"The over curious are not over wise."--MASSINGER.
ACCORDING to an old French proverb, "Curiosity is so nearly akin to craftiness, that it can disfigure the most handsome faces." Both history and social romance afford many a striking instance of the dangerous and fatal effects of over-inquisitiveness, for, according to a Spanish proverb, "No woman sleeps so soundly that the twang of the guitar will not bring her to the window."
Under a variety of forms the well-known tradition of "Peeping Tom" survives in our midst to-day, who, at any cost, would gain a glimpse of Lady Godiva, as she rode on her noble errand through the streets of Coventry, and nursery literature perpetuates the gruesome spectacle that was revealed to the curious maiden who, despite warning, persisted in prying into the forbidden chamber of Bluebeard.
But stories of this kind have their counterpart in our family folk-lore. Dalton Hill Head, for instance, once the property of the family of Hedley, of Newcastle, has a strange story associated with it. Some years ago a woman named Mary Henderson--a connection, it is said, of George Stephenson, the engineer, had charge of the house. The gardener lived close by and kept a mastiff called "Ball." Mysterious and uncanny tales seem to have been told of this house, and when Mary Henderson asked the gardener to lend her "Ball" as a protection, he specially warned her not to look into a certain closet in the house.
"Curiosity, however, prompted her to disregard his warning, for, said she, 'what can there possibly be that I should not see?' Hence to the cupboard she went, when, on entering it, she discovered to her horror a quantity of children's bones--some in hat-boxes and some wrapped in articles of clothing. She understood now the gardener's advice, and wondered what the meaning could be. With her companion 'Ball' she retired to rest, but was soon aroused by strange sounds of dancing and singing upstairs. Being a courageous woman, she determined to investigate the matter, but the dog was terrified and unwilling to accompany her. She accordingly took him in her arms and went round the house. As is usual in such cases, all was still and undisturbed, but an attic window stood open." Further particulars respecting this strange affair are wanting, neither are we informed whether the music and dancing were resumed on succeeding nights.
Many a story, again, of the tragic results of woman's curiosity has been recorded from time to time, more or less resembling the romance of George Lillo, entitled, "Fatal Curiosity." We are told how young Wilmot, supposed to have perished at sea, returns to this country, and in disguise pays a visit to his parents, with whom he deposits a casket.
But his mother, out of curiosity, opens the casket, and finding that it contains articles of great value, she agrees with her husband to murder its owner. Scarcely had they committed the fatal deed, when they discovered that it was their own son whom they had killed.
It would seem, too, that woman's curiosity has been equally distasteful to all beings of supernatural order, and it may be remembered how the fairies of our old ballads have frequently withdrawn their favours on this account from mortals. In a variety of cases, for instance, the treasures of some enchanted castle suddenly disappear, owing to the recipient's curiosity leading her to open a prohibited door. Such an act of disobedience is never allowed to pass with impunity, in most cases causing the inquisitive woman more or less personal injury. Oftentimes, also, in folk-tales and romance, curiosity is repaid by some unwelcome surprise, as in Grimm's tale of Fitcher's Bird, where the unhappy heroine finds, in a room which she was specially warned not to approach, the bodies of her sisters hacked in pieces.
Thus among the fairy tales in which woman's curiosity holds a prominent place, we are told how a young Welsh girl went one day to a hiring fair, where she was addressed by a gentleman dressed in black, who asked her if she would undertake the management of his children.
"Yes, she would gladly do so," was her reply.
Her new master made one condition, which was that she should be blindfolded before starting on their way to his home.
She consented, and on reaching their destination the handkerchief was removed from her eyes, when she found herself in a beautiful mansion, in the presence of a number of little children. These were put under her charge, her master at the same time presenting her with a box of ointment, which she was to put on their eyes, giving her strict injunctions always to wash her hands immediately after using it, and to be particularly careful never to let a bit of it touch her own eyes.
She obeyed his rules, and for a time was very happy in her new home, until one morning when putting the ointment on the children's eyes, curiosity induced her to touch one corner of her own with it. But no sooner had she done so than the children appeared to her like so many little imps. Getting frightened, and anxious to leave what she felt was an uncanny place, she took the first opportunity of asking leave to go and see her friends, a request which was readily granted her. Accordingly, a handkerchief was put over her eyes, and she was escorted some distance towards the neighbourhood of her own home, where on her arrival she took care to remain.
