Wheatland, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. May 31, 1868. buchanan, a large old man with an upstanding crest of white hair, lies in bed asleep, propped up on bolsters. The bed is not a four-poster but a “sleigh bed,” built of apple, cherry, and peach wood. Beyond the bed a tall window with green Venetian blinds gives on darkness. Beside the bed, a straight chair where visitors can sit, and a table containing little—a pitcher, a glass, a mantle lamp, a well-worn calfbound Bible. The correspondent for the New York World wrote that “The room, which has always been his own favorite choice, is a plain chamber . . . with . . . no other ornaments than two pieces of old-fashioned embroidery, done by his mother when he was a child, and marked in the corners, ‘J. Buchanan.’ ” This is the so-called Back Bedroom, preferred by the dying man perhaps because, being over the kitchen, it was warm. Visitors enter stage left, having come up a narrow winding stair. Servants may exit stage right, passing through the mahogany-paneled bathroom, with its deep zinc-lined tub that the master had built himself upon his return from the White House. We do not see this bathroom but do see, unauthentically, stage left, on the same wall as the window, the iron-fronted fireplace that in fact is located catercornered across the room, and a bentwood rocker, and a low desk, and, above the fireplace mantel, the portrait of anne coleman that truly hangs in the Master Bedroom. miss hetty, a plain woman past sixty, stands at the foot of the bed, dressed in gray, with an apron. A negro girl in a canary-yellow dress waits motionless in a corner.
buchanan struggles for breath, awakes, asks: Miss Hetty?
miss hetty: I am here, Mr. Buchanan. Right here where you can see me.
buchanan (focusing): Indeed you are. Indeed. What a mercy. I had a strange dream, Miss Hetty. A strangely substantial and distressing dream.
miss hetty: And what sort of dream might that have been, Mr. Buchanan?
buchanan: I dreamed I was President of these United States.
miss hetty (moving to bed, neatening up blankets, pillows): But that’s no more than fact.
buchanan: None the less strange for that. Years ago, Miss Hetty, setting out to be a lawyer with old Jim Hopkins as my guide, I soon learned that facts are generally overesteemed. For most practical purposes, a thing is what men think it is. When they judged the earth flat, it was flat. As long as men thought slavery tolerable, tolerable it was. We live down here among shadows, shadows among shadows.
miss hetty folds down blankets, turns buchanan over on his side, facing her and away from the audience. She places a bedpan below his middle. He emits a squeak of pain; then there is the sound of urination into the pan. She takes the bedpan away and hands it to the servant girl, who carries it from the room.
buchanan: They were all there, Miss Hetty, as real to me as you are this minute—little Cobb fair to bursting to speak his piece, like the student certain to please the teacher, and Judge Black as dour and grim and rumpled in his clothes as a Glasgow chimney sweep, and old Cass struggling to stay awake with his wig slipping sideways, and poor John Floyd yellow as a ghost stretched out on the divan in his dressing gown, too sick with himself to stand; they all were wanting something from me, Miss Hetty. They were demanding I perform some task. I couldn’t for the life of me make out what it was. They were frightened, Miss Hetty, every man of them. And I stood above them as majestic and serene as one of those pinioned eagles that used to roam the lawn.
miss hetty: Oh, weren’t they fine pests! Killing the chickens, fouling the porch steps, keeping the dogs in a state of agitation . . . (She accepts the emptied bedpan from the servant girl, replaces it beneath the bed.)
buchanan: I was standing among them tall as a tree, Miss Hetty, exalted by the consciousness that I was President; my body felt to be composed of millions of spirits, and I flew, that’s right, I was flying across the land, across the Alleghenies, and I thought to myself, Miss Hetty, I remember thinking, “I haven’t been this far west since I rode to Kentucky at the age of twenty-one.” I intended, you know, to go there and live. Had I done so, history would be different, and dear Anne might be alive. How strange facts are!
miss hetty: I always thought it strange, speaking of strange, how content those eagles acted on the lawn, considering they were native to California, where the scenery must be very different.
buchanan: Ah, Lancaster County, its beauty becalms us all. Elsewhere in the United States men move on, but here they stick like flies to molasses paper. I take it, Miss Hetty, my dream has ceased to exercise a claim upon your interest.
miss hetty: Far from it, Mr. Buchanan. You were an eagle headed west.
