Story type: Literature
The black duck had a hard time of it from the beginning–that is, from the beginning of her life on the farm. She had been a free wild bird up to that time, swimming in the bay, playing hide-and-seek with her brothers and sisters and cousins among the marsh reeds along the bank, and coquettishly diving for “mummies” and catching them “on the swim” whenever she craved a fishy morsel. This put a fresh perfume on her breath, and made her utterly charming to her seventh cousin, Sir Sooty Drake, who always kept himself actually fragrant with the aroma of raw fish, and was in all respects a dashing beau. Indeed, she was behaving most coyly, daintily swimming in graceful curves around Sir Sooty among the marsh-mallow clumps at the mouth of “Tarrup Crik,” when the shot was fired that changed all her prospects in life.
The farmer’s boy was a hunter, and so had been his grandfather, and his grandfather’s gun did its work with a terrific old-fashioned explosion.
When it shot into the great clump of pink mallows everything trembled. The air was full of smoke, and for a distance of a quarter of a mile away the toads crept out of their hiding and looked up and down the road. The chickens picking at the late raspberry bushes in the farmer’s yard craned their necks, blinked, and didn’t swallow another berry for fully ten seconds. And a beautiful green caterpillar, that had seen the great red rooster mark him with his evil eye, and expected to be gobbled up in a twinkling, had time to “hump himself” and crawl under a leaf before the astonished rooster recovered from the noise. This is a case where the firing of a gun saved at least one life. I wonder how many butterflies owe their lives to that gun?
As to the ducks in the clump of mallows that caught the volley, they simply tumbled over and gave themselves up for dead.
The heroine of our little story, Lady Quackalina Blackwing, stayed in a dead faint for fully seventeen seconds, and the first thing she knew when she “came to” was that she was lying under the farmer boy’s coat in an old basket, and that there was a terrific rumbling in her ears and a sharp pain in one wing, that something was sticking her, that Sir Sooty was nowhere in sight, and that she wanted her mother and all her relations.
Indeed, as she began to collect her senses, while she lay on top of the live crab that pinched her chest with his claw, she realized that there was not a cousin in the world, even to some she had rather disliked, that she would not have been most happy to greet at this trying moment.
The crab probably had no unfriendly intention. He was only putting up the best hand he had, trying to find some of his own kindred. He had himself been lying in a hole in shallow water when the farmer’s boy raked him in and changed the whole course of his existence.
He and the duck knew each other by sight, but though they were both “in the swim,” they belonged to different sets, and so were small comfort to one another on this journey to the farm.
They both knew some English, and as the farmer’s boy spoke part English and part “farm,” they understood him fairly well when he was telling the man digging potatoes in the field that he was going to “bile” the crab in a tomato can and to make a “decoy” out of the duck.
“Bile” and “decoy” were new words to the listeners in the basket, but they both knew about tomato cans. The bay and “Tarrup Crik” were strewn with them, and the crab had once hidden in one, half imbedded in the sand, when he was a “soft-shell.” He knew their names, because he had studied them before their labels soaked off, and he knew there was no malice in them for him, though the young fishes who have soft outsides dreaded their sharp edges very much. There is sometimes some advantage in having one’s skeleton on the surface, like a coat of mail.
And so the crab was rather pleased at the prospect of the tomato can. He thought the cans grew in the bay, and so he expected presently to be “biled” in his own home waters. The word “biled” probably meant dropped in. Ignorance is sometimes bliss, indeed.
Poor little Quackalina, however, was getting less comfort out of her ignorance. She thought “decoy” had a foreign sound, as if it might mean a French stew. She had had relations who had departed life by way of a puree, while others had gone into a saute or pate. Perhaps a “decoy” was a pate with gravy or a puree with a crust on it. If worse came to the worst, she would prefer the puree with a crust. It would be more like decent burial.
Of course she thought these things in duck language, which is not put in here, because it is not generally understood. It is quite a different thing from Pidgin-English, and it isn’t all “quack” any more than French is all “au revoir,” or Turkey all “gobble, gobble,” or goose only a string of “S’s,” or darkey all “howdy.”
