The waiting-room of the celebrated Petersburg lawyer was full when Alexey Alexandrovitch entered it. Three ladies—an old lady, a young lady, and a merchant’s wife—and three gentlemen—one a German banker with a ring on his finger, the second a merchant with a beard, and the third a wrathful-looking government clerk in official uniform, with a cross on his neck—had obviously been waiting a long while already. Two clerks were writing at tables with scratching pens. The appurtenances of the writing-tables, about which Alexey Alexandrovitch was himself very fastidious, were exceptionally good. He could not help observing this. One of the clerks, without getting up, turned wrathfully to Alexey Alexandrovitch, half closing his eyes. “What are you wanting?”
He replied that he had to see the lawyer on some business.
“He is engaged,” the clerk responded severely, and he pointed with his pen at the persons waiting, and went on writing.
“Can’t he spare time to see me?” said Alexey Alexandrovitch.
“He has no time free; he is always busy. Kindly wait your turn.”
“Then I must trouble you to give him my card,” Alexey Alexandrovitch said with dignity, seeing the impossibility of preserving his incognito.
The clerk took the card and, obviously not approving of what he read on it, went to the door.
Alexey Alexandrovitch was in principle in favor of the publicity of legal proceedings, though for some higher official considerations he disliked the application of the principle in Russia, and disapproved of it, as far as he could disapprove of anything instituted by authority of the Emperor. His whole life had been spent in administrative work, and consequently, when he did not approve of anything, his disapproval was softened by the recognition of the inevitability of mistakes and the possibility of reform in every department. In the new public law courts he disliked the restrictions laid on the lawyers conducting cases. But till then he had had nothing to do with the law courts, and so had disapproved of their publicity simply in theory; now his disapprobation was strengthened by the unpleasant impression made on him in the lawyer’s waiting room.
“Coming immediately,” said the clerk; and two minutes later there did actually appear in the doorway the large figure of an old solicitor who had been consulting with the lawyer himself.
The lawyer was a little, squat, bald man, with a dark, reddish beard, light-colored long eyebrows, and an overhanging brow. He was attired as though for a wedding, from his cravat to his double watch-chain and varnished boots. His face was clever and manly, but his dress was dandified and in bad taste.
“Pray walk in,” said the lawyer, addressing Alexey Alexandrovitch; and, gloomily ushering Karenin in before him, he closed the door.
“Won’t you sit down?” He indicated an armchair at a writing-table covered with papers. He sat down himself, and, rubbing his little hands with short fingers covered with white hairs, he bent his head on one side. But as soon as he was settled in this position a moth flew over the table. The lawyer, with a swiftness that could never have been expected of him, opened his hands, caught the moth, and resumed his former attitude.
“Before beginning to speak of my business,” said Alexey Alexandrovitch, following the lawyer’s movements with wondering eyes, “I ought to observe that the business about which I have to speak to you is to be strictly private.”
The lawyer’s overhanging reddish mustaches were parted in a scarcely perceptible smile.
“I should not be a lawyer if I could not keep the secrets confided to me. But if you would like proof….”
Alexey Alexandrovitch glanced at his face, and saw that the shrewd, gray eyes were laughing, and seemed to know all about it already.
“You know my name?” Alexey Alexandrovitch resumed.
“I know you and the good”—again he caught a moth—“work you are doing, like every Russian,” said the lawyer, bowing.
Alexey Alexandrovitch sighed, plucking up his courage. But having once made up his mind he went on in his shrill voice, without timidity—or hesitation, accentuating here and there a word.
“I have the misfortune,” Alexey Alexandrovitch began, “to have been deceived in my married life, and I desire to break off all relations with my wife by legal means—that is, to be divorced, but to do this so that my son may not remain with his mother.”
The lawyer’s gray eyes tried not to laugh, but they were dancing with irrepressible glee, and Alexey Alexandrovitch saw that it was not simply the delight of a man who has just got a profitable job: there was triumph and joy, there was a gleam like the malignant gleam he saw in his wife’s eyes.
“You desire my assistance in securing a divorce?”
“Yes, precisely so; but I ought to warn you that I may be wasting your time and attention. I have come simply to consult you as a preliminary step. I want a divorce, but the form in which it is possible is of great consequence to me. It is very possible that if that form does not correspond with my requirements I may give up a legal divorce.”
“Oh, that’s always the case,” said the lawyer, “and that’s always for you to decide.”
He let his eyes rest on Alexey Alexandrovitch’s feet, feeling that he might offend his client by the sight of his irrepressible amusement. He looked at a moth that flew before his nose, and moved his hands, but did not catch it from regard for Alexey Alexandrovitch’s position.
