THERE was once a merchant who prospered in his business and in the course of time became very rich. He had five sons but none of them was married. In the village where he lived was an old tank which was half silted up and he resolved to clean it out and deepen it, if the Raja would give it to him; so he went to the Raja and the Raja said that he could have the tank if he paid forty rupees. The merchant paid the money and then went home and called his family together and said that they would first improve the tank and then find wives for all his sons. The sons agreed and they collected coolies and drained off the water and began to dig out the silt. When they had drained off the water they found in the bed of the tank a number of big fish of unknown age: which they caught and two of them they sent to the Raja as a present. When the fish were carried into the presence of the Raja they both began to laugh: then the Raja said "What is the meaning of this? Here are two dead fish, why are they laughing?" And he told the men who brought the fish to explain what was the matter or else to take them away again. But they could give no explanation. Then the Raja called all his officers and astrologers and asked them what they thought it meant: but no one could give him any answer. Then the Raja told the men to take the fish away again, and to tell the merchant that, if he could not explain why the fish laughed, he would kill him and all his descendants; and he wrote a letter to the same effect, and fixed a day by which the merchant was to explain the matter. When the merchant read the letter he fell into the greatest distress and for two or three days he could not make up his mind whether to go on with the work on the tank or no; but in the end he resolved to finish it so that his name might be held in remembrance. So they finished the work and then the merchant said to his sons: "My sons I cannot arrange for your marriages, for the Raja has threatened to kill us all, if I cannot explain why the fish laughed; you must all escape from here so that our family may not die out;" but the younger sons all answered "We are not able to take care of ourselves, either you come with us to protect us or we will stay here." Then the merchant told his eldest son to escape alone so that their family might not become extinct.
So the eldest son took a supply of money and went away into a far country. After travelling a long time he came to a town where a Raja lived and decided to stay there; so he first went to a tank and bathed and sat down on the bank to eat some refreshment; and as he sat the daughter of the Raja came down to the tank to bathe and she saw the merchant's son and their eyes met. Then the princess sent her maid-servants to ask him where he came from; and he told them where he came from and that he meant to make a stay in that town, and he promised them a rupee if they could persuade the princess to uncover her face. They went and told their mistress all this and she answered "Go and get your rupee from him, I will uncover my face; and ask him what he wants." And when they went, she drew aside the cloth from her face; then he gave them the rupee, and they asked him whether he had seen her and what his intention was; then he said that his wish was to marry the princess and live with her in her father's house! When the princess heard this she said "Yes, my heart has gone out to him also;" so then she bathed and went home and lay down in her room and would not get up, and when her father asked her what was the matter, she made no answer. Then they asked her maidens what was the matter and they said that she had seen a stranger by the tank and wished to marry him. The Rani asked whether the stranger was still there and they said that they had left him by the tank. So two men were sent to fetch the stranger or to find out where he had gone. The two servants went and found the merchant's son just ready to continue his journey, and they asked him who he was and what he wanted. He said that he was looking for employment but would like best to marry and live in the house of his father-in-law. Then they told him not go away and they would arrange such a marriage for him, so they took him to a house in the town and left him there and went back to the Raja. They told the Raja that the stranger had gone away but that they could follow him and bring him back if he gave them some money for their journey. So the Raja gave them two rupees; then they went off but only ate their dinner at home, and then they brought the merchant's son to the Raja, pretending that they had overtaken him a long way off. He was questioned about himself and he told his whole history except that the Raja had threatened to cut off his family, and his account being satisfactory it was arranged that he should marry the princess. Musicians were sent for and the marriage took place at once. After his marriage the merchant's son was much depressed at the thought of his brothers' fate and in the middle of the night he used to rise up and weep till the bed was soaked with his tears; the princess noticed this and one night she pretended to go to sleep but really lay awake and watched her husband; and in the middle of the night saw him rise quietly and begin to sob. She was filled with sympathy and went to him and begged him to tell her what was the matter and whether he was sorry that he had married her; and he answered "I cry because I am in despair; in the daytime I restrain my tears before others with difficulty but in the night they cannot be kept back; but I am ashamed for you to see me and I wait till you are asleep before I give way to my feelings."
Then she asked what was the cause of his sorrow and he answered "My father and mother and brothers and sisters are all doomed to die; for our Raja has sworn to kill them by a certain day if he is not told why two fish, which my father sent to him as a present, laughed when they were brought before him. In consequence of this threat my father sent me from home that one of the family might survive and although I may be safe here the thought of them and their fate makes me weep." The princess asked him what was the day fixed for the mystery to be explained; and he told her that it was at the full moon of a certain month. Then the princess said "Come take me to your father's house: I shall be able to explain why the fishes laughed." The merchant's son joyfully agreed to start off the next day; so in the morning they told the Raja why they wished to go, and he said to his daughter "Go and do not be afraid; go in confidence, I promise you that you will be able to explain why the fishes laughed."
So they made ready and journeyed to the merchant's house; and when they arrived they told the merchant to go to the Raja and ask him to collect all the citizens on a certain day to hear the reason why the fishes laughed. The merchant went to the Raja and the Raja gave him a letter fixing the day and all the citizens were assembled in an open plain; and the princess dressed herself as a man and went to the assembly and stood before the Raja.
Then the Raja bade her explain why the fishes laughed, and the princess answered "If you wish to know the reason order all your Ranis to be brought here;" so the Ranis were summoned; then the princess said "The reason why the fishes laughed was because among all your wives it is only the eldest Rani who is a woman and all the others are men. What will you give me if this is not proved to be true?" Then the Raja wrote a bond promising to give the merchant half his kingdom if this were proved to be true. When enquiry was made it was found that the wives had really become men, and the Raja was put to shame before all his people. Then the assembly broke up and the merchant received half the Raja's kingdom.