Once there was a duck who had just hatched a brood of ducklings; one of them had been longer coming out of the shell than the others, and when it came it was very ugly. But its mother did not love it less on that account; mothers never think their little ones ugly. It could swim very well, so she knew it was not a young turkey, as an old duck had said it might be, and she took it with all the rest of the brood to the farm-yard to introduce it into good society. An old turkey, who was very grand, came up to the duck, and said, "Your children are all pretty except one. There is one ugly duckling. I wish you could improve him a little." "That is impossible, your grace," replied the mother, "he is not pretty; but he has a good disposition, and swims even better than the others." "Well, the other ducklings are graceful enough," said the turkey, "pray make yourselves at home, here.
But how could the ugly duckling do so? The whole farm-yard laughed at him. The ducks pecked him, the fowls beat him, the girl who fed the poultry drove him away with a stick.
The poor duckling flew over the palings, and joined some wild ducks who lived on the moor. "You are very ugly," said the wild ducks; "but that will not matter if you do not want to marry into our family." After he had been on the moor two days, he made friends with some wild geese, and had nearly consented to fly over the sea with them, when "pop, pop," went a gun, and the poor gosling fell dead in the water. The poor duckling was so frightened that he hid himself amongst the rushes. When all was quiet again, he came out and ran over the moor till he reached a tumble-down cottage, the door of which was ajar. He crept in, and stayed there all night. A woman, a cat, and a hen lived in this cottage. The hen had such short legs that her mistress called her "Chickie short legs." The old woman let the duckling live in her house, hoping that by-and-bye it might lay eggs. Now the cat was the master of the house, and the hen was the mistress, and they always said, "We and the world," because they thought themselves half the world, at least. One day the duckling said sadly, "It is very dull here, how much I should like to swim in the water and to dive." "What a foolish idea," said the hen. "You have nothing else to do, therefore you have strange fancies. If you could purr or lay eggs they would pass away; ask the cat, he is the cleverest animal I know, if he would like to dive in the water; ask our old mistress, there is no one in the world more clever than she is; do you think she would like to let the water close over her head?" "You don't understand me," said the duckling. "I think I must go into the world again." "Very well, go," said the hen; and the duckling went.
Very near the cottage he found some water, where he could swim and dive; but all creatures avoided him because he was so ugly, therefore he was always alone. One evening there came a beautiful flock of birds out of the bushes. They curved their graceful necks, while their soft plumage shone with dazzling whiteness. The duckling felt quite a strange sensation as he watched them fly up in the air. He stretched out his neck towards them, and uttered a cry so strange that it frightened himself. How he loved the white birds! How he longed to be with them.
By-and-bye winter came, and froze the water quite hard. The ice crackled round the duckling and at last shut him in, so that he could not get out. Early in the morning a peasant who was passing saw what had happened, broke the ice with his axe, took up the duckling, and carried it home to his wife.
The warmth revived the poor thing and it began to fly about; the children wanted to play with it, but they only frightened it; it ran to the door which was open, and managed to slip away among the bushes, where it lay down in the new fallen snow.
It would be very sad to tell you all the duckling suffered that cold winter; but spring came at last, and the young bird felt that his wings were grown strong. He flew away, and stopped at last in a beautiful garden near a fine piece of water. On it he saw two magnificent white birds swimming. "I will fly to those royal birds," he thought, "they will kill me because I am ugly; but I had rather be killed by them than pecked by ducks, or beaten by hens." So he flew to the water and swam towards the swans. "Kill me," he said, as they sailed towards him, and he bowed his head meekly. But what did he see in the stream? Not a dark gray ugly duckling, but a beautiful swan! To be born in a duck's nest in a farm-yard, does not matter to a bird, if it is hatched from a swan's egg. Yes, he too was a swan. Now he would have friends to love him, and nobody would scorn and ill-use him any more. He rustled his feathers, curved his slender neck and cried joyfully, "I never thought such good was in store for me when I was an ugly duckling."