There were once a Rajah and Ranee who had no child, though every day they prayed that one might be sent to them. For this reason the Ranee at last became quite melancholy, and took no more pleasure in anything.
One day some fish were brought to the palace kitchen to be prepared as usual for the Rajah’s dinner. Among them was one such as the cook had never seen before. Its scales shone with all the colours of the rainbow, and upon its head was a mark that looked like a little golden crown. The cook examined it curiously, and then was about to prepare it for cooking as he had done with the others, but it lifted up its head and spoke to him.
“Do not kill me,” said the fish. “Instead, put me in a basin of water and carry me to the Ranee, and it may be I will amuse her.”
The cook was very much surprised to hear a fish speaking, and it seemed to him such a wonderful creature that it might very well amuse even the Ranee; he therefore put it in a basin of water, and gave it to a maid, and bade her carry it to the queen.
The maid did as she was told, and the Ranee was indeed very much pleased with the beautiful little fish. All day she kept it beside her and watched its quick movements and its changing colours. The next day she was even more pleased with it, and before long she became so fond of it that she could not have loved it better if it had been her own child. She named it Muchie Rajah, or the Fish Prince, and called it her son.
After a time the fish grew so large that it could no longer live in the basin, and then it was put in a marble bath. As it still continued to grow, the Ranee had a great tank made for it out in the palace gardens. Here every day she went to visit it. She always carried some rice with her, and when she called it, the great fish would rise through the water and eat from her hand, and play about where she could see it.
But one day when the Ranee came to the tank she saw Muchie Rajah lying on the water very still. His colours looked dull, and when she called to him he came to her slowly, and would not eat the rice she had brought to him.
The Ranee was greatly troubled. “Alas, my dear son,” she cried, “what is it that ails you? Are you sick, that you will not eat the good rice I have brought to you?”
“I am not sick,” answered the great fish, “but I am very, very lonely. My mother, I beg of you to have a little room built in the side of the tank, and bring some young girl to live in it all the time and be company for me.”
The Ranee could refuse nothing to her dear Muchie Rajah. She immediately sent for masons and stone-cutters, and had a little room made in the side of the tank. The room was so cleverly built that the fish could reach his head over the side of it, and yet it was protected from the water in such a way that one could live in it safely and not be drowned. The walls of it were carved and coloured and set with precious stones, so that it was very beautiful, and there were hanging lamps in it to give light by day and night.
After all was finished, the Ranee sent out messengers through the country to find some beautiful girl to come and live in the little room, and be the bride of her dear Muchie Rajah. To the parents of such a girl she promised to give a lac of gold mohurs.
But though the messengers journeyed far and near, they could find no parents who were willing to give their daughter to the Fish Prince. “No, no,” they said; “our daughters are worth more to us than a lac of gold mohurs. This Muchie Rajah is very large and strong and fierce, and what he wishes is not a bride, but some young girl to eat.”
Now not far from the palace there lived a fakir, whose wife had died and left him with one daughter. This girl, whose name was Balna, was very beautiful. After the death of his first wife the fakir married again. The second wife also had a daughter, but her daughter was as ugly as Balna was beautiful, and as ill-tempered as Balna was sweet and gentle.
The stepmother hated Balna and was very jealous of her, and would have done anything to rid the house of her.
One time the fakir went away on a long journey, leaving his house and all that was in it in the charge of his wife. The messengers were still seeking for a bride for the Muchie Rajah, and as soon as the fakir had gone his wife sent for them, and said, “I have a daughter whom I am willing to let you have for the Fish Prince, and as she is very beautiful I am sure you will be delighted with her.”
The messengers were very glad to hear this, and said they would come for the girl the next day, and bring a lac of gold mohurs to the woman in payment for her.
After they had gone the stepmother called Balna to her and told her what she had promised.
The girl was very much frightened. “Alas!” she cried, “what have you done? The great fish will certainly eat me. If my father had been here he would never have allowed you to sell me.”
“This is silly talk,” answered the stepmother. “Why should the fish eat you? He is lonely and wishes a companion. You ought to be proud and happy to be the wife of a Rajah, even if he is only a fish.”
She then bade the girl go down to the river and wash her sari, that she might be clean and neat when the messengers came for her.
Balna took her saree and went down to the river to wash it, and as she washed it she wept bitterly.
Now it so happened that an old seven-headed cobra had a hole in the bank of the river, and lived there with his wife and children. He heard the sound of weeping just above him, and it kept on for so long that after a while he stuck one of his heads out of the hole and spoke to the girl.
“Why are you weeping here?” he said. “Do you not know that your tears are dropping down into my house like rain, and that they are very salty?”
“Oh, Father Cobra, excuse me,” answered the girl, “but I have good cause to weep. My stepmother has sold me to be the bride of Muchie Rajah, and I know he will certainly eat me, for he is very large and fierce.”
“Listen to me, daughter,” said the cobra, “for I am very wise and know all things. This great fish you speak of is not a fish at all, but the Rajah of a far country. In some way he offended the gods, and as a punishment he was changed into the shape of a fish and sent to live in the river. Now if you will do exactly what I tell you to do, you can break this enchantment and become his Ranee; but if you do not do as I say, then he will of a certainty eat you as you fear.”
