Dr. Fredrick Treves stood numbly in the hollow room that once belonged to John Merrick. The dry, chilly April air swept in through the open window, carrying away the last of his characteristic scent. Mr. Gomm's voice floated ethereally through the haze of shock, accompanied by the clatter of the porter cleaning the room and clearing out John's things so that the room could be used for treating patients again. That's what it was designed for - healing. But Freddie wasn't sure he could ever come in this room again without feeling the overwhelming absence of the spirit that once filled it. A church model - this was John's fifth - sat on the table, nearly finished except for the steeple. That final reach toward heaven, John had made on his own, in his sleep. The steeple lay on the table, so easy to finish with two hands, but Freddie couldn't touch it. He couldn't move. He couldn't ...
There was irony to it. He spent his time healing those who brought injuries on themselves by living foolishly, while the one man he had wanted most to heal - the one he knew would never squander such a gift - he had been helpless to save. He couldn't make sense of it. When he'd taken John in, the man had been covered in bruises. Freddie hadn't even realized it at the time, because John's skin condition made it difficult to tell. It was only when he saw the man healthy (or as healthy as he could be given his condition) that he noticed the reddish splotching had diminished. He knew the world had been cruel to John Merrick, but it still shocked him that one man could be so hateful, barbaric, and merciless toward another.
Freddie cringed and pressed his eyes closed. Mr. Gomm was asking him something about John. He had to correct the name - John. His own voice sounded a million miles away. Clearing his throat, Freddie stealed himself so his voice wouldn't shake. It was easier to talk when he wasn't looking at the model, but he couldn't look at Mr. Gomm either.
"Merrick was highly intelligent," Freddie said distantly, thinking of the man he had loved like a son. "He had an acute sensibility and worst for him, a romantic imagination."
Freddie snuck a glance at Mr. Gomm. His mentor had a bemused look on his face, with one eyebrow raised. That look always preceded a warning about the harsh ways of the world,and quite often a chiding reminder to protect himself. Puffing his chest, Freddie prepared to stand by his words, but the porter noisily dropped John's collection of toilet articles, and Freddie caved. Mr. Gomm was always right about these sorts of things.
"Never mind," Freddie mumbled, ducking his head. "I'm not certain of any of it."
Retreating quickly to his office, Freddie closed the door and circled the room, trying to put from his mind the heartless sorting and clearing out of John's things. Pulling a key from his coat, Freddie opened his medical cabinet, and began carefully polishing and arranging the surgical instruments inside. It was what he always did when he was at a loss for what really needed doing. Even if nothing had tarnished, then every scalpel certainly needed to be moved two centimeters to the left, and then back again. Once, Mr. Gomm had caught him and confronted him about the nervous habit, but Freddie shrugged it off with science. He believed the key to saving his patients from infection was to start with clean instruments, and so he kept them clean. He had a good track record compared to his fellow surgeons, and Mr. Gomm let it slide. Freddie was good at saving people. His mother had always told him that he could save the world. 'Speak up, Freddie,' his father would say. 'You know what you're talking about.'
'You know what you're talking about.'
The words echoed, and they felt horribly hollow. Where once he was certain of his purpose, Freddie found he was trying once again to reinvent his future and convince himself that ... he wasn't even sure what he was trying to convince himself of. He couldn't save a world that did not want saving. He couldn't help a world that tied his hands. The one man he did want to help had stopped asking him long ago, because there was nothing that could be done. Freddie's clients would be kings, but a king was still a man, just as John Merrick was a man. Why should a king be more deserving?
"Help me," Freddie whispered quietly, calling out to God or any divine being vying for attention. If the only hope was in the world beyond this one, then Freddie was ready to go. That day at the train station, John had whispered those two words, "help me," and had wept on the sleeve of Freddie's favorite jacket. The tear stain had never gone away. Sometimes Freddie wondered what would happen if he had the courage to cry for help like that. Whose sleeve would catch his tears?
'Speak up, Freddie. You know what you're talking about.'
He knew - he saw the foolishness. He wrote pamphlets and counseled patients, but he often found himself crying out at the top of his voice to a world that wouldn't listen. And slowly, through the years, he'd learned not to waste his breath. That was the weight behind the look Mr. Gomm gave him. His mentor sought to shape and mold him, so that he could enjoy his 'consolation prize' without being ripped apart by the madness of the world. Every measure of indifference he learned from Mr. Gomm felt like a piece of his soul tearing away. His chest tightened and Freddie grabbed the front of his shirt as if that could hold his soul together. He couldn't live with himself if he became that man. He had to speak up. Had to. So he ran back toward John's room. Mr. Gomm was just coming into the hallway.
"I did think of one other thing," Freddie said urgently, but froze when Mr. Gomm held up a hand.
"It's too late," Mr. Gomm said. "It is done."
Freddie's mouth flapped uncertainly as his heartfelt words remained unsaid. The words quickly slipped from his mind, and were replaced with self-critical admonishments. Mr. Gomm walked coolly back to his office, indifferent to the crushing blow he'd just delivered. It was too late. Freddie Treves had never been too late before. He'd never considered that the time for right action could pass so quickly. And he couldn't help but wonder - if he met another John Merrick today, would he show compassion, or would turn his head and walk quietly by?