I put a few personal belongings into a little suit-case and had my friend give it to one of the refugees who was to sail on the Tennessee.
If I succeeded, I was to recover it when we reached Egypt. The only thing I took with me was the paper which declared my "intention of becoming an American citizen," the "first paper." From this document I was determined not to part. I shall not tell how I kept it on me, as the means I used may still be used by others in concealing such papers and a disclosure of the secret might bring disaster to them. Suffice it to say that I had the paper with me and that no search would have brought it to light.
Arrived next morning at the appointed place, I gave the signal agreed upon, the whine of a jackal, and, after repeating it again and again, I heard a very low and muffled answer. My boatman was there! I had some fear that he might have betrayed me and that I should presently see a soldier or policeman leap out of the little boat, but my fears proved groundless, the man was faithful.
[ILLUSTRATION: STORMY SEA BREAKING OVER ROCKS OFF JAFFA]
We rowed out quietly, our boat a little nutshell on the tossing waves.
But I was relieved; the elements did not frighten me; on the contrary, I felt secure and refreshed in the midst of the sea. When morning began to dawn, scores of little boats came out of the harbor and circled about waiting for the cruiser. This was our chance. I crouched in the bottom of our boat and to all appearances my boatman was engaged merely in fishing. After I had lain there over an hour with my heart beating like a drum and with small hopes for the success of my undertaking, I heard at last the whistle of the approaching cruiser followed by a Babel of mad shouting and cursing among the boatmen. In the confusion I felt it safe to sit up. No one paid the slightest attention to me. All were engaged in a wild race to reach and mount the Tennessee's ladder. I scrambled up with the rest, and when, on the deck, an officer demanded my passport, I put on a bold front and asked him to tell Captain Decker that Mr. Aaronsohn wished to see him.
Ten minutes later I stood in the captain's cabin. There I unfolded my story, and wound up by asking him if, under the circumstances, my "first papers" might not entitle me to protection. As I spoke I could see the struggle that was going on within him. When he answered it was to explain, with the utmost kindness, that if he took me aboard his ship it would be to forfeit his word of honor to the Turkish Government, his pledge to take only citizens of neutral countries; that he could not consider me an American on the strength of my first papers; and that any such evasion might lead to serious complications for him and for his Government. Well, there was nothing for me to do but to withdraw and go back to Jaffa to face trial for an attempt to escape.
When I reached the deck again I found it swarming with refugees, many of whom knew me and came up to congratulate me on getting away. I could only shake my head and with death in my heart descend the Tennessee's ladder. It did not matter now what boat I took. Any boatman was eager enough to take me for a few cents. As I sat in the boat, every stroke of the oars bringing me nearer to the shore and to what I felt was inevitable captivity, a great bitterness swelled my heart. I was tired, utterly tired of all the dangers and trials I had been going through for the last months. From depression I sank into despair and out of despair came, strange to say, a great serenity, the serenity of despair.
On the quay I ran into Hassan Bey, commandant of the police, who was superintending the embarkation of refugees. I knew him and he knew me.
Half an hour later I was in police headquarters under examination by Hassan Bey. I was desperate, and answered him recklessly. A seasick man is indifferent to shipwreck. This was the substance of our conversation:--
"How did you get aboard the ship?"
"In a boat with some refugees. A woman hid me with her skirts."
"So you were trying to escape, were you?"
"If I had been, I shouldn't have come back."
"Then what did you do on the cruiser?"
"I went to talk to the captain, who is a friend of mine. My life is in danger. Fewzi Bey is after me, and I wanted _my friends in America_ to know how justice is done in Palestine."
"Who are your friends in America?"
"Men who could break you in a minute."
"Do you know to whom you are speaking?"
"Yes, Hassan Bey. I am sick of persecution. I wish you would hang me with your own hands as you hanged the young Christian; my friends would have your life for mine."
I wonder now how I dared to speak to him in this manner. But the bluff carried. Hassan Bey looked at me curiously for a moment--then smiled and offered me a cigarette, assuring me that he believed me a loyal citizen, and declaring he felt deeply hurt that I had not come to him for permission to visit the cruiser. We parted with a profusion of Eastern compliments, and that evening I started back to Zicron-Jacob.
