The very first time Mrs. Darling looked into Mr. Darling’s mind, it was something like an accident. You will recall how, like all good mothers, it was Mrs. Darling’s habit, in the days when there were still three small Darlings asleep in the nursery, to kneel by their bedsides at night and sort through their thoughts. She smoothed out the creases and dusted dull colours bright, folding them neatly with the best ones on top, laid out like your Sunday best over the back of the rocking chair when you have to visit your Aunt Adelaide the next day, or perhaps your distant cousin, who is a vicar and therefore respectable.
But with her children away having adventures in the Neverland with Peter Pan, Mrs. Darling had no young thoughts to attend to.
It had become a habit of the three remaining members of the household, Mrs. Darling, Mr. Darling, and Nana, to sit up by the fire and reflect upon the way things once had been, Mrs. Darling in the chair, and Mr. Darling on the floor leaning against it, with Nana curled up beside him. ‘If only,’ Mr. Darling would sigh (and it is a piteous thing to see a man of Mr. Darling’s stature sigh thus), ‘I had been gentler to the children.’
You see, he felt very badly about losing his temper, and his own silly pridefulness which, in his mind, had led to the children being taken away. He felt that surely a man who was truly respectable would not have had to try so hard to be so, and so would not have made such mistakes. But Mrs. Darling would coo, ‘Oh, no, George, do not blame yourself. If we had not gone to the party that night, or perhaps if I had hung the boy’s shadow out the window and not cared what the neighbours thought of it. Perhaps then he would have left us alone.’
Mrs. Darling felt badly too, but Mr. Darling would clumsily shush her, and stroke her ankle, and tell her that it was not her fault either; she was too fine a mother for that. And Nana would whine sadly, for she in her turn felt that a good nurse would never have let her charges escape so easily.
Very often, these nights would end with Nana slinking upstairs to the nursery, to bury herself under Michael’s bed and watch the window, and poor Mr. Darling downstairs fallen asleep at his wife’s knee. Mr. Darling was an intensely august and upright man, but it was something he tried very hard at, and it did sometimes tire him out awfully. It was on a night such as this that our story begins.
All boys grow up, but there are different ways in which they may do so. Some grow up naturally, with the passage of time, and those boys become men easily; manhood agrees with them admirably, and fits like a suit they have worn all their lives. This, common consensus agrees, is the best and healthiest way to go about the practice, if one must. But there is another sort of boy as well; those who feel that they ought to grow up, that being a man is a far more interesting and reputable thing to be than a boy, and that the world, besides, is made for men, not those still in short trousers and buckled shoes. These boys tend to grow up before they rightly should, into decorous men who are the pillars of society, but in the backs of their very grown-up minds live still the little boys they once were.
Mr. Darling, it may not surprise you to hear, was one of those sorts of boys, and asleep against his wife’s knee, Mrs. Darling could not help thinking that he looked so very dear and young like that. His hair, which was forever combed and pomaded into ruler-straight perfection, had come ever so slightly mussed, and his starched collars were undone, his spectacles drooping from his nose and his knees splayed wide, turn-ups riding up shockingly to reveal striped socks. In sleep, the lines in his forehead and around his eyes smoothed out into endearing boyishness, and the silver at his temples, so befitting a man of his sort, looked like it might have been an accident of the firelight.
We may ask what precisely it was about this moment which made Mrs. Darling succumb to the urge to leaf through the pages of her husband’s mind, but I am afraid all speculation will be merely that. Perhaps it was the romantic cast to her own thoughts which suggested such an exploration; perhaps it was only that Mr. Darling did look such a boy. Mrs. Darling herself was half-asleep, and longing so for her babes. Whatever the answer, it was not difficult to draw aside the sleeping curtain over his mind and peer inside.
The minds of children (all children except one) invariably look like dresser drawers, constructed in such a way as to make navigating them easy for their mothers. It is only when they grow up that their minds take on their own particular shape. In her naïveté, Mrs. Darling may have supposed that Mr. Darling’s mind would be just the same; she had, after all, never seen into the mind of a grown-up before, and one cannot see what one’s own mind looks like, so she was not to know that her own was like delicate, infinite Oriental boxes, hiding each inside the other.
Mr. Darling’s mind, though, was neither clever Chinese boxes nor a chest of drawers. It was, in fact, nothing so much as a bank vault; rows and rows of tiny brass mailslot doors, each with its own label, neatly printed on a bit of card. It was far too fitting to really surprise her, and Mrs. Darling could not but smile as she pulled open the first drawer that came to her fingers. She went through many, and the ones nearest the top were all full of bills and figures and accounts, and worries about the children. The worries were like little lost children themselves, huddled sadly in their brass compartments, and they looked up at Mrs. Darling wretchedly, beseeching. It pains me to say that she rather abruptly shut the drawer on them.
As she went on, the labels on the rows and rows of little brass doors stopped being quite as neat, and in some cases, disappeared entirely. I’m sure you can imagine her surprise when she opened one little drawer which looked as if it hadn’t seen the light of day in years, to find in it the scent of wind and sunshine over the treetops. It was not a scent that she knew, but no child who has once gone to the Neverland and flown with Peter or the fairies ever forgets the particular smell of wind which has naughtily tangled in one’s hair and laughingly pushed one higher, further, onwards to the next adventure. For Mrs. Darling had once upon a time visited the Neverland, but only, she thought, in dreams, and being a grown-up woman and a mother, she had more or less forgotten about it. And yet here it was, in the recesses of her own staid and practical George’s mind.
It rattled her so much that she woke Mr. Darling up; the poor man startled from where he had been somnolent on the floor, and knocked his forehead into her knee. He swore, and when Mrs. Darling did not chide him for his language, he blinked up at her, surprised, blearily resettling his spectacles so that he might look at her properly, eyebrows making as if they might touch in the very middle of his forehead.
