At last the house emerges from the fog: a Victorian dream of stolid nonconformity, with spires and broad terraces. It sits alone on the point of Beinn Bhreagh peninsula, 2,000 acres of privately owned woods and freshly mown meadows. Slate-colored water stretches away toward the rocky headlands and pine-furred mountains of the Cape Breton coast. Moored offshore are two elegant wooden yawls, motionless in the motionless morning air.

The house and sailboats, White Mist and Elsie, belong to another era. All are curiously linked to Washington, D.C., home of Alexander Graham Bell, who bought up the farms on Beinn Bhreagh (Gaelic for "beautiful mountain") at the end of the last century, shortly before becoming president of the National Geographic Society, and spent the rest of his summers here.

Today three generations of Bell's Washington descendants disport themselves each summer on the waters that Bell used for his experiments with hydrofoils, and roam the fields where he flew enormous kites. These warm weather expatriates are rooted in almost a century of local tradition 1,500 miles north of the capital, where the Geographic was founded. Bell's son-in-law, Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, became the first editor of the Geographic, and was the first Grosvenor to visit Baddeck. An Amherst graduate of precise and scholarly mien who had married Bell's daughter Elsie, he had a vision of the Society's potential for broad appeal.

"Why not popularize the science of geography, and take it into the homes of the people?" Grosvenor later wrote. Illustrations and photographs would be part of that popularization, which scandalized the academicians and learned amateurs in the Society, who predicted the early demise of such geo-mongering.

His son, Melville Bell Grosvenor, was also editor and president of the Geographic, from 1957 to 1967. While a young boy he was tutored at Baddeck by Bell, who "tried to impose some discipline," as one family member puts it. Melville grew up to be regarded as a man of ideas, and passions.

His son, Gilbert Melville Grosvenor, 53, is the current president. He was editor from 1970 to 1980, and today he deals with the financial legacy of the Geographic -- cash flow beyond the dreams of the Society's founders, real estate and cable television and all the capital ventures of extraordinary success.

This Grosvenor likes to sail White Mist on days when line squalls advance like charcoal smudges across the inland seascape. Last summer, he gave a visitor staying in Baddeck directions to Beinn Bhreagh over his great-grandfather's most famous invention, the telephone, and added, "Bring your slicker."

The road out of town passes the Gilbert H. Grosvenor Memorial Library and the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Park. A dirt road leads to the peninsula, past a sign advising the curious that this is private property, although that is hardly necessary. Bell's whimsy and his genius still inform the landscape, as they do the Geographic.

He lived most of the year in Washington with his wife, Mabel Hubbard, the deaf daughter of a wealthy Boston businessman and founder of the Geographic, Gardiner Greene Hubbard. She had studied with Bell, an elocutionist and a teacher of the deaf, and they chose the site for their summer "cottage" by riding through the fields of Beinn Bhreagh in a wagon, sitting on chairs balanced on a table set on hay bales, to get the proper view.

The road winds past smaller houses and the Warehouse, as it was known during that golden age -- a barn at water's edge stuffed with boats. Bell staged theatrical productions in the loft, inviting townspeople to attend, and built his air foils in the Kite House nearby.

"He was always searching for lift," says Gilbert Melville Grosvenor, a man raised in Topsiders. He stays in a cottage near the big house, with a view of the water and an occasional bald eagle working the coast. The cottage is full of dogs and children and resounds with the conflicting desires of any family on vacation. His second wife, Wiley, is on her way out the door in jogging gear; Grosvenor hands the visitor a cup of tea.

An intense, private man, Grosvenor is protective of the Geographic and well aware of the perception of privilege that surrounds his family name. "The Geographic is beholden to no one," he says. "We abide by the laws of the United States, but that's the extent of direction from the outside."

A magazine writer once referred to Grosvenor's "ostentatiously inexpensive wash-and-wear suits" seen in the halls of the Geographic. In fact, Grosvenor doesn't seem particularly interested in clothes, in this case an Izod shirt and a pair of magenta go-to-hell trousers endemic to upper-East Coast summering. He drives a six-year-old van that he outfitted himself for camping.

"Gil's a loner," says one Geographic editor. "A thoroughly modest, decent man," says another. "He got that from his father."

He refers to his father, the late Melville Bell Grosvenor, as "MBG." Initials are used as generational shorthand in Grosvenordom. MBG taught GMG to sail, and made him the official navigator aboard Mist. "MBG loved to sail close to the line," Grosvenor says. "He was always sailing toward a rock. It turned me into the in-house conservative."