[ILLUSTRATION: THE AUTHOR'S SISTER ON HER HORSE TAYAR]
The failure of my attempt to leave the country only sharpened my desire to make another trial. The danger of the enterprise tended to reconcile me to deserting my family and comrades and seeking safety for myself. As I racked my brain for a promising plan, a letter came from my sister in Beirut with two pieces of news which were responsible for my final escape. The American College was shortly to close for the summer, and the U.S.S. Chester was to sail for Alexandria with refugees aboard.
Beirut is a four days' trip from our village, and roads are unsafe. It was out of the question to permit my sister to come home alone, and it was impossible for any of us to get leave to go after her; nor did we want to have her at home in the unsettled condition of the country. I began wondering if I could not possibly get to Beirut and get my sister aboard the Chester, which offered, perhaps, the last opportunity to go out with the refugees. It would be a difficult undertaking but it might be our only chance and I quickly made up my mind to carry it out if it were a possible thing. I had to act immediately; no time was to be lost, for no one could tell how soon the Chester might sail.
My last adventure had been entered upon with forebodings, but now I felt that I should succeed. To us Orientals intuition speaks in very audible tones and we are trained from childhood to listen to its voice. It was with a feeling of confidence in the outcome, therefore, that I bade this second good-bye to my family and dearest friends. Solemn hours they were, these hours of farewell, hours that needed few words. Then once more I slipped out into the night to make my secret way to Beirut.
It was about midnight when I left home, dressed in a soldier's uniform and driving a donkey before me. I traveled only by night and spent each day in hiding in some cave or narrow valley where I could sleep with some measure of security. For food I had brought bread, dried figs, and chocolate, and water was always to be found in little springs and pools.
In these clear, warm nights I used to think of David, a fugitive and pursued by his enemies. How well I could now understand his despairing cry: "How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever?... How long shall mine enemy be exalted over me?"
Five nights I journeyed, and at last one morning beautiful Beirut appeared in the distance and I found myself in the forest of pines that leads into the city. The fresh dawn was filled with the balmy breath of the pines and all the odors of the Lebanon. Driving my donkey before me, I boldly approached the first picket-house and saluted the non-commissioned officer in military fashion. He stopped me and asked whence I came and where I was going. I smiled sweetly and replied that I was the orderly of a German officer who was surveying the country a few hours to the south and that I was going to Beirut for provisions. Then I lighted a cigarette and sat down for a chat. After discussing politics and the war for a few minutes, I jumped up, exclaiming that if I didn't hurry I should be late, and so took my departure. It was all so simple, and it brought me safely to Beirut. My donkey, having served the purpose for which I had brought him, was speedily abandoned, and I hurried to a friend's house, where I exchanged my uniform for the garb of a civilian.
My sister was the most surprised person on earth when she saw me walking into her room, and, when I told her that I wanted her to go with me on the Chester, she thought me crazy, for she knew that hundreds of persons were trying in vain to find means of leaving the country and it seemed to her impossible that we, who were Turkish subjects, could succeed in outwitting the authorities. Even when I had explained my plans and she was willing to admit the possibility of success, she still felt doubts as to whether it would be right for her to leave the country while her friends were left behind in danger. I assured her, however, that our family would feel relieved to know that we were in safety and could come back fresh and strong after the war to help in rebuilding the country.
Having gained her consent, I still had the difficult problem of ways and means before me. The Chester had orders to take citizens of neutral countries only. Passports had to be examined by the Turkish authorities and by the American Consul-General, who gave the final permission to board the cruiser. How was I to pass this double scrutiny? After long and arduous search, with the assistance of several good friends, I at last discovered a man who was willing to sell me the passports of a young couple belonging to a neutral nation. I cannot go into particulars about this arrangement, of course. Suffice it to say that my sister was to travel as my wife and that we both had to disguise ourselves so as to answer the descriptions on the passports. When I went to the American Consulate-General to get the permit, I found the building crowded with people of all nations,--Spanish and Greek and Dutch and Swiss,--all waiting for the precious little papers that should take them aboard the American cruiser, that haven of liberty and safety. The Chester was to take all these people to Alexandria, and those who had the means were to be charged fifty cents a day for their food. From behind my dark goggles I recognized many a person in disguise like myself and seeking escape.