‘Mary?’ he asked, for that was Mrs. Darling’s Christian name, and he sounded for the moment quite as youthful as he had looked in his sleep. ‘Whatever is the matter? Why-- what the deuce am I doing here?’
And Mrs. Darling could see nothing for it but to smooth his hair and give him a smile that years of kind patience had perfected. It is not the done thing, after all, for a wife or a mother ever to let their husbands or children know when they have had a shock. Otherwise who could they ever trust in to be constant and unshakeable?
‘You fell asleep, George. I know you sleep so poorly these days; I could not bring myself to wake you.’
‘Hmph,’ he harrumphed, but could not seem to quite muster the proper indignation at having fallen asleep on the floor in his nice work clothes. Instead, he pushed himself up and held out a hand like a gentleman, to help Mrs. Darling up, and the pair of them retired to bed, curled together, each to their own uneasy dreams.
In Mrs. Darling’s dreams, a summer wind blew through the French window of the nursery, careless of the fact that it was January outside. The wind snuck all about and lifted the blankets on the beds, catching itself in the curtains until the whole room smelled of clean, green, open air and the promise of dirty hands and bare feet.
There was a wind in Mr. Darling’s dreams as well, but a different one. His wind was heavy with smells of salt and tar and damp wood, and full of such remarkable sounds-- flappings and crackings and clashings and crowings, and an old chanty with words so devious and wicked that one would never have thought a man of Mr. Darling’s decency able to imagine them.
The contents of the little brass compartments further back were stranger still, Mrs. Darling later found, than the drawer of summertime wind which had so jolted her (for she did indeed go back to sort through Mr. Darling’s thoughts again, curious and lonely as she was). One was full to bursting with old trophies and school prizes; little silver cups and plaques, which would not have been so strange, but for the fact that she could not quite make out the names engraved on them. It might have been George, but then it might also have been James, and no-matter how she scrubbed with the hem of her nightdress, it would go no clearer.
In the next slot over was a thing queerer still; curls of glossy hair like long, black taper candles. Mrs. Darling could not imagine what such a thing could mean, nor why anyone, even in the half-real world of Mr. Darling’s mind, should keep shorn locks of hair like precious things, and she took one in her slender white hands and lifted it to peer at. The texture was fine, quite as fine as her own hair, and she stroked over the ringlet for a moment before putting it back.
Behind the locks of hair was a long, wicked rapier with a basket-hilt of gold and nicks along a blade as sharp as an unhappy thought, but Mrs. Darling did not touch that.
This, you see, is what can sometimes happen when a boy grows up the wrong way, as Mr. Darling did-- too quickly, from trying too hard. Mr. Darling had kept some of his own lost boyhood (it was there in his mind, but further down than even Mrs. Darling had ventured, in something very like the place she kept her hidden kiss, where even Mr. Darling did not entirely know where it was), but because the world is founded on principles of balance, that had meant that something of the grown-up he never became had to be trapped behind. And it was, and it acquired a name of its own, and a reputation, and a certain wild, dashing, piratical villainy which Mr. Darling would never have dared in his waking life.
Or at least, this is what I have heard. Accounts of the Neverland are, by their very nature, unreliable, and I am quite sure that Hook himself would have objected most strenuously were we to tell him that he was nothing more than a figment of a lowly bank clerk’s imagination. Indeed, anyone who suggested to his face that he was anything less than the most feared buccaneer ever to sail all the Seven Seas and beyond, besides, would, I can only imagine, end with the spike of his hook in their belly.
But if it is true, let us hope that Hook, if he has ears to do so, does not hear our tale.
In any event, it is true that when Wendy, Michael, and John came back-- do not act surprised; you knew they were going to-- and brought with them the Lost Boys, Mrs. Darling often at first saw in their thoughts the shadow of a man who reminded her very of her George, although she could not think why, for they looked nothing at all alike. But he was one of the bad thoughts, and accordingly, Mrs. Darling folded him away, under the bright new ones, until even Tootles (who was always the most steadfast of all the Lost Boys, and so it took him the longest to forget; Slightly was quite sure he had forgotten all about the Neverland and fighting pirates and redskins by his second day, although even when he later grew up, he would never be heard to say that he did not believe in fairies) ceased to sometimes wake with a cry of ‘Hook!’ on his lips.
It is also true that when Nibs whittled them all play-swords out of sticks he had collected in the park, Mr. Darling took to fencing with all the children, enacting mock-battles and groaning in a most wonderfully theatrical way that oh, Michael had got his hand, and how shall he fight now?, whilst all the rest of them would pile on top of him, even Wendy, and have at him viciously with their own blades until he died a positively Shakespearian death. If Mrs. Darling was honest, something in her found it rather dashing.
But she did not, ever after that, venture into Mr. Darling’s mind. With nine children now to look after, instead of just three, she was quite occupied enough sorting out all of their thoughts to have any time for Mr. Darling’s. Mr. Darling, of course, was none the wiser; he had not known in the first place that his wife had looked where she really ought not have, and he was so busy frantically making up balance sheets to account for the financing of his newly enlarged household that he scarcely had time for his own thoughts himself.
He did still sometimes dream, on nights when a window had been left open. London air is laden with coal-smoke and cooking grease and the conversation of passers-by, but the wind is a notoriously fickle thing with its own designs, and in between the window and Mr. Darling's dreams, it would contrive to become a wild, whipping thing which carried the creak of sailcloth in it and rocked a deck under his feet and threw salt-spray into his eyes. But Mr. Darling, of course, never remembered it when he woke.