As editor of the Geographic for 10 years, Grosvenor nevertheless steered the journal away from the standard treatment of uncontroversial subjects and toward those more relevant to contemporary life. The article on pesticides that ran during his tenure, for instance, an unblinkered piece of reporting and an early critical look at the problem, would probably not have been considered for publication by MBG, and certainly not by MBG's father, Gilbert H. Grosvenor (GHG).

All discussions of Grosvenor family history and the development of the Geographic go back to the mansion at the tip of Beinn Bhreagh, known as the Point, with a nine-hole golf course on the lawn. Grosvenor takes his visitor there, and into the foyer, where a stuffed black bear stands on its hind legs.

He rubs the bear's nose affectionately -- a family tradition. "There used to be another bear here," he says. "We wore it out."

Sea views frame the walk-in fireplace in an expansive sitting room spread with Persian carpets and appointed with spears from Africa, carved bone from the Arctic, boomerangs, teakwood clubs, beaten brass implements, all the artifacts of a century of casual collecting. Two big Tiffany domes hang from the distant ceiling; light falls through Tiffany panes in the stairwell window, next to the elevator shaft.

"I lived here with my grandparents during the Second World War," Grosvenor says. "They were the happiest summers of my life."

The house belongs to his aunt, Mabel Bell Grosvenor, a retired Washington pediatrician. She used to read the newspaper to Bell, her grandfather, in the study, known as the Tower Room. Names in the guest book give an idea of the range of those invited to the Point: Helen Keller, Lord Aberdeen, the Prince of Monaco.

Family photographs hang on the wall of the sun porch, most of them taken by Bell's son-in-law, GHG. They show a large, bearded man in knickers and hacking jacket, looking a bit like a Scots Tolstoy. Bell is shown in the candid and touching photographs strolling with his wife and grandchildren.

"Why did we abandon that marvelous school of photography?" Grosvenor asks. "By the 1940s the photographs in the magazine had become . . . well, I wish I had a good synonym for 'cornball.' Maybe my grandfather felt that as the magazine grew, it took on more responsibility. But the photographs became stilted." (Photographs in the Geographic have since returned to an approximation of GHG's more candid style.)

At the Point, GHG discussed life and the Geographic with young Gil, his grandson, after he had given up the editorship to MBG. "He thought MBG was crazy to put out a National Geographic atlas," says Grosvenor. "He thought it would ruin us. When the subject came up in board meetings, GHG feigned illness so he could leave."

Geography was interpreted by GHG in the broadest sense, as anything occurring in the natural world, past or present, of lasting interest, from "Queer Methods of Travel in Curious Corners of the World" to birds and more birds. Editorial principles included the first-person voice and accuracy; there was to be no triviality, no criticism, no unpleasantness. The magazine dominated his life. On vacation, he worked in a tent in the woods, reading manuscripts. After the death of the Bells, GHG moved into the big house, and had his tent set up near the water, outfitted with bookshelves and a wooden floor.

MBG published the anthropological findings of Louis Leakey and Jacques Cousteau's observations; he involved the Geographic in the development of Mesa Verde in the Southwest. He was the first to put a color photograph on the cover of the magazine, a radical move. To illustrate the wisdom of it, he threw half a dozen copies on the floor during an editorial meeting, and made everybody get down on hands and knees and pick out the most easily recognizable issue. It was the one with the photograph, naturally, since the others were all illustrations.

The removal of the old-fashioned leafy border from the cover spanned 25 years and the editorial tenure of two Grosvenors. "We removed it leaf by leaf," Grosvenor says, "berry by berry." At one point readers objected, and a piece of the border at the top of the cover was reinstated for a time. Eventually it disappeared, replaced by a continuous yellow stripe.

Grosvenor says that both his father and grandfather viewed the Geographic as a romance.

"GHG was very precise," he adds, "while MBG flew by the seat of his pants. But he was fantastic at it." He pauses. "I'm not sure where I fit in."

Gilbert Grosvenor is a combination of both, according to his aunts.

"He's done a good job running the company," says a Geographic editor, "but he's all numbers and statistics now. He misses the editorial side."

Grosvenor attended Deerfield and studied psychology at Yale, after giving up premed. He wrote a story for the Geographic about Holland and decided he wanted to make the Geographic a career. He worked in the business department while his father was editor. "I never once addressed him as 'Dad,' " he says. "I was very nervous when the 50th anniversary came around. I had to participate. I stood up at the party and said, 'I want to verify that MBG really is my father.' "

He is the first Grosvenor not to act as both president and editor of the Geographic, which has become too large and diverse for a single executive. He serves at the pleasure of a 24-member board, but key decisions are made by a smaller executive committee to which he belongs. The Grosvenors own no part of the Geographic and, contrary to popular belief, Grosvenors do not automatically ascend to the presidency or the editorship.

