The press bus slouches toward J.C. Penney for the day's first sighting of the prince and princess of Wales. The engine groans into the dissipating dawn -- a dyspeptic noise echoed by one James Edward Anthony Whitaker.

"I've done so many of these 'round-the-world things," drawls the plump, stately palace reporter from the London Daily Mirror, a pair of binoculars slung around his fleshy neck. "And they're never quite so much fun as the first time. I've enjoyed this tour least of all."

It has been rough going for the royal watchers of Britain -- Fleet Street's cr eme de la scum, as they sometimes call themselves. Bouncing between time zones and tabloid deadlines on scant sleep and too much cuisine, they must leap to Diana's every long-lashed blink, scribble to her every murmur, thrill to every nuance in her newest frock, rise to the dissemination of every pregnant rumor and occasionally cover Charles, too, for millions of readers back home.

Their present ordeal began two weeks ago in the nether regions of Australia -- where Prince Charles, miffed at the coverage, sprayed them with water (accidentally, says Buckingham Palace) while dedicating a fountain -- and continued this week in Washington. It showed no signs of letting up yesterday afternoon in Palm Peach.

Among the 20 or so veterans on the bus are writers Harry Arnold of Rupert Murdoch's The Sun, who claims to have scooped the world on the Chuck-and-Di romance, and Grania Forbes of the Daily Mail, who exposed Princess Anne's snub of Prince Harry's christening. Also along is photographer Steve Wood of the Daily Express, who first espied Prince Andrew with Koo Stark and snapped the famous picture of Shy Di in the see-through skirt.

It is no wonder that they have the battered look of lost luggage. Or that Whitaker -- who himself scored a coup by crawling through Bahamian bushes to help secure a long-lens photo of a bikini-clad, pregnant princess -- is still recovering, he says, from a bad oyster consumed in Melbourne. There's a pale iridescence to his yellowing tan.

"The oyster was the final straw, at the end of 10 days of no sleep and a lot of stress," he says, in a histrionic cadence suggesting a mad soliloquy from "King Lear." "Completely knocked me to bits. So I called a doctor in, (a) to treat me for the oyster poisoning and (b) to inject me with something so I could get to sleep. I didn't even want pills. He did inject me very late at night, I think it was half past 11, and I said, 'Will it work?' and he said, 'You'll be gone in 12 minutes.'

"And, in fact, it didn't work. I was awake at 12:30, and then at 2:30 and then once again at 4:30. When the doctor came back to see me the next day, he couldn't believe it. He said, 'I gave you a massive dose.' He also took my blood pressure, which was very very high. I've never had high blood pressure in my life.

"And he told me that I was heading for a major heart attack -- which very nearly gave me one."

The bus rolls into the J.C. Penney parking lot at Springfield Mall, and the royal watchers scramble for position. Security is exceptionally tight. The crowds are restrained behind concrete bunkers. The bomb dogs sniff through photographers' paraphernalia.

At length, the State Department security agents escort the pool reporters into Penney's and herd them behind plush red velvet ropes. A cheer goes up outside as the Waleses arrive for the store's "Best of Britain" promotion. Chuck and Di enter the store, chatting up the sales people.

When they leave to shake hands outside, the security forces keep the royal watchers trapped behind the ropes, refusing to let them talk to the people who talked to the princess of Wales.

"On behalf of everyone here," Whitaker declaims loudly to one well-muscled man from State, "I want to tell you that you are thoroughly objectionable, and I hope your wife likes you -- because no one else does."

"I'm just doing my job," says the State Department man.

"That's what Hitler's lot said," Whitaker lashes back.

When it's all over, the royal watchers have added to their photo collection of Charles and Diana stepping out of and into a Rolls-Royce. And they have secured, from the princess, a pithy quote -- a question to a chap in menswear.

"Don't you have," Diana has been heard to ask, "double-breasted suits?"

"Six words that could start a fashion revolution in America," according to the account in the Daily Mail.

And so on to the next engagement.

"There is a hell of a lot of substance to report, you see," says Michael Cole, a fluffy-haired television correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corp. who talks in a nicely modulated BBC voice. "I don't want to give you a civics lecture, but you can't make the mistake of thinking that this is all just decoration and a fairy tale princess and our version of Camelot. Americans make that mistake, you see. And the monarchy is the living fabric and fiber of Britain."

Indeed, at a weekend press briefing at the British Embassy, it is Cole who demands of Michael Shea, the Buckingham Palace spokesman, whether Diana will be unveiling an entirely new set of fabrics and fibers for her American debut.

This question provokes laughter from some of the American reporters. The royal watchers, however, bend their ears for the answer. "Wait and see," Shea says with a chilly grin. He enjoys a bantering relationship with his British charges, particularly the man from the Mirror.

When Shea spots him at the briefing on the night of the White House dinner -- Whitaker having been absent previously -- the press secretary has himself a spot of fun.

"Welcome, James," Shea says, to scattered applause from the assembled Brits. "Looking very brown, aren't we?"

"If you'd been in Hawaii," Whitaker rejoins, "you would, too."

Laughter.

Later Shea becomes annoyed when Whitaker has the temerity to dispute his interpretation of a point of palace policy. "Let me remind you all that James Whitaker is not the queen's press secretary," he says.

"Michael Shea is my press secretary," Whitaker lobs back.

