Stepan Arkadyevitch, with the same somewhat solemn expression with which he used to take his presidential chair at his board, walked into Alexey Alexandrovitch's room. Alexey Alexandrovitch was walking about his room with his hands behind his back, thinking of just what Stepan Arkadyevitch had been discussing with his wife.
"I'm not interrupting you?" said Stepan Arkadyevitch, on the sight of his brother-in-law becoming suddenly aware of a sense of embarrassment unusual with him. To conceal this embarrassment he took out a cigarette case he had just bought that opened in a new way, and sniffing the leather, took a cigarette out of it.
"No. Do you want anything?" Alexey Alexandrovitch asked without eagerness.
"Yes, I wished…I wanted…yes, I wanted to talk to you," said Stepan Arkadyevitch, with surprise aware of an unaccustomed timidity.
This feeling was so unexpected and so strange that he did not believe it was the voice of conscience telling him that what he was meaning to do was wrong.
Stepan Arkadyevitch made an effort and struggled with the timidity that had come over him.
"I hope you believe in my love for my sister and my sincere affection and respect for you," he said, reddening.
Alexey Alexandrovitch stood still and said nothing, but his face struck Stepan Arkadyevitch by its expression of an unresisting sacrifice.
"I intended…I wanted to have a little talk with you about my sister and your mutual position," he said, still struggling with an unaccustomed constraint.
Alexey Alexandrovitch smiled mournfully, looked at his brother-in-law, and without answering went up to the table, took from it an unfinished letter, and handed it to his brother-in-law.
"I think unceasingly of the same thing. And here is what I had begun writing, thinking I could say it better by letter, and that my presence irritates her," he said, as he gave him the letter.
Stepan Arkadyevitch took the letter, looked with incredulous surprise at the lusterless eyes fixed so immovably on him, and began to read.
"I see that my presence is irksome to you. Painful as it is to me to believe it, I see that it is so, and cannot be otherwise. I don't blame you, and God is my witness that on seeing you at the time of your illness I resolved with my whole heart to forget all that had passed between us and to begin a new life. I do not regret, and shall never regret, what I have done; but I have desired one thing—your good, the good of your soul—and now I see I have not attained that. Tell me yourself what will give you true happiness and peace to your soul. I put myself entirely in your hands, and trust to your feeling of what's right."
Stepan Arkadyevitch handed back the letter, and with the same surprise continued looking at his brother-in-law, not knowing what to say. This silence was so awkward for both of them that Stepan Arkadyevitch's lips began twitching nervously, while he still gazed without speaking at Karenin's face.
"That's what I wanted to say to her," said Alexey Alexandrovitch, turning away.
"Yes, yes…" said Stepan Arkadyevitch, not able to answer for the tears that were choking him.
"Yes, yes, I understand you," he brought out at last.
"I want to know what she would like," said Alexey Alexandrovitch.
"I am afraid she does not understand her own position. She is not a judge," said Stepan Arkadyevitch, recovering himself. "She is crushed, simply crushed by your generosity. If she were to read this letter, she would be incapable of saying anything, she would only hang her head lower than ever."
"Yes, but what's to be done in that case? how explain, how find out her wishes?"
"If you will allow me to give my opinion, I think that it lies with you to point out directly the steps you consider necessary to end the position."
"So you consider it must be ended?" Alexey Alexandrovitch interrupted him. "But how?" he added, with a gesture of his hands before his eyes not usual with him. "I see no possible way out of it."
"There is some way of getting out of every position," said Stepan Arkadyevitch, standing up and becoming more cheerful. "There was a time when you thought of breaking off…. If you are convinced now that you cannot make each other happy…"
"Happiness may be variously understood. But suppose that I agree to everything, that I want nothing: what way is there of getting out of our position?"
"If you care to know my opinion," said Stepan Arkadyevitch with the same smile of softening, almond-oil tenderness with which he had been talking to Anna. His kindly smile was so winning that Alexey Alexandrovitch, feeling his own weakness and unconsciously swayed by it, was ready to believe what Stepan Arkadyevitch was saying.
"She will never speak out about it. But one thing is possible, one thing she might desire," he went on, "that is the cessation of your relations and all memories associated with them. To my thinking, in your position what's essential is the formation of a new attitude to one another. And that can only rest on a basis of freedom on both sides."
"Divorce," Alexey Alexandrovitch interrupted, in a tone of aversion.