buchanan: I was the President, Miss Hetty, and all the Union lay visible beneath me. The North with its smoking mills, the soft green Southland as yet unscarred by war, the West with its deserts and mountains, the Mormon lake, the shining Pacific beyond. Beneath me lived a vast humming, which became a murmurous cry, a subdued and multitudinous petitioning for mercy; while above me a profound silence obtained, a silence as crystalline and absolute as a ladle of water from my corner spring. (touches throat) Tell me, could the child—might the child be prevailed upon to fetch a fresh pitcher from the spring? My system is so replete with poisons, none but the purest element can penetrate.
miss hetty wordlessly hands girl the porcelain pitcher. girl goes out.
buchanan: Now tell me, dear all-knowing Hetty, what might my dream signify?
miss hetty: Maybe that you’re remembering the old days in your sleep.
buchanan: Come, Hetty. Humor an invalid. Play Joseph to my Pharaoh. What would the hexerei doctor behind Duke Street decipher of my flying?
miss hetty: Maybe that you’re gaining back your strength.
buchanan: No. Not that. We regain what is rightfully ours. I have exhausted my claim in this instance. Thrice, by my accounting, I was brought to the door of death and allowed to turn away. Once to become an officeseeker, when I would have joined poor deluded Anne in her grave. The second time, to become President, when my guts were all but dissolved with the National Hotel disease. The third time, to write my administration’s vindication, though North and South were howling me down for a traitor and death had become as plentiful as apples in autumn. I seek no further reprieve. The carrying costs of my body have grown exorbitant. My effluviums, save for the giddy outpourings of speech, clog like a silted millrace, and the pain in my joints at night would make a Stoic seek his warm bath. My toes, for all the messages they send me, might be in session in Sacramento. Mix with these omens my curious bliss, my birthday sense of some wonder proximate, and the augury is firm. Flying equals dying. The oddity, dear Hetty, the philosophical oddity is that, having delayed dying so long, I find myself so skillful at it. I believe it has always been, unbeknownst, my métier. There is a saying of La Rochefoucauld’s—“Peu de gens savent être vieux.” Few men know how to be old. I am one of the few. Dying, I discover, is rather like dancing, and not unlike diplomacy; legerity and tact are paramount. I was a fair country dancer in my time.
miss hetty: Hush, Mr. Buchanan. For the sake of those that love you, hush. (Bell rings downstairs.) That must be Mr. Swarr. (She leaves the room. buchanan, alone, composes himself for prayer.)
buchanan: Dear Lord, without whose witness not the merest sparrow falls exhausted to the earth, make me worthy of my dying. Let me in this my last agony shed upon those around me comfort and reassurance of Thy merciful and omnipotent Providence. Let my example mollify for others Thy adamant will. Fill my failing heart with complacency of Heaven; then judge me truly, and cast me down with devils if I so deserve. Otherwise, enroll me in Thy chosen company eternally. Thy will be done, Amen.
Footsteps have hastened the end of this prayer. The black child enters with the pitcher of spring water.
buchanan: Bless you, girl. Was it heavy for you?
girl: No, sah. I tote wood up to here sometimes. (indicates top of head)
buchanan: What is your name, pray?
girl: They calls me Ann.
buchanan: Not Ann Cook, surely?
girl: Yes, sah.
buchanan: But I bought you out of slavery over thirty years ago; you and your mother Daphne. You were but five years old.
girl: Yes, sah.
buchanan (aside): I’ve frightened her into imbecility.
girl: Here’s de water, sah.
buchanan: Could you—could I trouble you to fill a glass and hold it to my lips? My hands (weakly lifts them, lets drop), my hands have seceded. (She pours.) Thank you, my child. (She holds glass to his lips; he drinks; the sound is amplified. He sinks back.) Ah. Just reflect, if so much goodness resides in a simple element, how much richer and more propitious is the complex nature of a man! Do you understand me?
girl: No, sah.
buchanan: Come a little closer, child. Look into my eyes. Is there anything strange about them?
girl (looks, and arrives at judgment slowly): Well, sah, one o’ dem is blue, and de odder is more toward the color ob a frog half-hidin’ hisself in de mud.
buchanan: Exactly. Hazel, we call that color. And would you like to know a fact more curious still?
girl: Yes, sah.
buchanan: The blue one is farsighted, and the other is nearsighted. When I close that one, you are blurred because you are too near, and when I close this one, you are blurred because you are too far away. But when I open them both, and tilt my head, you are in focus absolute, and I perceive even the tiny chocolate dimple (with palsied effort he lifts his arm and touches her face) there!
