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 could 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 five 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 favourite
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 neighbouring yard, assured all the neighbourhood 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
neighbour, as she sunned herself under the bushes on fine June
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. This 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.
This situation inspired one of Master Fred's boy advisers with a new
scheme in relation to his poultry enterprise. "Hallo! 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 sit,
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, "Oh, 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-by, 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 purchase and came home rejoicing.
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 neighbours if
they did so much as look at her. Master Gray Cock was greatly
concerned, and went to old Dr. 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, "ain't you a fool?--cocks always
are fools. Don't you know what's the matter with your wife? She
wants to sit, that's all; and you just let her sit. A fiddlestick
for Dr. 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 sit if she wants to, and behave herself."
When Gray Cock came home, he found that Master Freddy had been before
him, and had 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 neighbouring 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 honour
"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 neighbours 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 sitting
hen ought to have,--poor old Long Spur! he never minded a peck or so
and then. I must say these modern fowls ain't what fowls used to
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 were hatched, and Mrs. Feathertop arose, a proud and happy
mother, with all the bustling, scratching, care-taking 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
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
sitting. Don't you see, Dame Kertarkut, what bills they have?
That'll increase, and they'll be frightful!"
"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 sat. 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 Dr. Peppercorn to come in
and look at their bills, and see if anything can be done."
Dr. 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 Dr.
Peppercorn glared gloomily on the young ducks, who were stealthily
poking the objectionable little spoon-bills out from under their
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
get 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
"She brought it on herself," said Dame Scratchard. "Why didn't she
come to me before she sat? 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 Dr.
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 swimming lessons all their
lives, and sailed off on the river, away, away among the ferns, under
the pink azaleas, 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
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 Dr.
Peppercorn without delay."
Now as the case was a very dreadful one, Dr. Peppercorn called a
council from the barn-yard of the squire, two miles off, and a brisk
young Dr. 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 loudly that all the cocks in the
Mrs. Feathertop rose up out of her swoon, and Mr. Gray Cock was
"What do you mean, sir, by such behaviour 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 neighbourhood 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 daresay."
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 me your claw, my dear friend," he said,
addressing the eldest son. "In our barn-yard 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, Dr. 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, "It was our system of education did