Montag, someone here, someone here, Mrs. Montag, Mrs. Montag, someone’s here.
Montag made sure the book was well hidden behind the pillow, climbed slowly back into bed, arranged the covers over his knees and across his chest, half-sitting, and after a while Mildred moved and went out of the room and Captain Beatty strolled in, his hands in his pockets.
“Shut the ‘relatives’ up,” said Beatty, looking around at everything except Montag and his wife.
This time, Mildred ran. The yammering voices stopped yelling in the parlour.
Captain Beatty sat down in the most comfortable chair with a peaceful look on his ruddy face. He took time to prepare and light his brass pipe and puff out a great smoke cloud. “Just thought I’d come by and see how the sick man is.”
“How’d you guess?”
Beatty smiled his smile which showed the candy pinkness of his gums and the tiny candy whiteness of his teeth. “I’ve seen it all. You were going to call for a night off.”
Montag sat in bed.
“Well,” said Beatty, “take the night off!” He examined his eternal matchbox, the lid of which said GUARANTEED: ONE MILLION LIGHTS IN THIS IGNITER, and began to
strike the chemical match abstractedly, blow out, strike, blow out, strike, speak a few words, blow out. He looked at the flame. He blew, he looked at the smoke. “When will you be well?”
“Tomorrow. The next day maybe. First of the week.”
Beatty puffed his pipe. “Every fireman, sooner or later, hits this. They only need understanding, to know how the wheels run. Need to know the history of our profession. They don’t feed it to rookies like they used to. Damn shame.” Puff. “Only fire chiefs remember it now.” Puff. “I’ll let you in on it.”
Beatty took a full minute to settle himself in and think back for what he wanted to say.
“When did it all start, you ask, this job of ours, how did it come about, where, when?
Well, I’d say it really got started around about a thing called the Civil War. Even though our rule-book claims it was founded earlier. The fact is we didn’t get along well until photography came into its own. Then–motion pictures in the early twentieth century. Radio. Television. Things began to have mass.”
Montag sat in bed, not moving.
“And because they had mass, they became simpler,” said Beatty. “Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different.
The world was roomy. But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths.
Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books levelled down to a sort of paste pudding norm, do you follow me?”
“I think so.”
Beatty peered at the smoke pattern he had put out on the air. “Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Condensations, Digests. Tabloids.
Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.”
“Snap ending.” Mildred nodded.
“Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet (you know the title certainly, Montag; it is probably only a faint rumour of a title to you, Mrs. Montag) whose sole knowledge, as I say, of Hamlet was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: ‘now at least you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbours.’ Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there’s your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more.”
Mildred arose and began to move around the room, picking things up and putting them down. Beatty ignored her and continued
“Speed up the film, Montag, quick. Click? Pic? Look, Eye, Now, Flick, Here, There, Swift, Pace, Up, Down, In, Out, Why, How, Who, What, Where, Eh? Uh! Bang!
Smack! Wallop, Bing, Bong, Boom! Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics?
One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in mid-air, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters, that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!”