The end should have come when a raging fire savaged their grand stone house in Wilmington, Del., destroying art and furniture and records and memories. But Tom and Mary Page Evans like to think of the destruction as the beginning of their renaissance.

"I can't tell you what it was like -- standing in front of that smoldering mess and just watching the past disappear," she says. "The roof was caved in, and all I could think of was that it was finally over . . . time for a new beginning."

"Our friends said, 'Why don't you move from here, get a fresh start?' " he says. "But our house was burned down, crumpled . . . We thought we would rebuild it, just like our lives."

"Besides, where would we go?" she says. The controversy that hounded them "showed up like horse manure . . . it was everywhere."

The Evanses' house burned down in November 1982 -- two weeks after he lost his reelection bid for Congress, abruptly ending the political career of a man once considered Ronald Reagan's eyes and ears in the House.

It was the culmination of 20 months of heartaches and headlines. In March 1981, a sex scandal involving Tom Evans and former lobbyist and Playboy model Paula Parkinson had rocked Wilmington and Washington, leaving the Evanses ostracized and humiliated. Tom's father died during that time. A best friend dropped dead of a heart attack. His daughter told him she hated him. By the end of 1982, there was no money, no house, no job.

Today, Tom, 54, and Mary Page, 49, say their tale is one of hope, of refusing to give up as their world collapsed around them. But it's more than that.

It's also the story of a typical lifeless marriage -- pulled apart by indifference and diverging interests, and seemingly heading toward divorce -- that was revived by an extremely public shock. In a city given to harsh social judgments, it may have been the very visibility of the Evanses' problems that forced the couple to confront them.

Now, almost four years after the fire, they are still living in Washington and Wilmington, still married, and in better shape financially and emotionally than they were a decade ago. He's a law partner of former Democratic National Committee chairman Charles Manatt, earning a salary well into the six figures for lobbying his former colleagues. She is a successful artist, showing her work from Baltimore to New York, selling paintings for upwards of $3,000 apiece.

"Listen," she says in her usual tell-it-like-it-is way, "I wasn't about to be brought down by a tart. Maybe something bigger, something spiritual. But not that tart!"

"I guess what we're talking about here," he says, "is love. Without it, I don't think this story would have had a happy ending."

In many ways, they are opposites. He is a paragon of political caution even today, measuring his words, clearly conscious of how things may appear in print. She has an attitude hardened by the tough times, without any of the verbal reserve that public life sometimes inflicts. "I just don't give a damn what the next person thinks," she says flatly.

Still, after spending time with Mary Page and Tom Evans, one finds it difficult to imagine that only a few years ago, they were on a marital collision course.

Sitting in their Georgetown condominium one recent evening, they needle each other playfully about their political disagreements and highly dissimilar careers. Mary Page can even joke about Tom's relationship with Parkinson, though neither likes to use the word "affair" ("that implies emotional attachment," Mary Page says). She calls it an "interlude." He calls it "that period of time."

Mary Page is stylish and small, and this evening wears a black pants outfit and huge brass dangling earrings. She has always been rather outspoken, a renegade congressional wife who preferred painting alone to teas with the ladies. When he was out stumping for Nixon 15 years ago, she was publicly complaining about the war. Her friends have always been artists and actors.

Tom is dapper in a middle-aged way, with navy pin stripes and bushy gray hair. He looks like any K Street lawyer, and his friends are, for the most part, power-loving attorneys and politicians. But recently, she says, he has started to accept her friends and vice versa. "It wasn't anything we discussed," she says. "You just do it to survive."

They met in their home state of Virginia 25 years ago, married and settled down in Delaware for what they were sure would be a traditional life. He was a young law school graduate out of the University of Virginia, with an insurance business and political ambitions; she was a full-time wife, recently graduated from Hollins College with a degree in music and history.

