An Indian summer breeze whirled the scent of sweet orchids up the red velvet stairs, around the rainbow of exotic fruit, engulfing the sea of taffeta and ruffled shirts.

Out back, the zigzagging parade of linden trees at historic Meridian House twinkled with white lights, and inside the floor throbbed to the Emery Davis Band. They played "You're Just in Love." The moon was full -- an enchanting evening for dancing. And dance they did.

Familiar Washington faces descended on the Meridian House last night for its 14th Annual Ball. About $100,000 was raised for the nonprofit organization, an international cultural exchange group.

For those who paid the $175 per ticket, 500 scented white-and-lavender orchids were not the only attraction. Earlier in the evening, 400 guests were parceled out to 20 embassies for a series of cozy dinners.

It was a big night for food.

"We ate at the Italians'," said Jayne Ikard, recently back from Martha's Vineyard. "Absolutely divine!"

"We ate at Blair House. What a treat!" said interior decorator Bob Waldron.

"I asked for a good NATO country and got Belgium," said Republican direct mail king Richard Viguerie, on his way home. "I'm out of my element here . . . This is not very political."

The Meridian ball is one of Washington's purely social events. The closest guest to a cabinet member was Jean Smith, wife of Attorney General William French Smith, who was out of town. From the White House came James Rosebush, chief of staff for the first lady. Others in the crowd included auto dealer Manny Ourisman and his wife, Betty Lou, American Petroleum Institute president Charles and Evelyn DiBona, former ambassador to Switzerland True Davis, National Bank of Washington chairman Luther H. Hodges Jr. and Charey Duchin Hodges, and cable TV consultant Martin Malarkey and his wife, Betty.

While chiffons swished and patent leather shoes clicked on the hardwood floor, a separate and more private party went on down the street. A long stream of shiny black limousines lined 16th Street while men in little black hats gathered around a Ridgewell's truck. Floating high above the truck was a rather large purple-and-white inflated blimp.

"That's so all the chauffeurs can have their own party," explained Jeff Ellis, owner of Ridgewell's. "No one can say we don't take care of our customers."