We never betrayed recognition for fear of the spies who infested the place.
After securing my permit, I ran downstairs and straight to "my" consul, whose dragoman I took along with me to the _seraya_, or government building. Of course, the dragoman was well tipped and he helped me considerably in hastening the examination I had to undergo at the hands of the Turkish officials. All went well, and I hurried back to my sister triumphant.
The Chester was to sail in two days, but while we were waiting, the alarming news came that the American Consul had been advised that the British Government refused to permit the landing of the refugees in Egypt and that the departure of the Chester was indefinitely postponed.
With a sinking at my heart I rushed up to the American Consulate for details and there learned that the U.S.S. Des Moines was to sail in a few hours for Rhodes with Italian and Greek refugees and that I could go on her if I wished. In a few minutes I had my permit changed for the trip on the Des Moines and I hurried home to my sister. We hastily got together the few belongings we were to take with us, jumped into a carriage, and drove to the harbor.
We had still another ordeal to go through. My sister was taken into a private room and thoroughly searched; so was I. Nobody could leave the country with more than twenty-five dollars in cash on his person. Our baggage was carefully overhauled. No papers or books could be taken. My sister's Bible was looked upon with much suspicion since it contained a map of ancient Canaan. I explained that this was necessary for the orientation of our prayers and that without it we could not tell in which direction to turn our faces when praying! This seemed plausible to the Moslem examiners and saved the Bible, the only book we now possess as a souvenir from home. Now our passports were examined again and several questions were asked. My sister was brave and self-possessed, cool and unconcerned in manner, and at last the final signature was affixed and we jumped into the little boat that was to take us out to the ship.
At this moment a man approached, a dry-goods dealer of whom my sister had made some purchases a few months before. He seemed to recognize her and he asked her in German if she were not Miss Aaronsohn. I felt my blood leave my face, and, looking him straight in the eye, I whispered, "If you say one word more, you will be a dead man; so help me God!" He must have felt that I meant exactly what I said, for he walked off mumbling unintelligibly.
At last the boat got away, and five minutes later we were mounting the side of the Des Moines. Throngs of refugees covered the decks of the cruiser. Their faces showed tension and anxiety. Their presence there seemed too good to be true, and all awaited the moment when the ship should heave anchor. A Filipino sailor showed us about, and as he spoke Italian, I told him I wanted to be hidden somewhere till the ship got under way. I felt that even yet we were not entirely safe. That my fears were justified I discovered shortly, when from our hiding-place I saw the shopkeeper approaching in a small boat with a Turkish officer. They looked over all the refugees on the deck, but searched for us in vain.
After a half-hour more of uncomfortable tension the engines began to sputter, the propellers revolved, and--we were safe!
[ILLUSTRATION: BEIRUT, FROM THE DECK OF AN OUTGOING STEAMER]
The day was dying and a beautiful twilight softened the outlines of the Lebanon and the houses of Beirut. The Mediterranean lay quiet and peaceful around us, and the healthy, sturdy American sailors gave a feeling of confidence. As the cruiser drew out of the harbor, a great cry of farewell arose from the refugees on board, a cry in which was mingled the relief of being free, anguish at leaving behind parents and friends, fear and hope for the future. A little later the sailors were lined up in arms to salute the American flag when it was lowered for the night. Moved by a powerful instinct of love and respect, all the refugees jumped to their feet, the men bareheaded and the women with folded hands, and in that moment I understood as I had never understood before the real sacred meaning of a flag. To all those people standing in awe about that piece of cloth bearing the stars and stripes America was an incarnation of love universal, of freedom and salvation.
The cool Syrian night, our first night on the cruiser, was spent in songs, hymns, and conversation. We were all too excited to sleep.
Friends discovered friends and tales of woe were exchanged, stories of hardship, injustice, oppression, all of which ended with mutual congratulations on escaping from the clutches of the Turks.