"I married a southern belle who went to parties and threw parties and lay on the beach -- if you can imagine Mary Page doing that," he says. "But that's what I expected. Then she changed. And nice southern girls just didn't do the things she ultimately started to do, which was speak out on all and any issues and get involved in her own career. I was too young to accept the change . . . "

By the late '60s, she says, "we were heading in different directions and fast." He was Nixon's finance vice chairman for 11 states in 1968; she was vigorously pursuing her art, traveling to shows around the country and working in prisons.

At the 1972 Republican convention in Miami, it was clear that Mary Page was not playing the good political wife. "We went to this dinner in Miami that Frank Sinatra had for Vice President Spiro Agnew," she recalls. "Agnew asked me what I had done that day and I said that I had played tennis with Time correspondent Hays Gorey -- 'I had a wonderful time.' I guess it was right after Hays had written some scathing article about him and he said, 'You shouldn't play tennis with people like that.'

"I remember pointing my finger and saying, 'Well, you shouldn't talk about people you don't know.' All of a sudden there were Secret Service behind me. It was a terrible feeling. Agnew wouldn't talk to me again that night. I felt sick. It was a bad scene. It was stuff like that that put Tommy on the line."

But their differences only grew. In 1973 Tom was cochairman of the Republican National Committee; Mary Page was using the RNC's chauffeured cars to go to the Mall and march against the war. He was part of Nixon's inaugural motorcade; she was in a protest parade a block away.

After Tom Evans was elected to Congress in 1976, Mary Page and their three children didn't move to Washington. She would come down some weekends and would help campaign at the right times, but politics wasn't her bag and she never pretended. "I didn't mind the factories or the bowling alleys -- it was the conventions and the dinners that got to me," she says. "Too much whispering and plotting and bull."

So she remained in Delaware to paint, and their estrangement became physical as well as emotional.

Tom Evans quickly gained a reputation as a solid moderate Republican with a gift for building coalitions. (He is most proud of his record on environmental issues, and in particular of cosponsoring an act that limits development of about 700 miles of barrier islands on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.) In 1979 he was courted heavily by the Reagan campaign, and soon became chairman of something called the Reagan Core Group on the Hill. He recruited his colleagues to endorse Reagan and was often invited to travel with the candidate.

* After Reagan swept into office, Tom Evans had easy access to the president and his team. But nothing about her husband's new-found status impressed Mary Page.

"The more he grabbed for power, the more I thought he was a jerk," she says. "I used to call all these people on the Hill 'the strutters.' I thought they were so full of themselves. Going to the White House didn't make me tingle all over."

Explains Jerris Leonard, Tom Evans' law partner and an old friend: "Mary Page had a very aggressive career and he had a very aggressive career and the careers were not complementary. That's the kind of situation that's just ripe for an aggressive third party."

On Friday, March 6, 1981, less than two months after Ronald Reagan's inauguration, the Wilmington News Journal ran a front-page story with a huge headline: "Evans, lady lobbyist share house." ("When war is declared you have headlines that big," Mary Page says.)

The story went on to report that Tom Evans had shared a vacation house in Florida more than a year earlier with lobbyist Parkinson and two other congressmen -- then-Rep. Tom Railsback (R-Ill.) and Rep. (now Sen.) Dan Quayle (R-Ind.) -- who would later vote against a crop insurance bill that Parkinson opposed.

The inference was that Parkinson had exchanged sexual favors for Evans' vote on the bill. (Railsback and Quayle denied any relationship with Parkinson; Evans denied being influenced by the lobbyist.) Rep. Phil Crane asked the Justice Department to investigate the matter. Evans and the others were eventually cleared of wrongdoing by Justice.

Or at least, in Evans' case, of formal wrongdoing. There was still the affair, now very notorious, for Evans, Parkinson, his family, his colleagues and his voters to face.

Mary Page first got the news from the News Journal reporter, two days before the story broke, although Tom had known it was in the works several days before that. " 'Your husband's involved in a sex scandal,' " she remembers the reporter saying. "I said, 'Sex scandal? What are you talking about?'

