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CHAPTER XI: ESCAPE
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!