The man looked across the across the carriage. “Yes, it is a face that tells the true story of its wearer,” he murmured again quietly to himself. “But how does one come by this gift of immortality?” he repeated, louder but still to himself. Almost as if he was asking himself the question.
After a pause he looked straight at me; almost through me. “I was travelling in the East when it came to me. I did a lot of travelling in those days. I had attached myself to a camel train heading eastwards; roughly in the direction to which I was aiming. For three days we trekked across the desert.
“During that time I talked often with another itinerant traveller who did not belong to the train either. He, in fact, came from the mountainous lands to the north of India but he had spent a long time travelling the desert wastes, never settling for long in one place or with one group of people.
“He was presently heading back to this mountainous homeland, there, he said, finally to die. He had one last secret to pass to another and then he could rest in peace.”
Again ‘my’ man stopped in the telling of his tale. Silence descended on the compartment, broken only by the click-clack of the wheels on the rails. In a while he took up his story again.
“After the three days, we reached an oasis where a number of desert tracks met. The camel train was heading north-east from here; my new found associate was heading south. As I was heading nowhere in particular I elected to join him and together we set out, aiming for the mountains of his homeland. He was a pleasant companion, seeming to have an unending fund of stories of strange parts of the world. His knowledge of the desert seemed limitless, unerringly picking watering-places out of the vastness of the wilderness in which we travelled.
“Over the days of travelling we got to know each other very well. One night we had made camp and were sitting beside our small fire before finally settling down for the night. As was usual, we were telling stories of our travels and the strange and interesting places we had visited. I remember that my story was of a visit I had made to the Holy Land a few years previously.
“His story went back longer than that – two centuries, to be exact. He told me of a meeting with a holy man all those years ago in the land they now call Tibet. There, in the snowy fastness of those mountainous lands, he had spent a winter with a small community of holy men and their families. It appears that he made a very favourable impression on these holy hermits during this time. As the spring came and his departure drew nigh, the head man of the little community called him into his sparse cell.
“There he had told my travelling associate about the small holy band. Since time immemorial they had lived there – six holy men with their families – untouched by the happenings in the vast world around them; untouched by illness or by old age; immortal.
Again my man fell silent – and I shared his silence as our train continued through our green and open countryside.