The crab’s thoughts were expressed in his eyes, that began coming out like little telescopes until they stood quite over his cheeks. Maybe some people think crabs have no cheeks, but that isn’t so. They have them, but they keep them inside, where they blush unseen, if they blush at all.
But this is the story of the black duck. However, perhaps some one who reads it will be pleased to know that the crab got away. He sidled up–sidled is a regular word in crab language–until his left eye could see straight into the boy’s face, and then he waited. He had long ago found that there was nothing to be gained by pinching the duck. It only made a row in the basket and got him upset. But, by keeping very still and watching his chance, he managed to climb so near the top that when the basket gave a lurch he simply vaulted overboard and dropped in the field. Then he hid between three mushrooms and a stick until the boy’s footsteps were out of hearing and he had time to draw in his eyes and start for the bay. He had lost his left claw some time before, and the new one he was growing was not yet very strong. Still, let us hope that he reached there in safety.
The duck knew when he had been trying to get out, but she didn’t tell. She wanted him to go, for she didn’t like his ways. Still, when he had gone, she felt lonely. Misery loves company–even though it be very poor company.
But Quackalina had not long to feel lonely. Almost any boy who has shot a duck walks home with it pretty fast, and this boy nearly ran. He would have run if his legs hadn’t been so fat.
The first sound that Quackalina heard when they reached the gate was the quacking of a thousand ducks, and it frightened her so that she forgot all about the crab and her aching wing and even the decoy. The boy lived on a duck farm, and it was here that he had brought her. This would seem to be a most happy thing–but there are ducks and ducks. Poor little Quackalina knew the haughty quawk of the proud white ducks of Pekin. She knew that she would be only a poor colored person among them, and that she, whose mother and grandmother had lived in the swim of best beach circles and had looked down upon these incubator whitings, who were grown by the pound and had no relations whatever, would now have to suffer their scorn.
Even their distant quawk made her quake, though she feared her end was near. There are some trivial things that are irritating even in the presence of death.
But Quackalina was not soon to die. She did suffer some humiliations, and her wing was very painful, but a great discovery soon filled her with such joy that nothing else seemed worth thinking about.
There were three other black ducks on the farm, and they hastened to tell her that they were already decoys, and that the one pleasant thing in being a decoy was that it was not to be killed or cooked or eaten.
This was good news. The life of a decoy-duck was hard enough; but when one got accustomed to have its foot tied to the shore, and shots fired all around it, one grew almost to enjoy it. It was so exciting. But to the timid young duck who had never been through it it was a terrible prospect.
And so, for a long time, little Quackalina was a very sad duck. She loved her cousin, Sir Sooty, and she loved pink mallow blossoms. She liked to eat the “mummy” fish alive, and not cooked with sea-weed, as the farmer fed them to her.
But most of all she missed Sir Sooty. And so, two weeks later, when her wing was nearly well, in its new, drooping shape, what was her joy when he himself actually waddled into the farm-yard–into her very presence–without a single quack of warning.
The feathers of one of his beautiful wings were clipped, but he was otherwise looking quite well, and he hastened to tell her that he was happy, even in exile, to be with her again. And she believed him.
He had been captured in a very humiliating way, and this he made her promise never to tell. He had swum so near the decoy-duck that his foot had caught in its string, and before he could get away the farmer had him fast. “And now,” he quacked, “I’m glad I did it,” and Quackalina quacked, “So am I.” And they were very happy.
Indeed, they grew so blissful after a while that they decided to try to make the best of farm life and to settle down. So they began meandering about on long waddles–or waddling about on long meanders–all over the place, hunting for a cozy hiding-place for a nest. For five whole days they hunted before Quackalina finally settled down into the hollow that she declared was “just a fit” for her, under the edge of the old shanty where the Pekin feathers were stored.
White, fluffy feathers are very beautiful things, and they are soft and pleasant to our touch, but they are sad sights to ducks and geese, and Quackalina selected a place for her nest where she could never see the door open into this dread storehouse.
It was, indeed, very well hidden, and, as if to make it still more secure, a friendly golden-rod sprang up quite in front of it, and a growth of pepper-grass kindly closed in one side.
Quackalina had never been sent out on decoy duty, and after a time she ceased to fear it, but sometimes Sir Sooty had to go, and his little wife would feel very anxious until he came back.
