29 JUNE 1956, Page 7

A FRIEND WHO had tea with Walter de la Mare

recently gives me the following account of the meeting : "Now which would be better?" he said. "To know that you were to be hanged at a certain point of your life when you were young—or when you were old ?" The afternoon sun was falling on his face, and I saw that he very much wanted to know. He had not had a good night. Now he sat by the open window overlooking green fields. Through the colonnades of trees a flash of white dots told that the eights were on the river. I answered : "When you are young, because then you could prepare," and knew it was the wrong reply.

"W.J.," came a gentle voice, "are you ready to come in?" It was Miss Saxon, his companion, nurse and friend, calling us to the tea-table. Mr. de la Mare sat with his piece of white bread and butter untouched. "Thinking again," I said, "I would rather know when I was old." "Would you?" he said. "Now why?" "Because"—I realised now the question had been a test—"by then I might be braver." The slight bewilderment in the air seemed to lift. He smiled; and by the end of tea hilarity had taken hold of that afternoon two weeks ago. The wind dropped and the white room echoed and re-echoed with the sound of the birds outside and the laughter within it. He spoke of the tall trees outside, which had been struck by lightning, and yet continued to flower, of the persistence of spring leaves, and of the galaxies of stars, each sentence offer- ing some puzzle I could not solve.

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