He got out of his car, slammed the door shut behind him, locked it, walked a few steps towards the house, then turned around and checked again if he had really locked it. He walked around his vehicle to make sure the door on the passenger’s side was securely closed as well, just in case. Of course it was. He heard the gravel grinding under his soles as he walked towards the entrance.
He was impressed by the size of this old mansion that must have outlived at least fifty generations. It was a mild evening in October, but the autumn breeze caused him a slight chill. As he rang the bell he immediately heard footsteps on the other side of the door. He was already expecting a housemaid with apron and bonnet when a stout man in his mid sixties opened the door. “Hello Mr. Burke!” the man greeted him, smiling warmly and gesturing him in. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sir, please come on in!” “Thank you, Sir. I suppose you must be Mr. Norton then?” “I sure am. Please let me take your coat. Emily?” he called, “Emily? Our guest is here!” An elegant woman of rigid posture appeared from another room and immediately put on a welcoming smile when she saw the visitor. “Good evening Mr. Burke.” “Good evening Mrs. Norton,” he replied, stunned by the beauty surrounding her the moment the corners of her mouth moved upwards. “Emily, would you be so kind as to take Mr. Norton’s coat so we can move to the living room?” She took his belongings and disappeared into the room she came from.
He followed his host into the lounge where warm flames were already crackling in the fireplace. The floor was covered with heavy rugs and the colonial furniture created an atmosphere of melancholy solemnity.
“Please have a seat, Mr. Burke. What kind of beverage can I offer you?”
“I’ll just have some water, please. I still have to drive,” he smiled politely.
“Water it is! A man of clear principles, I like that!”
He went over to the bar, put some ice cubes into a crystal glass and poured clear water over it. “I’m so glad you could make it, Mr. Burke. I understand Dr. Cooper usually keeps a quite busy schedule for you.”
“Yes, that is quite correct. But nonetheless do I experience working for him as such intriguing that I am more than happy to spend a few extra hours even after closing down. What needs to get done needs to get done I suppose.”
“What a remarkable attitude!” exclaimed the older man, handing over the glass of icy cold water. “I see why Dr. Cooper recommended you to me. I am very sure the two of us will get along very well. Cheers to that! Au chanté, Mr. Burke! I hope you don’t mind that I myself will have some Bourbon. The Spartan lifestyle doesn’t agree with me,” he smirked.
“Au chanté, Mr. Norton! I am very honoured to have been chosen to be of your service. To a good cooperation!”
“The pleasure is all mine,” he said, gulped down his drink and immediately poured himself another.
“As I said, Mr. Burke, being too sober doesn’t suit me. I am a man of indulgence; some might even call me hedonistic. I’m not sure if I would go as far as calling it that. We all have to endure some level of discomfort at some point. That keeps us realistic and reminds us we are not just floating in an airy dream. My theory, for that matter, is that man can only truly experience pleasure if someone else is suffering at the same time, and everybody has to take their turn, don’t you agree, Mr. Burke?”
“That’s an interesting theory, Mr. Norton,” laughed the young man and sipped on his ice-cold water. The cubes clonked against his teeth and caused a sharp quick pain. He cleared his throat and continued: “I see what you are getting at. The presence of disaster – viewed from a safe distance – reminds us of our own well-being. There is no light without shadow, that’s common knowledge. It’s as if humanity needs a balance of grief and happiness, of pleasure and pain. Something to compare the one to the other. Don’t we experience the most satisfactory kind of pleasure the moment the pain vanishes? This is a kind of pleasure we would otherwise only perceive as a neutral state of numbness – a regular state of normality. Rather boring, really, if you come to think of it. Thus I believe we can conclude that the mere presence of pain is inevitably leading to pleasure, given of course that we are not to die from whatever the cause of our pain is. Even though it should be added we cannot certainly know that the last moments before death are not experienced in a state of exhilaration. Many rumours have, in fact, suggested that the last moments before our passing are experienced in a state of utmost relief. This is a different discussion, however. Yet I am not sure that this is what you are saying here, and also I am not sure if I entirely agree. If I interpret your words correctly, it almost sounds as if you were insinuating that inflicting pain causes pleasure. And this, Mr. Norton, is rather referred to as sadism than hedonism.”
“Ha! Well put, Mr. Burke, well put! You are seeing right through me! I knew I made the right decision when requesting your company. But let me ask you, Mr. Burke, aren’t the two inevitably intermingled?”
“That depends on the level of pleasure you intend to achieve I would say. If you are striving for, let’s call it long-term contentment, you would have to eliminate all kind of pain and discomfort – not only in your personal life, but also in the lives of those around you. After all, we are human beings with a sense of empathy, and the suffering of those close to us inflicts suffering on our part as well. Because unlike the disasters we watch from afar that cause us to value our own bliss, if not enhance it, the misery that comes too close to us makes us distrust our comfortable lives. And lack of trust, Mr. Norton, I think we can agree, causes great distress. Human beings, however, are not only creatures with a sense of empathy, but more often so creatures with no sense at all. We grab for what is right in front of us, for the quickest satisfaction of our base senses we can get – often regardless of the consequences. Therefore, many a man’s pleasure has resulted in another man’s misfortune.”
“How right you are, Mr. Burke! How right you are! I must say I take quite a pleasure in your way of arguing – without causing you discomfort I should hope. But if we continue this thought experiment, would you say that a man who takes pleasure in causing pain is less humane than a man who causes pain by pursuing pleasure? Should we call the man who avoids causing pain and therefore abstains from pleasure noble or inhuman?”
“Interesting question, Mr. Norton, but I think the answer is quite obvious! If we agree that striving for pleasure as such is human, and that humans lack sense and vision and therefore cannot avoid causing pain, then I would say the former is a pragmatic and the latter is an idiot!”
“Ha! What a clever answer! But I must apologise, Mr. Burke. I invite you to my house and commence philosophical arguments without even letting you in on why you are here. Understand this as a little test – you passed it outstandingly!”
“Thank you, Sir,” replied the other, giving a slight nod, smiling contently and lifting his glass of clear water to a toast.