Strange to say, many years afterwards, when visiting the fair, she saw a man steal something from a stall, and with one corner of her eye she recognised her old master.
Unthinkingly she said, "How are you, Master? How are the children?"
He replied, "How did you see me?"
"With the corner of my eye," she replied. But from that moment she paid the long-deferred penalty for her curiosity, and became blind in her left eye, the sight of which she never recovered.
It has long been a common belief that it is highly dangerous for a young lady to display curiosity in all matters of ghostly import, and many a German household tale gives the most thrilling details of disobedience in this respect.
Stories, too, are told of young girls forecasting the future on the eve of their wedding day, and, through over curiosity, of their having a very different response to their inquiries from what they expected. Thus a certain damsel was warned against peeping into the looking-glass after she had performed various divinatory rites, but her curiosity led her to do so, whereupon she was horrified at seeing the figure of Death frowning at her.
In many an old family residence there is the mysteriously haunted room, "of which the atmosphere is supernaturally fatal to body and mind." Hence, should curiosity foolishly induce any one to enter a room of this description, the effects are generally said to be more or less serious. Some few years ago the case was reported of a young lady whose curiosity caused her, despite all advice, to go into such a haunted room, but, adds the account, "she saw, heard, and felt horror so intense that she went mad, and never recovered sanity enough to tell how or why."
And, whilst speaking of woman's curiosity, there is the well-known story of the Lady Freemason, who, in a perhaps unique way, paid the penalty for her inquisitiveness. The lady in question was the Honourable Elizabeth St. Leger, and her father Lord Doneraile--a very zealous Mason--held a warrant and occasionally opened a lodge at Doneraile House. On one occasion it appears that previous to the initiation of a candidate to the first steps of Masonry, Miss St. Leger--either by accident or design--happened to be in an apartment adjoining the one used as a lodge room. Hearing the voices of the Freemasons, she thought it a good opportunity to see this mystery, and making a hole in the wall--which at this time was undergoing some alterations--with her scissors she succeeded in gaining a view unobserved of the first two steps of the mystic ceremony.
But, unfortunately for her curiosity, it had never occurred to her that there was no mode of egress except through the room where the Freemasons were assembled engaged in carrying out the concluding part of the second stage, and, as she stealthily opened the door, "there stood before her, to her dismay, a grim and surly tiler with his long sword unsheathed. Go forward she could not, and, panic-struck, her shriek alarmed the members of the lodge, who, finding that she had witnessed their proceedings," resolved, it is said, at once "to put the fair spectatress to death; but her life was spared on condition of her going through the remaining steps of the mystic ceremony she had unlawfully witnessed."
This young lady afterwards married Richard Aldworth, of Newmarket, and whenever a benefit was given at the theatres in Dublin or Cork, in aid of the Masonic Female Orphan Asylum, she walked at the head of the Freemasons with her apron and other insignia of Freemasonary, and sat in the front row of the stage-box. According to another version of this romantic story, Miss St. Leger concealed herself in an empty clock case, where she remained in her secret hiding-place for a considerable time, until, on being discovered secreted, she was compelled to become a member of the craft.
Another equally strange traditionary account of woman's curiosity--the punishment for which is a striking illustration of the arbitrary state of affairs in Scotland in former days--was that of the wife of a lord of the Sessions, Lord Grange. It was suspected that the lady had by some manner or other contrived to learn the contents of some state papers of great consequence, and for fear she should divulge anything she had learnt therein, she was privately conveyed to the island of St. Kilda by her husband and son, where, on her arrival, she was to be left to shift for herself, the two sailing back again without any one having the slightest knowledge of what had transpired.
The disappearance of Lady Grange soon became a matter of comment, and although every effort was made to ascertain the place of concealment, it was to no purpose. Years passed without anything being heard of her, until accidentally after her death, which took place at the end of thirty years, her melancholy and romantic fate was ascertained. Her isolated island home afforded no implements for writing, but anxious to let posterity have some facts of her sad and eventful life, she worked it on her muslin apron with her hair.
Further stories are to be found in family history and romance of the hardships and perils to which curiosity has subjected the indiscreet of the fair sex, this propensity having oftentimes subjected them to the most unenviable experiences. Truly, as it has been observed, "the over curious are not over wise," and to woman's curiosity may be added these warning words:--
"Search not to find what lies too deeply hid;
Nor to know things whose knowledge is forbid."