THE NATURAL SELECTION
An Historical Mystery
Tennessee, June 1925
The gold sealing wax was a nice touch, the professor thought, a little extra to show his apology was sincere. He gave the envelope a final, satisfied glance and slipped it under the chipped wooden door. In one quiet push it vanished, and so too any last faint traces of remorse.
He listened. Still no signs of life. He stole down the empty hall and exited the building, greeting the muggy dawn with a line from Nietzche, Hegel--one of the Germans, it didn't really matter which--suddenly in his head: "What is right is what the individual asserts is right, but it is only right for him." Precisely, he thought. Precisely. Of course, some rules were necessary; the mass of men couldn't be trusted to think for themselves. Indeed, the professor had dedicated himself to reversing the damage the thinking of lesser minds had done. But the sentiment applied quite well to men compelled to live by a different code. Men like himself who were educated, admired and followed.
He smiled, imagining the objections of all those bleeding hearts. Wasn't such a view contradictory? Didn't it imply that the very deed he had just cleansed himself of could be worthy of punishment in someone else? Perhaps. But then the professor was, if nothing else, a man of contradictions. This morning it simply had been easier to explain them away. Everything seemed easier in the summer. Warmth might slacken the body, but it filled the spirit, leaving no barren space for doubt to creep in.
And so later that day, he strolled content and free in the college woods, only yards from campus, but worlds away. Believing he was alone, he inhaled deeply and loudly the honeysuckle bouquet, took in every hallowed branch of petal-like dogwood. Students would trample over this same path in only a few weeks, but for now, these were his woods. He loved this place. Of course, everyone else did too: his colleagues, students and neighbors, all staking their unearned claims to its quiet beauty. But his love came from deep within his veins--a love that stemmed from his family having once owned the very ground upon which he walked. Land for which his grandfather, a Confederate spy, gave his life.
The South. Another passion. Another contradiction. In the study of books, the professor was avant-garde, continuously pushing against the boundaries of convention, lecturing on the newest strains of literary criticism. "Literature should be judged on its own terms," he boomed to the hall of young, adoring eyes, "not according to some rigid sense of morality." But on the subject of his heritage, he was firm. Here, tradition was sacred, morality absolute. Right and wrong were literally divided into black and white.
As he forged deeper into the thicket, his thinning white hair beginning to mat with sweat, he thought, as he often did, of the need to restore order and erudition to the region. The South had been turned on its head since the Civil War, and he was committed to putting things--and people--back in their natural place. He was, he liked to tell himself, reclaiming the Golden Age.
In the pursuit of such a noble goal, there were bound to be casualties along the way, and today's was not the first. Survival of the fittest, his trusted Darwin proclaimed. And so it was with particular pleasure that he took in nature's best--the sheltering verdure, the familiar canopy of oaks, the gentle slope leading toward the creek whose clear water he would cup to his mouth.
But the professor was not, as he had thought, alone. Mirroring each turn, shadowing every step was someone following closely behind, silently, invisibly, until the moment was just right.
"Hello Professor Manhoff," the familiar voice said evenly.
"Oh, oh, hello there. My God, you scared the life out of me. What are you doing here? I thought you were . . . " And then a fleeting realization. For a moment, the corners of his mouth formed a slight grin of understanding until . . . the quiet rage . . . the gleaming barrel. He opened his mouth to speak, to plead for mercy. "No. Please. God." But it was wasted breath. One shot rang out, clear and resonant, and he fell, heavy, into a bed of moss and branches. A bright pool of blood gathered in the full growth. It spread, feeding the soil and staining the land of his ancestors until, finally, the ceasing of his heart halted the flow. And then he was alone, truly alone in the college woods.