girl (backs away, startled): Yes, sah.
buchanan: Seventy-seven this April last, and never needed spectacles. When they had me in the White House, I read dispatches past every midnight with no light greater than a candle betwixt my face and the page. Harriet and James Henry had the fear I would fall asleep and set myself afire, but I never did. I never did. I was tougher than they thought, the rascals, all the rascals north and south—tougher than they thought. Tell me, child.
girl: Yes, sah.
buchanan: Do you love me?
girl (promptly): Yes, sah.
buchanan (confused by her avowal): Your mother, now, Daphne by name, I recall as a pleasing creature, with a remarkable expressiveness in the manner of her walking; she would wear a kerchief wrapped about her head like a turban of a gaudy cloth to match her skirt. I believe it served a purpose, she would balance a full wash pail upon her skull and sway beneath it: a sight to gladden tired eyes. Yes. I remember the transaction well: the family of my brother-in-law, the Reverend Robert Henry, dear sister Harriet’s husband, who resided in Greensburg, though his family lived in Shepherdstown, Virginia, was discovered to own two slaves, which fact, if generally known, would certainly disconvenience my public career in the Commonwealth. I had but recently returned from Russia, and Cameron was the king of machinations in Harrisburg. Dallas stood no hope of retaining his Senate seat, but as a peace offering to Governor Wolf I was persuaded to soften my candidacy and yield McKean the prize. What did not meet the eye was this: General Jackson, who could never get enough of Pennsylvanians in Russia, had promised my friends he would next be sending William Wilkins, and I would have Wilkins’s seat, assuming the anti-Masons and the Whigs refused to band together, as their obstinacy assured, and the Philadelphia faction continued to tar itself with the Bank question. But calculations so delicate could scarcely withstand a slaveholding scandal amid my kin; so by deed of conditional manumission Daphne was assigned her freedom after seven years of service with me, and her daughter would be bound until the age of twenty-eight. And you claim to be she. So how fares your mother then? Ask her if she recalls me kindly, her old Mr. Buck.
girl: Dead, sah.
buchanan: What, child? Daphne dead?
girl: A soljer beat her, and den she took a fever.
buchanan: Alas. All the best are gone before. Shall I carry her your love?
girl (not comprehending): Yes, sah.
Enter miss hetty: Mrs. Johnston is here.
buchanan: I know no Mrs. Johnston.
miss hetty: Miss Lane has been married these two and a half years.
buchanan: Oh. Oh dear. I always knew, some folly would claim her. High spirits are ever a treachery, better to be born dull. Better to be dead in the cradle like my sister Mary, died to make room for me in this world. We used to visit, my mother and I, her grave on the ridge at Stony Batter. Mother’s skirts rustling by my ear, a little red sandstone with something scratched I couldn’t read, it could have been me, it should have been me. (prays) Dear Lord, forgive me.
harriet lane johnston enters. Contemporary journalists strained to do justice to her “firm, quick step and round, elastic form,” to her golden-brown chignon, to “those deep violet eyes, with the strange dark line around them.” Orphaned at nine, she became the most popular First Lady since Dolley Madison. Clubs, cravats, flowers, and a government cutter were named after her; the song “Listen to the Mocking Bird” was dedicated to her. Nathaniel Hawthorne, in England early in 1855, met the Ambassador and his niece and wrote: “Miss L—— has an English rather than an American aspect,—being of stronger outline than most of our young ladies, although handsomer than English women generally, extremely self-possessed and well poised, without affectation or assumption, but quietly conscious of rank, as much so as if she were an Earl’s daughter. . . . I talked with her a little, and found her sensible, vivacious, and firm-textured, rather than soft and sentimental. She paid me some compliments; but I do not remember paying her any.” She brings a harsh vitality to the deathbed.
harriet: What, Nunc? Still playing possum? The day they pulled my baby from my loins, I rose that afternoon and brewed Mr. Johnston some hot rum tea. You men, you play at suffering as you play at war! Here, carry one of these in your belly for nine months if you’re tired of dying. (She hands him a swaddled baby.)
buchanan (looking baby in the face): Mary? (studies it longer, then exclaims:) Satan! (Drops the doll in horror. It stays where dropped, beside him on the bed.)
Excerpted from Buchanan Dying by John Updike. Copyright © 2013 by John Updike. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.