There are some very sad parts in this little story, and we are coming to one of them now.
The home-nest had been made. There were ten beautiful eggs in it–all polished and shining like opals. And the early golden-rod that stood on guard before it was sending out a first yellow spray when troubles began to come.
Quackalina thought she had laid twice as many as ten eggs in the nest, but she could not be quite sure, and neither could Sir Sooty, though he thought so, too.
Very few poetic people are good at arithmetic, and even fine mathematicians are said to forget how to count when they are in love.
Certain it is, however, that when Quackalina finally decided to be satisfied to begin sitting, there were exactly ten eggs in the nest–just enough for her to cover well with her warm down and feathers.
“Sitting-time” may seem stupid to those who are not sitting; but Quackalina’s breast was filled with a gentle content as she sat, day by day, behind the golden-rod, and blinked and reflected and listened for the dear “paddle, paddle” of Sir Sooty’s feet, and his loving “qua’, qua’”–a sort of caressing baby-talk that he had adopted in speaking to her ever since she had begun her long sitting.
Quackalina was a patient little creature, and seldom left her nest, so that when she did so for a short walk in the glaring sun, she was apt to be dizzy and to see strange spots before her eyes. But this would all pass away when she got back to her cozy nest in the cool shade.
But one day it did not pass away–it got worse, or, at least, she thought it did. Instead of ten eggs in the nest she seemed to see twenty, and they were of a strange, dull color, and their shape seemed all wrong. She blinked her eyes nineteen times, and even rubbed them with her web-feet, so that she might not see double, but it was all in vain. Before her dazzled eyes twenty little pointed eggs lay, and when she sat upon them they felt strange to her breast. And then she grew faint and was too weak even to call Sir Sooty, but when he came waddling along presently, he found her so pale around the bill that he made her put out her tongue, and examined her symptoms generally.
Sir Sooty was not a regular doctor, but he was a very good quack, and she believed in him, which, in many cases, is the main thing.
So when he grew so tender that his words were almost like “qu, qu,” and told her that she had been confined too closely and was threatened with foie gras, she only sighed and closed her eyes, and, keeping her fears to herself, hoped that the trouble was all in her eyes indeed–or her liver.
Now the sad part of this tale is that the trouble was not with poor little Quackalina’s eyes at all. It was in the nest. The same farmer’s boy who had kept her sitting of eggs down to ten by taking out one every day until poor Quackalina’s patience was worn out–the same boy who had not used her as a decoy only because he wanted her to stay at home and raise little decoy-ducks–this boy it was who had now chosen to take her ten beautiful eggs and put them under a guinea-hen, and to fetch the setting of twenty guinea eggs for Quackalina to hatch out.
He did this just because, as he said, “That old black duck ‘ll hatch out as many eggs again as a guinea-hen will, an’ the guinea ‘ll cover her ten eggs easy. I’m goin’ to swap ’em.” And “swap ’em” he did.
Nobody knows how the guinea-hen liked her sitting, for none but herself and the boy knew where her nest was hidden in a pile of old rubbish down by the cow-pond.
When a night had passed, and a new day showed poor Quackalina the twenty little eggs actually under her breast–eggs so little that she could roll two at once under her foot–she did not know what to think. But like many patient people when great sorrows come, she kept very still and never told her fears.
She had never seen a guinea egg before in all her life. There were birds’ nests in some of the reeds along shore, and she knew their little toy eggs. She knew the eggs of snakes, too, and of terrapins, or “tarrups,” as they are called by the farmer folk along the bay.
When first she discovered the trouble in the nest she thought of these, and the very idea of a great procession of little turtles starting out from under her some fine morning startled her so that her head lay limp against the golden-rod for fully thirteen seconds. Then she got better, but it was not until she had taken a nip at the pepper-grass that she was sufficiently warmed up to hold up her head and think. And when she thought, she was comforted. These dainty pointed eggs were not in the least like the soft clumsy “double-enders” that the turtles lay in the sand. Besides, how could turtle-eggs have gotten there anyway? How much easier for one head to go wrong than twenty eggs.