"I just remember I couldn't talk. I said, 'I'm too busy,' and I hung up. I remember leaning against the door thinking, 'What do I do from here?' and I went back upstairs where I had been painting with a model. That was about the end of that session. I had to pick up my son at the train station, but I don't even know how I got there."

On the morning the story broke, the Evanses' daughter Page, who was 13 at the time, called her father at his office to tell him she hated him. An older son called to tell him that he had "screwed up."

Mary Page remembers doing her best to make Tom's life a living hell. "He would have been better off if I had left him for what I put him through," she says. "I used to wake him up, kicking him, in the middle of the night, yelling, 'How many times! How many times, Tom?' "

The congressman released a statement saying that he deeply regretted his "association" with Parkinson and that he had asked the Lord to forgive him.

Meanwhile, Parkinson decided to go public with her side of the story. Evans, it turned out, had recently ended their affair -- which had begun a year and a half earlier -- and Parkinson was hurt and angry. She talked to any and all reporters, telling how she and Evans had been "in love," and how there had been others like him on Capitol Hill.

All over Washington, unconfirmed Paula Parkinson stories began circulating, about sex with congressmen and videotaped lovemaking sessions. Parkinson's estranged husband apologized for creating a "sexual Frankenstein." When Mary Page Evans had a Washington art show shortly afterward, Paula Parkinson tried to crash it. And in the middle of this circus, Playboy published its "Women in Washington" issue, featuring Parkinson.

"I was in the boys' bathroom in my house and there was a Playboy magazine sitting there," says Mary Page. "So here I am in my own house, in my own bathroom, and I open it up and there she is sitting in a bubble bath with the bubbles and her hair up. I couldn't even go into my bathroom in my own home to escape it."

"I'll tell you one thing," says Tom Evans today. "I was destined not to stay in Congress."

After the scandal broke, some of Evans' Hill colleagues and White House friends scrambled to help him out. He was a popular guy -- a member of a back-slapping boys' club who had broken the rules and had the misfortune to get caught.

"Our hearts went out to him and Mary Page," says Rep. Bill Hughes, a New Jersey Democrat who served on the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee with Evans. "He made an error in judgment and he paid very dearly for it."

But in Wilmington, Evans might as well have been the walking dead.

"I went to a Boy Scouts dinner and I was sitting at the head table," he remembers. "The two senators were there -- Joe Biden and Bill Roth -- the governor, Pete du Pont, the lieutenant governor, the majority leader of the Delaware House , the president pro tem of the Senate . . . They introduced everyone by name, and then when it was time for me they said, 'And the other guests at the head table.' "

Yet five years later, if Evans is bitter at all, it is toward the Wilmington News Journal, which he says contributed heavily to his congressional defeat by Democrat Thomas Carper.

It was an ugly race, with each candidate's personal life dragged through the mud.News Journal, while feeling free to imply that he had exchanged his vote for sexual favors, neglected to report that he was cleared of this charge by the Justice Department.

"We can't find any record to deny Mr. Evans' accusation, though I find this hard to believe," says J. Donald Brandt, the current editor of the paper, who says the clip files on Evans for that period are missing. "We try to be fair, particularly to people with whom we have differences."

In March, shortly after the story broke, Evans requested a meeting at the White House to consult with Reagan's political aides about containing the damage. Part of the problem, some of those aides say today, was a feeling they got from Evans that he may have been more attached to Parkinson than he was admitting.

Was there an emotional involvement, he is asked?

"No, no, no, I didn't . . . Well, perhaps for the moment," he replies. "You always have some emotional involvement for the moment . . . I was lonely, I guess. Mary Page is the first to admit she wasn't around much . . . That's still never an excuse."