GMG's contributions to the journal and to the Geographic in general have been real, if less celebrated than those of his father and grandfather. The expansion of the book publishing division, educational projects and television all came about under GMG, as did construction of the new building on M Street NW. The replica of a starlit sky on the ceiling above the foyer -- the same sky observed on that day in 1888 when the Geographic was founded -- was GMG's idea.

Some older hands at the Geographic refer to the pinkly granitic lobby as "the Valley of the Kings," and call the new egalitarian cafeteria the "central Bonhauf buffet." They complain about the lack of windows in the new executive dining rooms, but, Grosvenor says, "I've never heard any of them complain about the lack of windows in Lion d'Or."

His primary concern is the 10 million Geographic Society members. On an average, they are 43 years old, equally divided among male and female, with 2.2 children, about one year of college, a house they own, a yearly income of $25,000, a professional or managerial job and a desire to spend time outdoors. More than 1 million of them live in California.

"I would rather have a taxi driver than a PhD," Grosvenor says. "A PhD knows how to get information he wants from a library, but a cab driver doesn't necessarily know . . . My feeling is that American journalists favor the rainy side of the street. We favor the sunny side of the street. It's a hell of a lot harder to do that, and stay interesting."

The closest the Geographic has come to scandal involved the contradictory claims by Robert Peary and Frederick A. Cook that each reached the North Pole first. That controversy has yet to be resolved.

Another controversial issue over the years has been the Geographic's tax-exempt status, an important aspect of its continuing success. The Geographic's total assets at the end of last year were $370 million. That includes government securities, corporate bonds and stocks, inventory and real estate. The Geographic owns the land on M Street between 16th and 17th streets, where its complex stands, a small warehouse in Northwest Washington and 500 acres in Gaithersburg and a building there that houses about 1,100 people involved in keeping track of the membership.

Net Geographic income for 1983 was $30 million, the highest ever. (The word "profit" is not used at the Geographic; that is referred to as "excess.") Much of it is plowed back into projects, including $6.5 million for scientific research and public services in 1983.

The Geographic's tax-exempt status has been criticized by other publishers on grounds that it gives the Geographic an unfair competitive advantage. Grosvenor argues that tax exemption allows the Geographic to keep its membership fees -- and therefore the cost of the journal -- quite low. Geographic books and other publications, also relatively cheap, are sold only through the membership and are not available in the general marketplace. The advertising that appears in the pages of the Geographic is subject to taxation.

The Internal Revenue Service, which rules on the elegibility of tax exemption, regularly looks into the Geographic's affairs; the last audit was in 1982, when the tax exemption was upheld. Loss of tax exemption would cost the Geographic about $10 million in extra postage, Grosvenor says, the single biggest savings.

"If we lost our tax-exempt status," he adds, "we would lose our image as an educational institution, and that's what we're all about. We don't have to make money on investors' money. If we want to spend $1 million on a project, we'll spend $1 million."

Grosvenor stands outside his cottage, looking up at Beinn Bhreagh; he says, "I want to show you the mountain."

The car climbs a narrow dirt track, switchbacking toward the evening sky, through wild stands of birch and cedar. There are no other signs of human habitation on what must be some of the most developable real estate in North America.

Grosvenor steps out of the car, accompanied by his daughter, Alexandra Grosvenor, 11, and his youngest, towheaded son, Graham Dabney Grosvenor, 3. They follow a path to the crest of the mountain, where the view suddenly broadens to include more mountains and a hundred coves across the ruffled expanse of inland sea. Far below, the Elsie sails on red sunset-tinted waters.

GMG stands with his hands on his hips and watches the sailboat's progress with a critical eye. Little GDG pulls off his socks and runs barefoot through the grass. He comes to rest next to a boulder bordered by juniper, at the edge of the clearing. On the boulder is a weathered bronze plaque.

"His great-great-grandparents' grave," says Grosvenor.

They are buried side by side. The plaque describes Alexander Graham Bell simply as "inventor and teacher of the deaf."

"He was very proud of that. I think the invention of the telephone grew out of his interest in the human ear. The telephone really allowed him to do what he wanted to do. He had so many interests, he financed so many things."

One of those things started as a small organization for the exchange of knowledge, at a time when the world was as unfettered as the view from Beinn Bhreagh.

"The founding fathers had no idea that we would evolve into the world's largest educational society," Grosvenor says of the Geographic.

He smiles, adding, "They would probably be appalled."

Tomorrow: The Geographic's far-flung staff.