This amusing tale, rewritten by Hans Christian Andersen from an old Spanish story, tells how a vain emperor was bamboozled by three rogues.
Many years ago there lived an Emperor who cared so much for fine clothes that he spent all his money upon them. He gave no thought to his soldiers nor to the affairs of his empire. He had a new coat for every hour of the day and spent most of his time riding through the streets that every one might see his handsome clothes.
One day there came to the city two rogues who set themselves up as weavers. They said they knew how to weave the most wonderful cloth in the world. The patterns and the colors were marvelously beautiful, they said; but the cloth could not be seen by any one who was stupid or unfit for his office.
"I must have some clothes made from this cloth," thought the Emperor. "When I wear them, I shall find out what men in my empire are not fit for their places. I shall know the clever men from the dunces. Those weavers must be brought to me at once."
So the two rogues came to the palace. The Emperor gave them a vast sum of money that they might begin their work without delay.
The rogues immediately put up two great looms, and pretended to be working. They called for the finest silks and the brightest gold, but these they put into their pockets. They worked steadily at the empty looms until far into the night.
Day after day the Emperor could hear the rattling of the looms. He became very curious to see the wonderful clothes; and he decided to send some one to find how the weavers were getting on. But he remembered that no one who was stupid or was unfit for his office could see the cloth.
"I will send my faithful old Minister to the weavers," thought the Emperor. "He is a very clever man, and no one is more worthy of his office than he."
So the good old Minister went into the room where the two rogues sat working at the empty looms. He stared and stared, and opened his eyes wide.
"Mercy on us!" he thought. "I can't see a thing." But he said nothing at all.
"Step a little nearer," said the rascals. "Is not this a beautiful pattern? And the colors - are they not wonderful?" And they pointed to the empty looms.
The poor old Minister put on his spectacles, and bent over the looms; but he could see nothing, for there was nothing to see!
"Mercy!" he said to himself. "Is it possible that I am unfit for my office? Certainly no one must know it. Am I a dunce? It will never do to say that I can not see the stuff!"
"Well, sir, what do you think of it?" asked one of the rogues.
"Oh, it is charming - beautiful," said the old Minister, as he peered through his spectacles. "The colors are gorgeous and the pattern is very fine. I shall tell the Emperor that I am much pleased with your work."
"We are glad indeed to hear you say so," said the rascals. And they went on talking of the cloth. They named the colors, and described the peculiar pattern. The old Minister listened carefully, for he wished to repeat to the Emperor all that was said.
Soon the rogues began to ask for more silk and more gold thread to use in their work. All that was given to them they put into their pockets. Not a single strand of silk was ever put on the loom.
The Emperor sent another faithful friend to see the cloth and inquire how soon the clothes would be ready. But this man fared no better than the Minister. He stood before the empty looms, and looked and looked and looked, but he saw no cloth.
"Is not this beautiful stuff?" asked the two rogues. And then they praised the gorgeous coloring and explained the peculiar pattern, which was not there at all.
"Dear, dear!" thought the man. "Surely I am not stupid. It must be that I am unfit for my office. That is very strange. But I must not let it be known."
"Ah!" said he. "The design is most unusual; and the color is marvelous. I shall tell the Emperor what fine progress you are making."
Soon every one in the city was talking about the wonderful cloth that the two weavers were making. The Emperor thought that he would like to see the beautiful cloth while it was still upon the looms. With a number of his courtiers he went to visit the two rogues, who were weaving rapidly day after day without any thread.
Among the courtiers were the two men who had already been there. They thought that the others would see something upon the empty looms, so they began to cry out at once, "Look, your Majesty. Do you see the beautiful design? And the color - is it not gorgeous?"
"What is this?" thought the Emperor. "I see nothing at all! Am I not fit to be Emperor? Am I a dunce? If that were known, I should be deposed."
"Yes, yes, it is very pretty," said the Emperor aloud. "I could not be better pleased."
He smiled and nodded his head, and stared at the empty looms. His courtiers, too, looked and looked, but saw no more than the others. Yet they all cried, "It is wonderful." And they asked the Emperor to wear a suit made from this cloth in a great procession that was soon to take place.
The Emperor gave each of the rogues a royal badge to wear, and called them the Imperial Court Weavers.
As the day of the procession came nearer, the two rogues worked with might and main. They were up the whole of the night before, and kept more than sixteen candles burning.
Through the shining windows the people could see them hard at work. They took yards of nothing down from the empty looms. They made cuts in the air with big scissors. They sewed strong stitches without any thread; and at last they said, "The clothes are ready."
The Emperor, with his grandest courtiers, went to put on his new suit.
The rogues lifted their arms as if holding something. "See!" they said. "Here is the coat! Here is the cape! Here are the trousers! The cloth is as light as a spider's web. You may move as freely as if you had nothing on. That is the beauty of it."
"It is marvelous," said the courtiers. And yet all the time they saw nothing, for there was nothing.
"Will your Majesty be pleased to take off your suit?" asked the rogues. "Then we will put on the new garments before the long mirror."
The Emperor took off his clothes, and the rogues pretended to put on each new garment as it was ready. They wrapped him about, they buttoned and they tied.
"How well his Majesty looks in his new suit!" said his courtiers. "What a becoming style! What beautiful colors!"
The Emperor turned round and round before the mirror, and looked and looked, and nodded his head.
"They are waiting outside with the canopy which is to be carried over your Majesty during the procession," said one of his officers.
"I am ready," said the Emperor. He gave one last look in the mirror, as if he were admiring his new finery.
The two men who were to carry the train of the Emperor stooped down to the floor, as if picking up something; and then they held their hands high in the air and moved forward. They did not dare let it be known that they saw nothing.
The Emperor marched along under the handsome canopy, and all his officers marched behind him, in gorgeous clothes. But the people in the streets and at the windows gazed only at the Emperor, for they all wanted to see the wonderful cloth.
"How handsome the Emperor's clothes are!" they all cried. "What a perfect fit! What marvelous colors!"
No one would say that he could see nothing, for that would have proved him very stupid and unfit for his office. No clothes of the Emperor had ever been so much admired.
"But he has nothing on!" said a little child.
"Hush! Hush!" said its father.
But the people began to whisper to one another what the child had said; "He has nothing on! A child says he has nothing on!"
Soon all the people were saying aloud, "But, he has nothing on!"
The Emperor heard what they said, and he shivered, for he knew that their words were true. But it would never do to stop the procession; and so he held himself stiffer than ever. And behind him his officers carried the invisible train.