The cobra then gave the girl three stones, and bade her tie them into the corner of her sari so as not to lose them. “To-morrow the messengers will come and take you to Muchie Rajah,” he said. “They will put you in the little room in the side of the tank. When it is night, you must not on any account go to sleep. If you do, you will be lost. But take these stones in your hand and watch. When he comes near you, throw a stone at him. Immediately he will sink to the bottom of the tank and will lie there for a while. When he comes again, throw the second stone at him and he will again go away, and when he comes for the third time, throw the third stone. Then the enchantment will be broken, and he will resume his natural form, and you will have nothing more to fear from him.”
The girl heard with joy what the cobra said to her. She thanked him and tied the stones in the corner of the sari, and then she ran on home again. When she went into the house her stepmother was surprised to see how cheerful she had become. She no longer wept nor complained, and when, the next day, the messengers came for her, she was quite willing to go away with them.
At the palace the old Ranee was waiting impatiently for the bride, and she was delighted when she saw what a beautiful girl the messengers had brought with them.
Balna was taken out to the tank, and a great crowd of people followed to see what would become of her. Many of them pitied her, and they wondered that she went so cheerfully, for they expected no less than that she would be eaten by the great fish.
After she was put in the little room in the side of the tank the crowd waited about for a long time. Every moment they expected to see Muchie Rajah rise through the water and swallow her, but nothing happened. The water lay black and still, and there was no sound but the lapping of the little waves against the stonework.
After a while night came, and the people grew tired of waiting and went away to their homes. Balna was left in the little room all alone. She untied the corner of her sari and took out the three stones. Two she laid on the floor beside her, and one she kept in her hand.
About midnight the water was disturbed. The waves dashed louder against the stones. There was a hissing sound, and Muchie Rajah rose through the water. He came rushing on toward the room, his mouth open, and his scales as red as rubies.
Balna was terribly frightened, but she held the stone fast and waited. When he was almost near enough to seize her, she threw the stone at him.
Immediately Muchie Rajah closed his jaws and sank down into the depths of the water where she could not see him.
After that she waited and watched for some time, but all was still. Then again the waves dashed louder. They rose to the edge of the stonework. Muchie Rajah came rushing through the water again, his mouth open, and his scales shining like fire.
Balna was more frightened than ever, but she threw the second stone at him, and again he sank through the water, and all was still.
This time he was gone longer than before, and the girl watched and waited. Then, suddenly, with a roaring sound, he came rushing at her again; his tail beat the waters into foam about him; his scales shone so red that the whole tank seemed full of blood.
Balna was almost dead with fright, but she managed to throw the third stone at him. No sooner did it touch Muchie Rajah than the enchantment was broken. Instead of the great fish, a handsome young Rajah stood there before her. He was dressed in cloth of gold embroidered in wonderful colours. His turban was fastened with an enormous ruby, and on his breast hung a chain set with precious stones. He took Balna by the hand and spoke to her.
“You have saved both my life and your own,” he said. “The enchantment is broken, and now we can live together happily, and you and you only shall be my bride.”
Very early the next morning the Ranee and her attendants came out to the tank to see whether the girl was still alive, or whether she had been eaten by the great fish. What was their surprise to find in the tank room not only Balna, but a handsome young prince, who told them he was Muchie Rajah. He also told them how Balna had broken the enchantment, and that now he would marry her and live in his own proper shape for ever.
Then there was great rejoicing, and the old Rajah and Ranee adopted the Fish Prince as their own son, and Balna was to them in place of a daughter.
When the fakir’s wife heard what had happened to Balna, and how, instead of being eaten by the fish, she had become the bride of a great Rajah, she was ready to die with rage and spite. However, she hid her feelings and went to the palace and made friends with Balna. She pretended that she had only wished her well, and had known all along how it would turn out. Balna, who was very simple and forgiving, believed all the wicked stepmother said to her. She made her and the step-sister welcome at the palace, and gave them many gifts, but they only hated her more and more and were always plotting how they could injure her.
One time Balna and her stepmother and her step-sister went down to walk by the river in the cool of the afternoon. Presently the step-sister began to admire the young Ranee’s jewels, and she asked Balna to let her try them on: “For,” said she, “I have never worn such beautiful jewels as those are.”
Balna was quite willing, and she took off the jewels and put them upon her sister—the armlets, the necklaces, the rings, and the bracelets. Just at the last the step-sister allowed one of the earrings to fall to the ground. “Look,” cried she, “I have dropped an earring. Do you pick it up for me, Balna, for I fear that if I stoop others may fall off too.”
The young Ranee stooped for the earring. Then the stepmother gave her such a push that she fell into the river. The place where she fell in was very deep, and she sank out of sight immediately.
The two wicked women waited there for a while, but they saw nothing of her, so they were sure she must be drowned; then they went back to the palace.