Whitaker's White House dinner story turns out to be a textbook example of royal reporting, describing in detail a dance between Diana and a "snake-hipped disco king" ("DISCO QUEEN DIANA UPSTAGES JOHN TRAVOLTA") that no reporter actually witnessed. "As other guests moved aside," the omniscient observer writes, "she and John Travolta went through a routine that had everybody gasping."

Whitaker, who has been covering the royal visit for not only the Mirror but also for USA Today and Australian radio ("I should make enough out of this tour for a skiing holiday in Switzerland"), freely admits to "jazzing a story up." But he says he is merely honoring a sacred tradition whereby words, though not strictly factual, can be possessed of transcendent truth.

"The Bible does this all the time," he says. "Can you really believe everything in the Bible? The Red Sea parting? The Burning Bush? Carrying the tablets down? They're proving a point. But it's true. It's the original way of jazzing a story up."

"They start with a grain of truth," says Simon Hoggart of the London Observer, "puff it full of air and coat it with sugar. It's a brilliant technique, unrivaled in the world, although possibly the French press do as well."

There is a sharp difference of approach between "upmarket" journals such as the Observer and "downmarket" tabloids such as the Mirror. Paul Harris of the Press Association, Britain's domestic wire service, says that unlike the tabloids, "I've got to be accurate."

The Britishers have at their command a colorful argot, and can draw on a rich bank of nicknames.

James Whitaker, for instance, is "The Fat Man."

Ashley Walton of the Daily Express is "Laura."

And Steve Wood, "Laura's" photographer, is "The Lunatic."

All royal watchers, meanwhile, are divided into two parts. There are caption writers (that is, reporters) and monkeys (photographers).

All monkeys are equal, but some monkeys are more equal than others. While monkeys on the staffs of particular newspapers are handsomely paid, monkeys who work for themselves -- selling Diana pictures for occasionally huge sums to any number of German magazines -- can afford to "give each other stick" about their fashionable London town houses, their farms in the Cotswolds and their carefully managed stock portfolios.

Photographer Tim Graham, one of the richest, is the palace pet -- as shown by his recent cameo appearance as the red-haired chap snapping pictures of the kids on the televised interview of Chuck and Di. He alone among the veterans looks reasonably well rested, having spent much of the tour hitching rides on whatever jet the prince and princess happen to be flying in. His nickname, incidentally, is "Squirrel" -- a reference, say his colleagues, to his secretiveness.

Yet fauna metaphors go only so far. The royal watchers took deep umbrage recently when Whitaker said on Australian television, in one of the interviews to other reporters that he seems to give on an hourly basis, that he is "the master of the hunt" while everyone else is in "the pack of hounds."

They take even deeper umbrage in Washington when an American gossip columnist is quoted in print as calling them all "animals."

Of course, when the diminutive Harry Arnold, who is occasionally described by colleagues as "ferretlike," sings to himself on the bus, he chooses a tune by the Animals.

We've got to get out of this place, Rupert Murdoch's man warbles over and over and over. If it's the last thing we ever do. We've got to get out of this place . . .

Between spirited refrains, he whistles the melody.

The bus rolls on to the Straight Inc. drug rehabilitation center, where Diana pays a call with Nancy Reagan, and then to Arlington Cemetery, where she watches her husband lay a wreath. But after the J.C. Penney episode, which concludes around first-edition London deadline time, the royal watchers find little of interest.

"Dull as dishwater," Grania Forbes pronounces.

Her dispatch in the Daily Mail features the revolutionary quote from Penney's and runs under the headline "DIANA STARTS A TREND -- AT THE DOUBLE."

James Whitaker follows suit in the Mirror, where readers are also favored with an account of how "rock star Madonna has shocked America by appearing as a brandy-swilling Princess Diana in a cruel TV sketch" -- a reference to a skit on "Saturday Night Live."

"Security story?" Whitaker scoffs when told that several of his colleagues were planning to report on the police presence at Penney's. "I would think you're at the end of the road when you start writing about security."

Harry Arnold of The Sun files a security story.

Under the headline "GUN ALERT FOR DIANA," The Sun exclusively informs its readers that "Princess Diana is shadowed by burly U.S. policemen as she goes walkabout in Springfield, Virginia yesterday. But a royal aide blasted 'over the top' security after police threatened to shoot press men who got too close to the princess . . . Security became so tight that the royal couple had to abandon their tour."

Indeed.

At long last the bus pulls to a stop at the Watergate, and Harry Arnold goes scurrying into the hotel in search of Paul Harris of the Press Association. Harris was pool reporter inside the drug center earlier in the day.

"Any more quotes from Di?" Arnold prompts Harris once he finds him in his room.

Harris, sitting shoeless on the bed, reads from his notebook. "Di said, 'Did you start getting on drugs in the first place because you wanted to escape the responsibility -- ' "

"Who asked this?" Arnold interrupts.

"Diana."

Arnold's eyes widen. "Good God!"

"Maybe she was reading it from the back of her hand," Harris offers. He consults his notebook and rereads the quote in full. " 'Did you start getting on drugs in the first place because you wanted to escape the responsibility that life produces for us?' "

"Did you hear her say this?"

"Yes."

"Good God!" Arnold exclaims again.

For a moment he looks thunderstruck, but then returns to his usual calm.

"A bit too clever for her. Well, Paul, I'll stop you there."

And he decides there is nothing to file.