That cowardly attack broke her. Her eyes were blank. She wept. But Babbitt glared stolidly. He felt that he was the all-powerful official in charge; that Paul and Mrs. Babbitt looked on him with awe; that he alone could handle this case.
Zilla writhed. She begged, “Oh, they don’t!”
“They certainly do!”
“I’ve been a bad woman! I’m terribly sorry! I’ll kill myself! I’ll do anything. Oh, I’ll—What do you want?”
She abased herself completely. Also, she enjoyed it. To the connoisseur of scenes, nothing is more enjoyable than a thorough, melodramatic, egoistic humility.
“I want you to let Paul beat it off to Maine with me,” Babbitt demanded.
“How can I help his going? You’ve just said I was an idiot and nobody paid any attention to me.”
“Oh, you can help it, all right, all right! What you got to do is to cut out hinting that the minute he gets out of your sight, he’ll go chasing after some petticoat. Matter fact, that’s the way you start the boy off wrong. You ought to have more sense—”
“Oh, I will, honestly, I will, George. I know I was bad. Oh, forgive me, all of you, forgive me—”
She enjoyed it.
So did Babbitt. He condemned magnificently and forgave piously, and as he went parading out with his wife he was grandly explanatory to her:
“Kind of a shame to bully Zilla, but course it was the only way to handle her. Gosh, I certainly did have her crawling!”
She said calmly, “Yes. You were horrid. You were showing off. You were having a lovely time thinking what a great fine person you were!”
“Well, by golly! Can you beat it! Of course I might of expected you to not stand by me! I might of expected you’d stick up for your own sex!”
“Yes. Poor Zilla, she’s so unhappy. She takes it out on Paul. She hasn’t a single thing to do, in that little flat. And she broods too much. And she used to be so pretty and gay, and she resents losing it. And you were just as nasty and mean as you could be. I’m not a bit proud of you—or of Paul, boasting about his horrid love-affairs!”
He was sulkily silent; he maintained his bad temper at a high level of outraged nobility all the four blocks home. At the door he left her, in self-approving haughtiness, and tramped the lawn.
With a shock it was revealed to him: “Gosh, I wonder if she was right—if she was partly right?” Overwork must have flayed him to abnormal sensitiveness; it was one of the few times in his life when he had queried his eternal excellence; and he perceived the summer night, smelled the wet grass. Then: “I don’t care! I’ve pulled it off. We’re going to have our spree. And for Paul, I’d do anything.”