The Captain of the Polestar and Other Tales HTML version

John Huxford's Hiatus
Strange it is and wonderful to mark how upon this planet of ours the smallest and most
insignificant of events set a train of consequences in motion which act and react until
their final results are portentous and incalculable. Set a force rolling, however small; and
who can say where it shall end, or what it may lead to! Trifles develop into tragedies, and
the bagatelle of one day ripens into the catastrophe of the next. An oyster throws out a
secretion to surround a grain of sand, and so a pearl comes into being; a pearl diver fishes
it up, a merchant buys it and sells it to a jeweller, who disposes of it to a customer. The
customer is robbed of it by two scoundrels who quarrel over the booty. One slays the
other, and perishes himself upon the scaffold. Here is a direct chain of events with a sick
mollusc for its first link, and a gallows for its last one. Had that grain of sand not chanced
to wash in between the shells of the bivalve, two living breathing beings with all their
potentialities for good and for evil would not have been blotted out from among their
fellows. Who shall undertake to judge what is really small and what is great?
Thus when in the year 1821 Don Diego Salvador bethought him that if it paid the heretics
in England to import the bark of his cork oaks, it would pay him also to found a factory
by which the corks might be cut and sent out ready made, surely at first sight no very
vital human interests would appear to be affected. Yet there were poor folk who would
suffer, and suffer acutely-- women who would weep, and men who would become sallow
and hungry- looking and dangerous in places of which the Don had never heard, and all
on account of that one idea which had flashed across him as he strutted, cigarettiferous,
beneath the grateful shadow of his limes. So crowded is this old globe of ours, and so
interlaced our interests, that one cannot think a new thought without some poor devil
being the better or the worse for it.
Don Diego Salvador was a capitalist, and the abstract thought soon took the concrete
form of a great square plastered building wherein a couple of hundred of his swarthy
countrymen worked with deft nimble fingers at a rate of pay which no English artisan
could have accepted. Within a few months the result of this new competition was an
abrupt fall of prices in the trade, which was serious for the largest firms and disastrous for
the smaller ones. A few old- established houses held on as they were, others reduced their
establishments and cut down their expenses, while one or two put up their shutters and
confessed themselves beaten. In this last unfortunate category was the ancient and
respected firm of Fairbairn Brothers of Brisport.
Several causes had led up to this disaster, though Don Diego's debut as a corkcutter had
brought matters to a head. When a couple of generations back the original Fairbairn had
founded the business, Brisport was a little fishing town with no outlet or occupation for
her superfluous population. Men were glad to have safe and continuous work upon any
terms. All this was altered now, for the town was expanding into the centre of a large
district in the west, and the demand for labour and its remuneration had proportionately
increased. Again, in the old days, when carriage was ruinous and communication slow,
the vintners of Exeter and of Barnstaple were glad to buy their corks from their neighbour