"Yes, I imagine that divorce—yes, divorce," Stepan Arkadyevitch repeated, reddening. "That is from every point of view the most rational course for married people who find themselves in the position you are in. What can be done if married people find that life is impossible for them together? That may always happen."
Alexey Alexandrovitch sighed heavily and closed his eyes.
"There's only one point to be considered: is either of the parties desirous of forming new ties? If not, it is very simple," said Stepan Arkadyevitch, feeling more and more free from constraint.
Alexey Alexandrovitch, scowling with emotion, muttered something to himself, and made no answer. All that seemed so simple to Stepan Arkadyevitch, Alexey Alexandrovitch had thought over thousands of times. And, so far from being simple, it all seemed to him utterly impossible. Divorce, the details of which he knew by this time, seemed to him now out of the question, because the sense of his own dignity and respect for religion forbade his taking upon himself a fictitious charge of adultery, and still more suffering his wife, pardoned and beloved by him, to be caught in the fact and put to public shame. Divorce appeared to him impossible also on other still more weighty grounds.
What would become of his son in case of a divorce? To leave him with his mother was out of the question. The divorced mother would have her own illegitimate family, in which his position as a stepson and his education would not be good. Keep him with him? He knew that would be an act of vengeance on his part, and that he did not want. But apart from this, what more than all made divorce seem impossible to Alexey Alexandrovitch was, that by consenting to a divorce he would be completely ruining Anna. The saying of Darya Alexandrovna at Moscow, that in deciding on a divorce he was thinking of himself, and not considering that by this he would be ruining her irrevocably, had sunk into his heart. And connecting this saying with his forgiveness of her, with his devotion to the children, he understood it now in his own way. To consent to a divorce, to give her her freedom, meant in his thoughts to take from himself the last tie that bound him to life—the children whom he loved; and to take from her the last prop that stayed her on the path of right, to thrust her down to her ruin. If she were divorced, he knew she would join her life to Vronsky's, and their tie would be an illegitimate and criminal one, since a wife, by the interpretation of the ecclesiastical law, could not marry while her husband was living. "She will join him, and in a year or two he will throw her over, or she will form a new tie," thought Alexey Alexandrovitch. "And I, by agreeing to an unlawful divorce, shall be to blame for her ruin." He had thought it all over hundreds of times, and was convinced that a divorce was not at all simple, as Stepan Arkadyevitch had said, but was utterly impossible. He did not believe a single word Stepan Arkadyevitch said to him; to every word he had a thousand objections to make, but he listened to him, feeling that his words were the expression of that mighty brutal force which controlled his life and to which he would have to submit.
"The only question is on what terms you agree to give her a divorce. She does not want anything, does not dare ask you for anything, she leaves it all to your generosity."
"My God, my God! what for?" thought Alexey Alexandrovitch, remembering the details of divorce proceedings in which the husband took the blame on himself, and with just the same gesture with which Vronsky had done the same, he hid his face for shame in his hands.
"You are distressed, I understand that. But if you think it over…"
"Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any man take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also," thought Alexey Alexandrovitch.
"Yes, yes!" he cried in a shrill voice. "I will take the disgrace on myself, I will give up even my son, but…but wouldn't it be better to let it alone? Still you may do as you like…"
And turning away so that his brother-in-law could not see him, he sat down on a chair at the window. There was bitterness, there was shame in his heart, but with bitterness and shame he felt joy and emotion at the height of his own meekness.
Stepan Arkadyevitch was touched. He was silent for a space.
"Alexey Alexandrovitch, believe me, she appreciates your generosity," he said. "But it seems it was the will of God," he added, and as he said it felt how foolish a remark it was, and with difficulty repressed a smile at his own foolishness.
Alexey Alexandrovitch would have made some reply, but tears stopped him.
"This is an unhappy fatality, and one must accept it as such. I accept the calamity as an accomplished fact, and am doing my best to help both her and you," said Stepan Arkadyevitch.
When he went out of his brother-in-law's room he was touched, but that did not prevent him from being glad he had successfully brought the matter to a conclusion, for he felt certain Alexey Alexandrovitch would not go back on his words. To this satisfaction was added the fact that an idea had just struck him for a riddle turning on his successful achievement, that when the affair was over he would ask his wife and most intimate friends. He put this riddle into two or three different ways. "But I'll work it out better than that," he said to himself with a smile.