She chuckled at the very folly of her fears, and nestling down into the place, she soon began to nod. And presently she had a funny, funny dream, which is much too long to go into this story, which is a great pity, for her dream is quite as interesting as the real story, although it is not half so true.
Sitting-time, after this, seemed very long to Quackalina, but after a while she began to know by various little stirrings under her downy breast that it was almost over. At the first real movement against her wing she felt as if everything about her was singing and saying, “mother! mother!” and bowing to her.
Even the pepper-grass nodded and the golden-rod, and careless roosters as they passed seemed to lower their combs to her and to forget themselves, just for a minute. And a great song was in her own bosom–a great song of joy–and although the sound that came from her beautiful coral bill was only a soft “qua’, qua’,” to common ears, to those who have the finest hearing it was full of a heavenly tenderness. But there was a tremor in it, too–a tremor of fear; and the fear was so terrible that it kept her from looking down even when she knew a little head was thrusting itself up through her great warm wing. She drew the wing as a caressing arm lovingly about it though, and saying to herself, “I must wait till they are all come; then I’ll look,” she gazed upward at the moon that was just showing a rim of gold over the hay-stack–and closed her eyes.
There was no sleep that long night for little mother Quackalina.
It was a great, great night. Under her breast, wonderful happenings every minute; outside, the white moonlight; and always in sight across the yard, just a dark object against the ground–Sir Sooty, sound asleep, like a philosopher!
Oh yes, it was a great, great night. Its last hours before day were very dark and sorrowful, and by the time a golden gleam shot out of the east Quackalina knew that her first glance into the nest must bring her grief. The tiny restless things beneath her brooding wings were chirping in an unknown tongue. But their wiry Japanesy voices, that clinked together like little copper kettles, were very young and helpless, and Quackalina was a true mother-duck, and her heart went out to them.
When the fatal moment came and she really looked down into the nest, her relief in seeing beautiful feathered things, at least, was greater than any other feeling. It was something not to have to mother a lot of “tarrups,” certainly.
Little guineas are very beautiful, and when presently Quackalina found herself crossing the yard with her twenty dainty red-booted hatchlings, although she longed for her own dear, ugly, smoky, “beautiful” ducklings, she could not help feeling pleasure and pride in the exquisite little creatures that had stepped so briskly into life from beneath her own breast.
It was natural that she should have hurried to the pond with her brood. Wouldn’t she have taken her own ducklings there? If these were only little “step-ducks,” she was resolved that, in the language of step-mothers, “they should never know the difference.” She would begin by taking them in swimming.
Besides, she longed for the pond herself. It was the place where she could best think quietly and get things straightened in her mind.
Sir Sooty had not seen her start off with her new family. He had said to himself that he had lost so much rest all night that he must have a good breakfast, and so, at the moment when Quackalina and the guineas slipped around the stable to the cow-pond, he was actually floundering in the very centre of one of the feed-troughs in the yard, and letting the farmer turn the great mass of cooked “feed” all over him. Greedy ducks often act that way. Even the snow-white Pekins do it. It is bad enough any time, but on the great morning when one becomes a papa-duck he ought to try to be dignified, and Sir Sooty knew it. And he knew full well that events had been happening all night in the nest, and that was why he said he had lost rest. But he hadn’t. A great many people are like Sir Sooty. They say they lose sleep when they don’t.
But listen to what was taking place at the cow-pond, for it is this that made this story seem worth the telling.
When Quackalina reached the pond, she flapped her tired wings three times from pure gladness at the sight of the beautiful water. And then, plunging in, she took one delightful dive before she turned to the shore, and in the sweetest tones invited the little ones to follow her.
Well, they just looked down at their red satin boots and shook their heads. And then it was that Quackalina noticed their feet, and saw that they would never swim.
It was a great shock to her. She paddled along shore quite near them for a while, trying to be resigned to it. And then she waddled out on the grassy bank, and fed them with some newts, and a tadpole, and a few blue-bottle flies, and a snail, and several other delicacies, which they seemed to enjoy quite as much as if they had been young ducks. And then Quackalina, seeing them quite happy, struck out for the very middle of the pond. She would have one glorious outing, at least. Oh, how sweet the water was! How it soothed the tender spots under her weary wings! How it cooled her ears and her tired eyelids! And now–and now–and now–as she dived and dipped and plunged–how it cheered and comforted her heart! How faithfully it bore her on its cool bosom! For a few minutes, in the simple joy of her bath, she even forgot to be sorrowful.