The step-sister was still wearing all of Balna’s jewels, and she was so covered up with them that every one thought she was the young Ranee. They went at once to Balna’s apartments, and there the fakir’s wife put her daughter to bed, and gave out that the Ranee was very ill and could see no one. It was a long time before even Muchie Rajah himself was allowed to enter the room. When he did, he was shocked to see how his beautiful bride had changed.
“It is because of her illness,” said the fakir’s wife. “Wait until she is well again, then all will be as it was before.”
The young Rajah never doubted but that it was his bride who lay there, and he was very unhappy because his delicate Ranee had become so coarse and ugly and stupid. Still he was kind to her, and often came to visit her in her apartments.
But Balna had not been drowned as her stepmother and her sister thought. It so happened that the place where she had fallen into the river was close to where the old seven-headed cobra had his hole. He had heard the sound of voices overhead, and then a great splash; he looked out to see what had caused it, and there he saw the young Ranee struggling in the water. He felt sorry for her, and reached out and drew her into his hole. Then he carried her up to where she could get some air, for his hole had two openings, one into the river and one out on to the bank overhead.
The young Ranee was almost drowned, but presently she came to herself again. Then she wished to set out for the palace, but this the cobra would not allow her to do.
“Your stepmother and your sister are there even now,” he said, “and if you went back they would certainly do you some harm. Stay here with me, and if your husband, the Rajah, comes to look for you, I will let you go back with him, but not otherwise.”
When Balna heard this she was very sad, but she was obliged to stay there in the cobra’s hole, as he said. After a time her little son was born there, and she named him Muchie Lal, the Ruby Fish, after his father.
The little Muchie Lal grew up strong and straight and handsome, and the old cobra became so fond of him that he loved him better than he did his own children; there was scarcely anything he would refuse him.
One day a bangle-seller came past the cobra’s hole, and Muchie Lal wished to buy some of his bangles, but the cobra said, “No, these are very common bangles, and not suitable for a prince to wear. I will give the man some jewels, and he shall make for you bangles such as you ought to have.”
The cobra then brought from his treasure-house a number of diamonds and rubies and other precious stones. He gave them to the bangle-seller. “Take these,” he said, “and make them into bangles, and bring them back to me as quickly as possible and you shall be well paid. And remember, they must be very handsome, for they are for this prince, Muchie Lal.”
The bangle-seller took the stones home with him and made the bangles, and they were finished in a week’s time. Then he started out to carry them back to the cobra. They were very handsome, and he was so proud of them that he carried them so that every one might see.
Now on his way it so chanced that he met Muchie Rajah, and the prince was so surprised to see a poor man carrying such costly bangles that he stopped and began to question him.
“Those are very handsome jewels,” said he. “I have never seen finer. Even I myself have none like them. Tell me, how did you come by them?”
“They are not mine,” answered the bangle-seller; “they belong to an old seven-headed cobra who lives down by the river. He gave them to me to make into bangles for a young prince named Muchie Lal, who lives with him.”
The Rajah was very much surprised at what the bangle-seller told him. “This is a strange story,” said he. “I will go with you, for I should like to see this young prince who lives in a cobra’s hole.”
So Muchie Rajah went down to the river bank with the bangle-seller. Muchie Lal was there playing close to the cobra’s hole with the young cobras. When he saw the bangle-seller he ran to meet him, calling to him to know whether he had brought the bangles; and the young prince was so exactly like his mother, the beautiful Balna, that the Rajah was filled with joy and sorrow.
“Tell me, child,” he cried, “who are you, and who was your mother?”
“I am Muchie Lal,” answered the boy, “and my mother is the Ranee Balna, and we live here by the river in the hole of an old seven-headed cobra.”
Then Muchie Rajah knelt down by the cobra’s hole and called, “Oh, my dear wife, if it is you, and you are still alive, answer me!”
Balna heard his voice down in the cobra’s hole, and came running out and threw herself into his arms.
“Oh, I have waited for you so long,” she cried, “but you have come at last, and now I can go back with you to the palace.”
So they were very happy. Only the cobra was sad to have them go, and the cobra’s children were grieved to lose their little playmate. But he promised them to come back sometimes and play with them there by the river.
Then the Rajah and the Ranee and Muchie Lal all went back to the palace together, and there was great rejoicing.
But when the fakir’s wife and her daughter heard that Balna was still alive, and that her husband had found her, they were so frightened that they ran away and hid themselves in the deep forest, and no one has ever heard of them again from that day to this.
SHORT STORY FOR KIDS WRITTEN BY KATHARINE PYLE
Vintage illustrations by Katharine Pyle
Header illustration from Pixabay, with thanks.
LET’S CHAT ABOUT THE STORIES ~ IDEAS FOR TALKING WITH KIDS
1. Balna was frightened to spend the night with the Fish Prince, but was told that she would survive if she threw the rocks into the Fish Prince’s pond. Do you think it’s sometimes difficult to be brave? Why do you think can be so hard?
2. Who are some people that you think are courageous in real life? Why do you think this?
2. Have you ever felt frightened and had to be brave? What did you do to find your courage? Were things better after you showed courage?