It was a beautiful summer, the wheat was yellow, the oats were green, and the hay was dry. From the old ruined house which nobody lived in, down to the edge of the canal, was a forest of great burdocks. It was under these burdocks that a duck had built herself a warm nest, and was sitting all day on six pretty eggs. Five of them were white, but the sixth, which was larger than the others, was of an ugly grey colour. The duck was always puzzled about that egg, and how it came to be so different from the rest.
She had looked at the eggs at least a hundred and fifty times, when, to her joy, she saw a tiny crack on two of them. Next morning she was rewarded by noticing cracks in the whole five eggs, and by midday two little yellow heads were poking out from the shells. This encouraged her so much that, after breaking the shells with her bill, so that the little creatures could get free of them, she sat steadily for a whole night upon the nest, and before the sun arose the five white eggs were empty.
She waited now for the big egg to hatch. But day after day went on, and the big egg showed no signs of cracking, and the duck grew more and more impatient.
When she woke with the first steaks of light she felt something stirring under her. Yes, there it was at last. There was no denying it was ugly, even the mother was forced to admit that to herself, though she only said it was ‘large’ and ‘strong.’
‘You won’t need any teaching when you are once in the water,’ she told him, with a glance of surprise at the dull brown which covered his back.
On the next day the weather was beautiful, and the sun shone brightly on the green burdock leaves, so the mother duck took her little ducklings down to the water, and jumped in with a splash. One after another the little ducklings jumped in. The water closed over their heads, but they came up again in an instant, and swam about quite prettily with their legs paddling under them as easily as possible, and the ugly duckling was also in the water swimming with them.
Later, the mother duck took her ducklings to the farmyard to introduce them to a very old duck lady, who was treated with great respect by all the fowls. When they reached there, their mother told them:
‘You must go up and bow low before that old lady”.
The little ducks did so, and the old lady was quite pleased with them; but the rest of the ducks looked on discontentedly, and said to each other:
‘ Did you ever see anything quite as ugly as that great tall creature? He is a disgrace to any brood.’ And one of them ran to the big duckling and bit his neck.
Even the turkey-cock, who was so big, never passed him without mocking words, and his brothers and sisters soon became as rude and unkind as the rest.
At last he could bear it no longer, and one night, when the ducks and hens were asleep, he stole away through an open door, and scrambled on by the bank of the canal, till he reached a wide grassy moor, full of soft marshy places where the reeds grew. But he soon found himself in the middle of a hunting and the gun shots scared him very much. He met a huge creature on four legs, which he afterwards knew to be a dog, who stood and gazed at him with a long red tongue hanging out of his mouth. The duckling grew cold with terror, and tried to hide his head beneath his little wings; but the dog snuffed at him and passed on.
‘I am too ugly even for a dog to eat,’ said he to himself. ‘Well, that is a great mercy.’ And he curled himself up in the soft grass till the shots died away in the distance.
When all had been quiet for a long time, he marched on till he got to a small cottage. The duckling went in, and lay down under a chair. But no one seemed to see him or smell him; so he spent the rest of the night in peace.
Now in the cottage dwelt an old woman, her cat, and a hen. It was only next morning, when it grew light, that they noticed their visitor, who stood trembling before them, with his eye on the door ready to escape at any moment. They did not, however, appear very fierce, and the duckling became less afraid as they approached him.
‘Can you lay eggs?’ asked the hen. And the duckling answered meekly:
‘No; I don’t know how.’ Upon which the hen turned her back, and the cat came forward.
‘Can you ruffle your fur when you are angry, or purr when you are pleased?’ said she. And again the duckling had to admit that he could do nothing but swim, which did not seem of much use to anybody.
So the duckling remained for three weeks, and shared the food of the cat and the hen; but when the sun came out, and the air grew soft, the duckling wanted to have a swim, so he left the cottage.
He could not help a thrill of joy when he was out in the air and water once more, and cared little for the rude glances of the creatures he met.
For a while he was quite happy and content; but soon the winter came on, and snow began to fall, and everything to grow very wet and uncomfortable.
And every morning it grew colder and colder, and the duckling was never warm at all; and at last, after one bitter night, his legs moved so slowly that the ice crept closer and closer, and when the morning light broke he was caught fast, as in a trap; and soon his senses went from him.
But, by good fortune, a man was crossing the river and saw in a moment what had happened. He went and stamped so hard on the ice that it broke, and then he picked up the duckling and took it to his children, but he wouldn’t stay and ran away.
He was very miserable the whole winter, but by-and-by things grew better when the spring came. When he stood up, he felt different, somehow. His body seemed larger, and his wings stronger and he could even fly.
He fluttered slowly to the ground and paused for a few minutes and while he was gazing about him, there walked slowly by a flock of some beautiful birds. Fascinated, he watched them one by one step into the canal, and float quietly upon the waters.
‘I will follow them,’ said the duckling to himself; ‘ugly though I am, I would rather be killed by them than suffer all I have suffered from cold and hunger, and from the ducks and fowls who should have treated me kindly.’ And flying quickly down to the water, he swam after them as fast as he could.
When they saw him coming, some of the younger ones swam out to meet him with cries of welcome, which again the duckling hardly understood. He approached and turning to one of the older birds, he said:
‘If I am to die, I would rather you should kill me. I don’t know why I was ever hatched, for I am too ugly to live.’ And as he spoke, he bowed his head and looked down into the water.
Reflected in the still pool he saw many white shapes, with long necks and golden bills, and, without thinking, he looked for the dull grey body and the awkward skinny neck. But no such thing was there. Instead, he beheld beneath him a beautiful white swan!
‘The new one is the best of all,’ said the children when they came down to feed the swans with biscuit and cake. ‘His feathers are whiter and his beak more shiny than the rest.’ And when he heard that, the duckling thought that it was worth while having
undergone all the persecution and loneliness that he had passed through, as otherwise he would have never known what it was to be really happy.