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Wilhelm Liebknecht

A Bad Quarter of an Hour


Written: In German, March 1895.
First Published: “Fuch’s Volksfeuilleton”, 1895.
Published in English: The Social Democrat, February 1897. Vol. I, No. 2. pp. 47-50.
Transcription Source: Reprint in Justice, 22 September 1900, p.3.
Translated by: Eleanor Marx Aveling.
Transcribed by: Ted Crawford.
Markup: H. Antonn.
Note: This is an earlier, alternate translation of a story that was also included in Liebknecht’s Karl Marx: Biographical Memoirs of 1896.

Editor’s Note by Justice: The following account by Liebknecht of an incident which befell him during his stay in this country appeared in the Social Democrat for February, 1897. We reproduce it here as a slight illustration of that tenderly human side of his character which so endeared him to all who knew him:–

Who does not know Rabelais’ mauvais quart d’heure – the quarter of an hour during which the reckoning has to be paid, or worse may be in store for you? And who has not had his bad quarters of an hour? I’ve had several. Before an examination; before the first speech; the first time of standing in front of a prison door, requested by the warders to hand over braces and necktie, so that, as they frankly replied to my astonished question, I might not attempt escaping the court-martial by committing suicide; these and many another besides were assuredly bad quarters of an hour. But, compared with the quarter of an hour I am going to tell you about, they were pleasant. It was not even a quarter of an hour. Perhaps only five minutes. I did not measure the time. I had no time to. And if I had had the time, I had no watch. A refugee and a watch! I only know that it was an eternity to me.

It was on November 18, 1852, and in London.

The “Iron Duke”, “the victor of a hundred fights”, whom the English people, however, had made mild and pliable enough during the Reform movement – the Duke of Wellington had died in his castle of Walmer on September 14, and on November 18 the “national hero” was to receive a “national funeral”, and be buried in St Pauls Cathedral with national pomp alongside of other national heroes. Since the day of his death – almost two months – all England, and especially all London, had been agog about the ceremony, which for pomp and circumstance was to eclipse all former national ceremonies of the same kind, just as the man himself, in whose honour it was to be held, was in English opinion greater than any earlier hero. And this was the day. All England was in movement. All London was afoot. Hundreds of thousands had rushed hither from the provinces, thousands upon thousands from abroad.

I loathe such spectacles, and I have always had a horror of great human crowds, and, like my fellow refugees, I had intended stopping at home, or going to St. James’s Park. But two lady friends had scattered my Cato resolution to the winds. Ce que femme veut, Dieu veut – what woman wants has to be done – even though she be only six or seven years old, like my two little friends were. Ah! we were such friends! Black-eyed, black curly-haired Jenny Marx, the very picture of her father “Mohr” (Moor), and pretty, fair-haired Laura, with the roguish eyes, the merry image of her glorious mother, who, in spite of the bitterness of exile, could still at times smile just as roguishly as the ever gay “Lörchen” (Laura). As I have said, we were such good friends, the two little maids and I. Our friendship began a few days after I had come, in the summer of 1850, from Switzerland to London – and a prisoner in “free Switzerland” at that – passing with a compulsory passport through France. I met the Marx family at the summer outing of the Communist Club, somewhere near London, I do not remember if it was Greenwich or Hampton Court.

“Père Marx”, whom I saw for the first time, subjected me to a severe examination, looked me steadily in the eyes, and noted my head very carefully – an operation to which my friend Gustave Struve had accustomed me, because he obstinately refused to believe in my “moral earnestness”, and so took special delight in making me a victim of his phrenological studies. However, the examination passed off satisfactorily; I bore the look of the leonine head, with its coal-black lion mane; the examination became lively, cheerful talk, and we were soon in the thick of merry-making-Marx the merriest of us all. At the same time I made the acquaintance of Mrs. Marx and of “Lenchen” (Helene Demuth), their faithful house-friend from childhood, and of the children. On some other occasion, when I have more time, I shall describe the Marx family; that is a debt of gratitude I still have to pay, and, moreover, it is a duty to my comrades, who have the right to demand that anyone who can help to complete the picture of their one and only Karl Marx and his surroundings should do so to the best of his ability. Enough! From that day forth I was at home at Marx’s, and every day saw me visiting the family, who then lived in Dean Street, a small street off Oxford Street, while I found quarters in the neighbouring Church Street. Here I shall not speak of Marx. His wife had perhaps as strong an influence upon my development as he himself had. My mother died when I was three years old, and I had a somewhat hard up-bringing. I was not accustomed to any serious relations with women. And now I found here a beautiful, high-minded intellectual woman, who gave the friendless volunteer, stranded on the shores of the Thames, a half-motherly, half-sisterly kindness. My intercourse with the family I firmly believe saved me from being wrecked by the miseries of exile. And the two little daughters who took so kindly to me, and who always took possession of me the moment they caught sight of me, did not a little towards keeping up that lightness of heart during the years of London exile to which I owe my life. Nothing cheers and strengthens more in critical times than communion with children. How often, when I did not know where to turn or what to do, I fled to my little friends, and strolled with them through the streets and the parks! Then sad thoughts would soon be dispelled, and with new courage came again the joyous strength to go on fighting for existence. Generally, I had to tell tales; and after a few days I was installed as “the story teller”, who was always greeted with delight. Fortunately, I knew a great many tales, and when my stock was exhausted I had to piece stories together – which certainly did not succeed long, for the quick-witted little maids soon noticed when I served up bits of old tales in a ragout – and finally I had to invent stories myself. So, from necessity, I became, truly not a great poet, but a maker of stories – until the story followed the stories. And never had anyone a more grateful or more appreciative audience. But whither have I wandered? Why, I was going to describe my worst quarter of an hour!

