In a grand palace by the sea lived a very rich old lord. His wife and child had died, leaving him with only one little granddaughter. He had never seen this granddaughter. He hated her because his favorite daughter had died giving birth to her. When the nurse had brought him the baby, he swore that he would never look at her, as long as he lived.
So he sat, looking at the sea and crying for his dead daughter. His white hair and beard grew down over his shoulders and twined round his chair.
Meanwhile, his granddaughter grew up with no one to care for her. She wore torn petticoats from the ragbag. The other servants would heckle her, calling her “Tattercoats,” and point to her bare feet and shoulders, until she ran away crying.
So she grew up spending her days out-of-doors, her only companion a lame goose herder. One day people told each other that the king was traveling through the land, and he was to give a great ball for all the lords and ladies of the country in the town nearby. The prince, his only son, was to choose a wife from among the maidens attending the ball.
One of the royal ball invitations was brought to the palace by the sea. The servants carried it up to the old lord, who still sat by his window, wrapped in his long white hair and weeping. But when he heard the king's command, he dried his eyes. He told his servants to bring scissors to cut him loose, for his hair had made him a prisoner and he could not move. And then he sent them for fancy clothes and jewels, which he put on. He mounted his white horse and set off for the ball.
Meanwhile Tattercoats sat by the kitchen door crying because she could not go to see the grand event and all of the regal lords and ladies. Eventually, the girl ran to her friend the goose herder and told him how unhappy she was because she could not go to the king's ball.
The goose herder listened to her story and then he told her to cheer up. He said they should go together into the town to see the king and all of the fancy party people. When she looked sadly down at her rags and bare feet, he played a note or two upon his pipe. He was an accomplished pipe player, and the tune was so merry that she forgot all about her tears and her troubles. They took each other's hand and set out for the ball.
Before they had gone very far, a handsome young man on horseback stopped to ask Tattercoats and the goose herder the way to the castle where the king was staying. When he found that they too were going there, he got off his horse and walked beside them along the road.
“You seem happy,” he said, “and will make good company.”
“Good company, indeed,” said the goose herder, and he played a new tune that was not a dance.
It was a curious tune, and it made the strange young man stare and stare and stare at Tattercoats until he couldn't see her rags. All he could see was her beautiful face.
Then he said, “You are the most beautiful maiden in the world. Will you marry me?”
The goose herder smiled to himself, and played more sweetly than ever.
But Tattercoats laughed. “Not me,” she said, “I am too poor and wretched to marry you.”
But the more she refused him, the sweeter the pipe played and the deeper the young man fell in love. At last he begged her to come that night at twelve to the king's ball. He told her to come just as she was, with the goose herder and his geese, in her torn petticoat and bare feet, and see if he wouldn't dance with her before the king. If she did this, he said, she would be his bride.
At first Tattercoats said she would not, but the goose herder said, “Take fortune when it comes, little one.”
The night came, and the hall in the castle was filled with light and music, and the lords and ladies were dancing before the king. Just as the clock struck twelve, Tattercoats and the goose herder entered, followed by his flock of noisy geese. They walked straight into the ballroom, while on either side the ladies whispered, the lords laughed, and the king seated at the far end stared in amazement.
But as they came in front of the throne Tattercoats's handsome lover rose from beside the king, and came to meet her. Taking her by the hand, he kissed her three times before them all. Then he turned to the king.
“Father!” he said — for it was the prince himself — “I have made my choice, and here is my bride, the loveliest girl in all the land and the sweetest as well!”
Before he had finished speaking, the goose herder had put his pipe to his lips and played a few notes that sounded like a bird singing far off in the sky. As he played, Tattercoats's rags were changed to shining robes sewn with glittering jewels and a golden crown lay upon her shining hair.
“Indeed,” said the king, “The prince has chosen for his wife the loveliest girl in all the land!”
The goose herder was never seen again, and no one knew what became of him. The old lord went home once more to his palace by the sea, for he could not stay at the court when he had sworn never to look at his granddaughter's face.
So there he sits by his window, still weeping.
And Tattercoats and the prince lived happily every after.