Says Mary Page: "He honestly didn't think I cared, and I did." The White House eventually cut Evans loose. Gone were the invitations to state dinners and insider meetings. "I guess we could have involved him more," says one former White House aide. "But we did advise him not to admit to anything, and that was the first thing he did . . . Also, you have to realize, Nancy Reagan's distaste for this sort of thing was not an insignificant factor."

*Parkinson, 35, is now designing cabinets in Texas ("you need a kitchen, I can do a kitchen," she says). She goes by a new last name, borrowed from a relative.

"I think Tom Evans and I were at the right place at the right time," she said in a telephone interview. "I didn't mean to destroy anything . . . I just wish him a lot of happiness, I really do."

She does have regrets about taking the affair public. "I got some bad advice . . . All the things I said back then -- it was just wrong. I think that hurt him. But I was hurt by this whole thing too. I still have a hard time getting jobs. It's really tough being labeled a tart."

Parkinson and Evans haven't spoken in more than five years.

Recently, after it became clear that the capital was in their cards for a long time to come, Tom and Mary Page Evans bought a sunny two-bedroom sanctuary in the heart of Georgetown. Their living room looks like a page out of Metropolitan Life: There are oyster-white couches and chairs and sky-blue overstuffed pillows, tall windows and crisp white blinds and walls brilliant with her canvases.

Mary Page comes here three days a week; they spend most weekends in Wilmington. "I sort of like the idea of having two homes now," she says. "You just make adjustments."

The rebuilding of their lives started with the rebuilding of their Wilmington house. After the lost election and the fire, the Evans family was forced to stay with various friends while the house was being renovated. Right before Christmas, Mary Page recalls, someone who had offered them a carriage house reneged on the offer. "I just thought I can't take one more push, one more pull," she says. "Enough is enough. I remember just beating my fists on the floor and screaming.

"But I'll tell you, pity was something I never wanted . . . People would come up to me with those sad faces and say, 'Oh, you poor thing, you've been through so much,' and I'd just die."

Emotionally, the climb back was long and gradual, they say. No magic moment when everything simply fell into place, no cathartic tears. They just knew that the illusions were gone, and the reality of vanishing friends and often-painful communication was upon them.

"We used to hug a lot," she remembers. And fight a lot too -- which, they both say, helped them through the rougher moments.

Says daughter Page: "Before this all happened, they just weren't getting along all that well. Christmases weren't that happy. I really believe they would have probably gotten a divorce had they not been forced to face things."

Both Mary Page and Tom say they never considered divorce after the affair.

"I would get a divorce for other reasons," she says. "I would get a divorce if Tommy didn't approve of my painting and gave me a lot of grief about that. Or if he didn't like my friends."

"That would be more fundamental," he says. "If I didn't accept her as an artist. I do." Concorde back from London to make one of her shows.

In early 1983 Tom Evans was hired by a Washington law firm as a partner in its legislative affairs office. Lobbying suited him; he knew the process and had the access (as a former member, for instance, he's able to use the House gym and steam room). He developed an impressive list of corporate and foreign clients -- including Cyprus, Jamaica and Philip Morris Inc. -- and soon caught the attention of Charles Manatt. "Based on all I knew, he was well respected on both the Democratic and Republican sides," says Manatt, who hired him away to what is now Manatt, Phelps, Rothenberg, Tunney & Evans.

Meanwhile, Mary Page says her art has improved tremendously because she immersed herself in it when hell broke loose. An expressionist painter, working mostly from nature, she plans to paint in Giverny, France, this summer -- and for the first time, Tom will join her.

"Art saved me from all of this in the end," she says. "But the art is what also got me into it . . . I did my own thing all through my marriage. But I paid a price. Listen, I never kid myself. Everything has its price in life and I paid."

As for Tom's price, he is asked, does it bother him that his obituary will surely tell the Paula Parkinson story one last time?

"It's a part of my history," he says. "I just hope it'll be more. I'd like to have my record in public service, my contributions, my successes -- not just that.

"I try not to think about it too often. That's how not to let it bother you."