“Take great care of the children! Don’t get into the crowd!” Mrs. Marx said, bidding us good-bye, as with the two dancing, impatient children I set out for the “show”. And downstairs, on the ground floor, Lenchen, who had run after us anxiously added: “Be very careful, dear Library!” (the enigmatical name bestowed upon me by the children). Mohr, who rose late, was not yet visible.

I had made my plan. We had no money to hire seats at a window, or on a stand. The funeral procession was to pass along the Strand, parallel with the Thames. We must get into one of the streets entering the Strand from the north, and running towards the river.

Holding one little girl by each hand, our pockets filled with provender I steered towards the coign of vantage which I had chosen, just by Temple Bar – the old City gates that divided Westminister from the City. The streets from earliest morning had been unusually animated, and were thronged with people. The procession, however, having to pass through many quarters of the giant town the millions of sight-seers divided up, and without any crush, we reached the chosen places. It was just what we wanted. I stood on some steps, the two little ones clasping one another, and each holding me by the hand, stood on a higher step. Hush! A movement in the sea of people; a distant, growing roar, like the roaring of the ocean, drawing nearer and nearer! An “Ah!” from thousands upon thousands of throats! The procession is there, and, from our position, we can see it as beautifully as if we were at the theatre. The children are delighted. No crush. All my fears are gone.

A long, long time. The golden procession wends its way with the gorgeous catafalue that is taking the “Conqueror of Napoleon” to his tomb, One new sight after the other until nothing more came. The last gold-laced rider has gone.

And now suddenly a rush – a rush forward of the mass piled up behind us. Everyone wants to follow the “procession”. I struggle with all my might to protect the children so that the stream may pass without hurting them. In vain. Against the elemental force of the masses no single human force can stand. It was as easy for a small fragile boat, after a hard winter, to resist an icefloe. I must give way, and, pressing the children tightly to me, I try to get out of the main street. I seem to be succeeding, and I breathe again, when suddenly from the right a new and more mighty wave of people bears in upon us; we are thrown into the Strand, the thousands and hundreds of thousands who have gathered into this street-artery want to hurry after the procession in order to see the sight once again. I set my teeth, try to lift the children on to my shoulders, but am too hemmed in. I convulsively seize the children’s arms; the vortex carries us away, and I suddenly feel a force pressing between me and the children. I grasp their wrists in either hand, but the force that has pushed its way between me and the children still presses forward like a wedge – the children are torn from me, resistance is hopeless. I must let them, go, or I shall break their arms. It was a hideous moment.

What to do? In front of me rises the gate of Temple Bar with its three openings, the middle one for horses and carriages; side ones for foot passengers. Against the walls of this gate the mass of human beings had been stemmed like the waters against the arches of a bridge. I must get through! If the children – and the terrified shrieks of those about me showed the danger – were not trampled under foot, I hoped to find them on the other side where the crush might cease. Hoped! I struggled with chest and elbows like a madman. But in such a crowd the individual is like a straw swimming in a whirlpool. I fought and fought – a dozen times I thought I had got through, only to be thrown back again. At last a rush, a frightful crush – and in a moment I am on the other side, and beyond the worst of the throng. I rushed hither and thither seeking. Nothing! My heart stood still! Then two clear children’s voices, “Library!” I thought I was dreaming. It was angel’s music. And in front of me, laughing, unharmed, stood the two little maids. I kissed them, pressed them to me. For a moment I was speechless. And then they told me their story.

The wave of men that had dragged them from me had carried them safely through the gate, and then thrown them aside under the protection of the very walls which, on the other side of the gate, had caused the crush. There they had taken up their position by a projecting wall, remembering my old direction, that if ever on our walks the should lose me, they were to stand still where they lost me, or as near that place as possible.

We returned home in triumph, Mrs. Marx, Mohr, and Lenchen received us with rejoicing, for they had been in more anxiety; they had heard there had been an enormous crowd, and that many persons had been crushed to death or injured.

The children had no idea of the danger in which they had been. They had enjoyed themselves immensely. And that evening I also said nothing about it.

At the same place where they were torn from me several women had been killed, and the awful scenes of that afternoon were largely instrumental in causing Temple Bar, that terrible hindrance to traffic, to be pulled down.

But that quarter of an hour lives in my memory as if it had been yesterday.

And since that time I have never taken children where a crowd might be expected. And I never shall.

March, 1895

W. Liebknecht

Last updated on 19 June 2023