And now comes the dear part of the troublous tale of this little black mother-duck–the part that is so pleasant to write–the part that it will be good to read.
When at last Quackalina, turning, said to herself, “I must go ashore now and look after my little steppies,” she raised her eyes and looked before her to see just where she was. And then the vision she seemed to see was so strange and so beautiful that–well, she said afterwards that she never knew just how she bore it.
Just before her, on the water, swimming easily on its trusty surface, were ten little ugly, smoky, “beautiful” ducks! Ten little ducks that looked precisely like every one of Quackalina’s relations! And now they saw her and began swimming towards her.
Before she knew it, Quackalina had flapped her great wings and quacked aloud three times, and three times again! And she didn’t know she was doing it, either.
She did know, though, that in less time than it has taken to tell it, her own ten beautiful ducks were close about her, and that she was kissing each one somewhere with her great red bill. And then she saw that upon the bank a nervous, hysterical guinea-hen was tearing along, and in a voice like a carving-knife screeching aloud with terror. It went through Quackalina’s bosom like a neuralgia, but she didn’t mind it very much. Indeed, she forgot it instantly when she looked down upon her ducklings again, and she even forgot to think about it any more. And so it was that the beautiful thing that was happening on the bank, under her very eyes almost, never came to Quackalina’s knowledge at all.
When her own bosom was as full of joy as it could be, why should she have turned at the sound of the carving-knife voice to look ashore, and to notice that at its first note there were twenty little pocket-knife answers from over the pond, and that in a twinkling twenty pairs of red satin boots were running as fast as they could go to meet the great speckled mother-hen, whose blady voice was the sweetest music in all the world to them?
When, after quite a long time, Quackalina began to realize things, and thought of the little guineas, and said to herself, “Goodness gracious me!” she looked anxiously ashore for them, but not a red boot could she see. The whole delighted guinea family were at that moment having a happy time away off in the cornfield out of sight and hearing.
This was very startling, and Quackalina grieved a little because she couldn’t grieve more. She didn’t understand it at all, and it made her almost afraid to go ashore, so she kept her ten little ducklings out upon the water nearly all day.
And now comes a very amusing thing in this story.
When this great, eventful day was passed, and Quackalina was sitting happily among the reeds with her dear ones under her wings, while Sir Sooty waddled proudly around her with the waddle that Quackalina thought the most graceful walk in the world, she began to tell him what had happened, beginning at the time when she noticed that the eggs were wrong.
Sir Sooty listened very indulgently for a while, and then–it is a pity to tell it on him, but he actually burst out laughing, and told her, with the most patronizing quack in the world, that it was “all imagination.”
And when Quackalina insisted with tears and even a sob or two that it was every word true, he quietly looked at her tongue again, and then he said a very long word for a quack doctor. It sounded like ‘lucination. And he told Quackalina never, on any account, to tell any one else so absurd a tale, and that it was only a canard–which was very flippant and unkind, in several ways. There are times when even good jokes are out of place.
At this, Quackalina said that she would take him to the nest and show him the little pointed egg-shells. And she did take him there, too. Late at night, when all honest ducks, excepting somnambulists and such as have vindications on hand, are asleep, Quackalina led the way back to the old nest. But when she got there, although the clear, white moonlight lay upon everything and revealed every blade of grass, not a vestige of nest or straw or shell remained in sight.
The farmer’s boy had cleared them all away.
By this time Quackalina began to be mystified herself, and after a while, seeing only her own ten ducks always near, and never sighting such a thing as little, flecked, red-booted guineas, she really came to doubt whether it had all happened or not.
And even to this day she is not quite sure. How she and all her family finally got away and became happy wild birds again is another story. But while Quackalina sits and blinks upon the bank among the mallows, with all her ugly “beautiful” children around her, she sometimes even yet wonders if the whole thing could have been a nightmare, after all.
But it was no nightmare. It was every word true. If anybody doesn’t believe it, let him ask the guineas.