“Though in their general features our laws on this subject are known to me,” pursued Alexey Alexandrovitch, “I should be glad to have an idea of the forms in which such things are done in practice.”
“You would be glad,” the lawyer, without lifting his eyes, responded, adopting, with a certain satisfaction, the tone of his client’s remarks, “for me to lay before you all the methods by which you could secure what you desire?”
And on receiving an assuring nod from Alexey Alexandrovitch, he went on, stealing a glance now and then at Alexey Alexandrovitch’s face, which was growing red in patches.
“Divorce by our laws,” he said, with a slight shade of disapprobation of our laws, “is possible, as you are aware, in the following cases…. Wait a little!” he called to a clerk who put his head in at the door, but he got up all the same, said a few words to him, and sat down again. “… In the following cases: physical defect in the married parties, desertion without communication for five years,” he said, crooking a short finger covered with hair, “adultery” (this word he pronounced with obvious satisfaction), “subdivided as follows” (he continued to crook his fat fingers, though the three cases and their subdivisions could obviously not be classified together): “physical defect of the husband or of the wife, adultery of the husband or of the wife.” As by now all his fingers were used up, he uncrooked all his fingers and went on: “This is the theoretical view; but I imagine you have done me the honor to apply to me in order to learn its application in practice. And therefore, guided by precedents, I must inform you that in practice cases of divorce may all be reduced to the following—there’s no physical defect, I may assume, nor desertion?…”
Alexey Alexandrovitch bowed his head in assent.
“—May be reduced to the following: adultery of one of the married parties, and the detection in the fact of the guilty party by mutual agreement, and failing such agreement, accidental detection. It must be admitted that the latter case is rarely met with in practice,” said the lawyer, and stealing a glance at Alexey Alexandrovitch he paused, as a man selling pistols, after enlarging on the advantages of each weapon, might await his customer’s choice. But Alexey Alexandrovitch said nothing, and therefore the lawyer went on: “The most usual and simple, the sensible course, I consider, is adultery by mutual consent. I should not permit myself to express it so, speaking with a man of no education,” he said, “but I imagine that to you this is comprehensible.”
Alexey Alexandrovitch was, however, so perturbed that he did not immediately comprehend all the good sense of adultery by mutual consent, and his eyes expressed this uncertainty; but the lawyer promptly came to his assistance.
“People cannot go on living together—here you have a fact. And if both are agreed about it, the details and formalities become a matter of no importance. And at the same time this is the simplest and most certain method.”
Alexey Alexandrovitch fully understood now. But he had religious scruples, which hindered the execution of such a plan.
“That is out of the question in the present case,” he said. “Only one alternative is possible: undesigned detection, supported by letters which I have.”
At the mention of letters the lawyer pursed up his lips, and gave utterance to a thin little compassionate and contemptuous sound.
“Kindly consider,” he began, “cases of that kind are, as you are aware, under ecclesiastical jurisdiction; the reverend fathers are fond of going into the minutest details in cases of that kind,” he said with a smile, which betrayed his sympathy with the reverend fathers’ taste. “Letters may, of course, be a partial confirmation; but detection in the fact there must be of the most direct kind, that is, by eyewitnesses. In fact, if you do me the honor to intrust your confidence to me, you will do well to leave me the choice of the measures to be employed. If one wants the result, one must admit the means.”
“If it is so….” Alexey Alexandrovitch began, suddenly turning white; but at that moment the lawyer rose and again went to the door to speak to the intruding clerk.
“Tell her we don’t haggle over fees!” he said, and returned to Alexey Alexandrovitch.
On his way back he caught unobserved another moth. “Nice state my rep curtains will be in by the summer!” he thought, frowning.
“And so you were saying?…” he said.
“I will communicate my decision to you by letter,” said Alexey Alexandrovitch, getting up, and he clutched at the table. After standing a moment in silence, he said: “From your words I may consequently conclude that a divorce may be obtained? I would ask you to let me know what are your terms.”
“It may be obtained if you give me complete liberty of action,” said the lawyer, not answering his question. “When can I reckon on receiving information from you?” he asked, moving towards the door, his eyes and his varnished boots shining.
“In a week’s time. Your answer as to whether you will undertake to conduct the case, and on what terms, you will be so good as to communicate to me.”
The lawyer bowed respectfully, let his client out of the door, and, left alone, gave himself up to his sense of amusement. He felt so mirthful that, contrary to his rules, he made a reduction in his terms to the haggling lady, and gave up catching moths, finally deciding that next winter he must have the furniture covered with velvet, like Sigonin’s.