"so delicious to feel it rushing over your head when you dive to the
"That would be a fine amusement," said the hen. "I think you have gone
mad. Ask the cat about it, he is the wisest creature I know; ask him
if he is fond of floating on the water or diving under it. I say
nothing about myself. Ask our mistress yourself, the old woman; there
is no one in the world cleverer than she is. Do you suppose she has
any desire to float on the water or to duck underneath it?"
"You do not understand me," said the duckling.
"Well, if we don't understand you, who should? I suppose you don't
consider yourself cleverer than the cat or the old woman, not to
mention me. Don't make a fool of yourself, child, and thank your stars
for all the good we have done you! Have you not lived in this warm
room, and in such society that you might have learned something? But
you are an idiot, and there is no pleasure in associating with you.
You may believe me I mean you well, I tell you home truths, and there
is no surer way than that of knowing who are one's friends. You just
see about laying some eggs, or learn to purr, or to emit sparks."
"I think I will go out into the wide world," said the duckling.
"Oh, do so by all means!" said the hen.
So away went the duckling; he floated on the water and ducked
underneath it, but he was looked askance at by every living creature
for his ugliness. Now the autumn came on, the leaves in the woods
turned yellow and brown; the wind took hold of them, and they danced
about. The sky looked very cold, and the clouds hung heavy with snow
and hail. A raven stood on the fence and croaked Caw! Caw! from sheer
cold; it made one shiver only to think of it. The poor duckling
certainly was in a bad case.
One evening the sun was just setting in wintry splendor when a flock
of beautiful large birds appeared out of the bushes. The duckling had
never seen anything so beautiful. They were dazzlingly white with long
waving necks; they were swans; and, uttering a peculiar cry, they
spread out their magnificent broad wings, and flew away from the cold
regions to warmer lands and open seas. They mounted so high, so very
high, and the ugly little duckling became strangely uneasy; he circled
round and round in the water like a wheel, craning his neck up into
the air after them. Then he uttered a shriek so piercing and so
strange that he was quite frightened by it himself. Oh, he could not
forget those beautiful birds, those happy birds! And as soon as they
were out of sight he ducked right down to the bottom, and when he came
up again he was quite beside himself. He did not know what the birds
were or whither they flew, but all the same he was more drawn towards
them than he had ever been by any creatures before. He did not even
envy them in the least. How could it occur to him even to wish to be
such a marvel of beauty; he would have been thankful if only the ducks
would have tolerated him among them--the poor ugly creature!
The winter was so bitterly cold that the duckling was obliged to swim
about in the water to keep it from freezing, but every night the hole
in which he swam got smaller and smaller. Then it froze so hard that
the surface ice cracked, and the duckling had to use his legs all the
time, so that the ice should not close in round him; at last he was so
weary that he could move no more, and he was frozen fast into the ice.
Early in the morning a peasant came along and saw him; he went out
onto the ice and hammered a hole in it with his heavy wooden shoe, and
carried the duckling home to his wife. There it soon revived. The
children wanted to play with it, but the duckling thought they were
going to ill-use him, and rushed in his fright into the milk pan, and
the milk spurted out all over the room. The woman shrieked and threw
up her hands; then it flew into the butter cask, and down into the
meal tub and out again. Just imagine what it looked like by this time!
The woman screamed and tried to hit it with the tongs, and the
children tumbled over one another in trying to catch it, and they
screamed with laughter. By good luck the door stood open, and the
duckling flew out among the bushes and the new fallen snow, and it lay
there thoroughly exhausted.
But it would be too sad to mention all the privation and misery it
had to go through during that hard winter. When the sun began to shine
warmly again the duckling was in the marsh, lying among the rushes;
the larks were singing, and the beautiful spring had come.
Then all at once it raised its wings, and they flapped with much
greater strength than before and bore him off vigorously. Before he
knew where he was he found himself in a large garden where the
apple-trees were in a full blossom, and the air was scented with
lilacs, the long branches of which overhung the indented shores of the
lake. Oh! the spring freshness was so delicious!
Just in front of him he saw three beautiful white swans advancing
towards him from a thicket; with rustling feathers they swam lightly
over the water. The duckling recognized the majestic birds, and he was
overcome by a strange melancholy.
"I will fly to them, the royal birds, and they will hack me to
pieces, because I, who am so ugly, venture to approach them! But it
won't matter; better be killed by them than be snapped at by the
ducks, pecked by the hens, or spurned by the henwife, or suffer so
much misery in the winter."
So he flew into the water, and swam towards the stately swans; they
saw him, and darted towards him with ruffled feathers.
"Kill me, oh, kill me!" said the poor creature, and bowing his head
towards the water he awaited his death. But what did he see reflected
in the transparent water?
He saw below him his own image; but he was no longer a clumsy, dark,
gray bird, ugly and ungainly. He was himself a swan! It does not
matter in the least having been born in a duckyard if only you come
out of a swan's egg!
He felt quite glad of all the misery and tribulation he had gone
through; he was the better able to appreciate his good-fortune now,
and all the beauty which greeted him. The big swans swam round and
round him, and stroked him with their bills.
Some little children came into the garden with corn and pieces of
bread, which they threw into the water; and the smallest one cried
out: "There is a new one!" The other children shouted with joy: "Yes,
a new one has come!" And they clapped their hands and danced about,
running after their father and mother. They threw the bread into the
water, and one and all said that "the new one was the prettiest; he
was so young and handsome." And the old swans bent their heads and did
homage before him.
He felt quite shy, and hid his head under his wing; he did not know
what to think; he was so very happy, but not at all proud; a good
heart never becomes proud. He thought of how he had been pursued and
scorned, and now he heard them all say that he was the most beautiful
of all beautiful birds. The lilacs bent their boughs right down into
the water before him, and the bright sun was warm and cheering, and he
rustled his feathers and raised his slender neck aloft, saying, with
exultation in his heart: "I never dreamed of so much happiness when I
was the Ugly Duckling!"